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  • On Cursing
  • DeWitt Henry (bio)

Cartoons offer a cat, pig, duck, or wolf with an enraged face, said figure having hit its hoof, paw, or wing with a hammer, and its dialogue balloon reads: "#!@#&*!!"

"Cushlamachree!" is the cigar-smoking, fairy godfather's handy expletive in Crockett Johnson's World War II cartoon epic, Barnaby (published before Johnson's Harold and The Purple Crayon). You may recall other substitutes for swearing from early and midcentury popular culture such as: Aw, gosh darn! Heck. Drat. Nuts. Gol-darn, anyway. Phooey. That stinks. Ouch! Damnation! Dag-nabit! Alas! Curses! Darn it. Crud. Screw off. What a revolting development. Good grief! Geewillikers! Ay, caramba! Go to blazes! Suffering succotash!

"For Whom the Bell Tolls is foul-mouthed," observes Se Think.1 "Not explicitly so, because the novel would have never been read in its day if Hemingway had not censored himself. But he substitutes the words 'obscenity' or 'unprintable' in ways that leave the intended word clear. Or he uses a word that rhymes with the intended word. In a moment of frustration, a character rants beautifully for most of a page with a 'Oh, muck my grandfather and muck this whole treacherous muck-faced mucking country and every mucking Spaniard in it on either side and to hell forever. Muck them to hell together …'" Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's editor, pressured him to "emasculate his prose" (however, Hemingway did at last spell out "fuck" in 1937's To Have and Have Not).

Fear of censorship probably begins with number three of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain." Observant Jews avoid spelling out "G-d."

Curses are different from cusses or swears, though they often merge. A curse calls down evil on someone, some circumstance or thing: "God damn you/it!" A swear is an insult, comparing someone or something to an animal in regard to stupidity, loveless sex, and lack of spirit or reason, or to a body part or product (usually from the reproductive or excretory systems); or to a socially despised, feared, or "different" group (in race, nationality, class, gender, hygiene, and/or sexual preferences and acts). We speak of "dirty" words, as related to poor toilet training ("potty mouth"), [End Page 91] or to the poverty of "unwashed millions." We need such words to project the aspects we hate or think we should hate about ourselves. Also, we often use stock swear words as exclamations of pain, shock, or frustration. "Shit" and "fuck" seem interchangeable with, say, "Sweet Jesus," the profane with the sacred.

We (well-bred, estimable, moral, and polite members of society) designate a certain lexicon of words, comparisons, and gestures to be: profane (as opposed to reverent), obscene (as opposed to decent), offensive (as opposed to pleasant), coarse (as opposed to refined), earthy (as opposed to heavenly), explicit (as opposed to implicit or guarded), shocking (as opposed to calming), strong (as opposed to weak or diluted), salty (as opposed to land-based), foul (as opposed to fair or tasteful), colorful (as opposed to bland), indecent (as opposed to decent), gutter/street (as opposed to hearth or parlor), bad (as opposed to good), dirty (as opposed to clean), vulgar/crude (as opposed to refined), common (as opposed to noble), low (as opposed to high), raw (as opposed to cooked and easy to digest).

As early language learners, we're told such words are forbidden (at least to children) and are punished for using them, despite our hearing them on TV and from older children and other adults; then, as adults, we tell our own children the same, and this is reinforced as they are supervised in school (if not on playgrounds or the street). As they're called names, we tell them "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you." When they are angry, instead of hitting, we tell them to "Use your words." However, if they should swear or call names, we warn them to watch their language and threaten to wash their mouths out with soap.

See Jamaica Kinkaid's New Yorker story "Girl," in which the colonialized mother insists on...


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