F*ck this sh*t
An extract from ‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen’

Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.

In some ways, it’s a beautiful thing. Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, is so gleeful in his use of every raunchy variation on the seven words George Carlin said you couldn’t say on TV or radio (“fuck,” “piss,” “shit,” “cunt,” “motherfucker,” “cocksucker,” and “tits”) that he seems set jubilantly free. Of course, censorship has come a long way, too. The bleep master leaves just enough snippet of syllable to add mirth to such colorful expressions as “you dairyaisle motherfbleepking bleep.” In the English-speaking world, uncensored profanity probably reaches its apogee on the British series, written by Alistair Campbell, in which the main character, an assistant to the prime minister, cannot put two syllables together without wedging a curse in between. “E-fuckingnough,” he says. “Fuckety-bye.” In puritanical America, by contrast, prime-time shows are accessorized with asterisks, dashes, and euphemisms: “S*** My Father Says,” “The B– in Apartment 6,” “The Effing Science Show.” I like to think that the person who blew it all open was Richard Nixon, back in the seventies, with his [expletives deleted] on the Watergate tapes – insomuch as it has been blown open. Did anyone ever print the president’s actual words? The New York Times persists in stifling the “common barnyard epithet,” even when a book titled On Bullshit – a work of philosophy by a scholar at Yale – appeared on its best-seller list, in 2005. There is a blog devoted to the Times’s runarounds (fitto-print) and a perennial argument between reporters and editors over what should be quoted directly and what should be waltzed around, and why. Whose delicate sensibilities are we catering to? Certainly not mine – not anymore.

It is important in any discussion of bad language to separate blasphemy from cursing. Nobody is advocating breaking the second commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” though, admittedly, it’s sometimes a challenge. Whatever you may say about the G-d of the Old Testament, he does not seem to have had much sense of humor. I mean, Jesus! According to Moses, Yahweh put “Thou shalt not kill” way down the list of commandments, at No. 5, but already at No. 2 he is abjuring us not to have any fun at his expense? I was in a church shortly after Hurricane Sandy, in the fall of 2012, when someone asked the priest how his congregation had fared during the storm. He answered that in Brooklyn Heights all was well, but that his brethren in Dumbo had suffered bad flooding. “Oh, God!” I said – and then tried to inhale it back. Here I was in church, and I couldn’t think of any better way to register sympathy? I might have said “What a pity” or “God have mercy on the poor souls down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass.” But these are not expressions that spring readily to mind, whereas the mild oath popped out right there in front of the tabernacle, like an egg I was helpless not to lay. I hoped that it might pass as a brief prayer.

I cannot help but admire, in retrospect, the restraint shown by my father as I was growing up. The strongest thing I ever heard him say when something went wrong – for instance, during a plumbing project, when the ceramic sink he was installing shattered into a thousand pieces – was “You dog.” Still, the way he said it, you knew that he was not invoking just any old household pet. Sometimes he said “Great Scott” or, when he was feeling especially vehement, “Great Scott Murgatroyd.” He was scandalized once, responding to an alarm backstage at the Cleveland Play House, to hear Lauren Bacall, whom he admired – a lot – curse at the firemen for barging into her dressing room. He had never heard a woman say “fuck” (if that is what Ms. Bacall said; I’m sure she didn’t stammer at the firemen, “You . . . words!”). I certainly never heard him say “fuck” – not until he tried to drive in New Jersey.

My mother, on the other hand, was a font of vulgarity, a regular gusher. She would as soon call the neighbors assholes as tell them to mind their own business. Her epithet of choice for our nosy aunt was Fuzz Nuts. And she had vivid ideas about where her enemies might pound salt. When I took a course on Aristophanes in the original Greek I was reminded of my mother. I did not have a big enough Greek-English lexicon to translate a lot of the words in Peace, so I would go to Columbia’s Butler Library to use the huge Liddell & Scott, and I swear every other word I looked up in this temple of academe turned out to mean “fart.” I worried that when it was my turn to translate in class, channeling my mother, I might say something so dirty it would have embarrassed Aristophanes.

I never cursed much myself until I was well into adulthood. I uttered a decorous little “crap” once, slamming my locker door in high school. I was saving the hard stuff for later. My friends and I went to see the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid over and over, and never failed to laugh at the scene when Robert Redford admits to Paul Newman that he can’t swim, but, to escape their trackers, he jumps off the cliff into the river anyway, bellowing “SHHHHHIIIIIIIIITTTT” on the way down.

In college, the upperclassmen talked about “getting their shit together”; we got “shit-faced” on Coke and Southern Comfort; “good shit” was excellent weed. One friend became worried when she realized that “fuck” was her default response to anything. If a little old lady on the bus started telling my friend her troubles, she found herself replying, “Fuck.” The old lady could be forgiven for not knowing that in context – a university town in New Jersey in the early seventies – “fuck” could mean “I’m sorry to hear that.” I first gave full vent to the urge to curse after terminating analysis, in 1996. I felt so free – I could change jobs, move from Queens to Manhattan, enjoy a little discretionary income because I wasn’t always shelling out to the shrink – and I just let fly with every joyous expletive I could think of. If someone mentioned The House of Mirth, I would say, “Edith Wharton blows,” or if a friend suggested reading Middlemarch, my response was “George Eliot sucks.” It was so satisfying. The shell of prudery surrounding childhood and adolescence cracked wide open, and I emerged a fucking monarch butterfly. So I would say that analysis worked for me. 

*

And yet in this climate it can be so fucking hard to keep your equilibrium. In the spring of 2012, The New Yorker ran a piece by Kelefa Sanneh about the rapper Earl Sweatshirt, whose mother sent him to reform school in Samoa because he had fallen in with bad companions. After reading the piece seven or eight times, making sure that “Shit sucks” and “I got nuts to bust and / butts to fuck” and “LETS SWAG IT OUT” were rendered exactly as they were in the video or the tweet, I was so disoriented that I stetted a big-ass mistake at the end. What was the point of making a fuss over a “than” for a “then” in a piece so full of profanity, especially if that’s what the kid wrote? There should be a detox facility for proofreaders who have undergone this kind of extreme experience. I have never fully recovered my judgment and can no longer be trusted to distinguish a true, pithy utterance from a gratuitous four-letter word.

At the time, I did not know that there was an informal contest going on at the magazine to see which writer could get the most instances of “fuck” into print, and that Sanneh was going head to head with the editor of The New Yorker himself, David Remnick, for the title. You can’t write about rappers or boxing without quoting a few obscenities, and if you are fluent in Russian, as Remnick is, you have a whole world of obscenities at your fingertips. In Russia there is an underground language called mat, loosely analogous to rap, in that it was first spoken on the street and in jail, and it puts Russophiles way out in front. As Remnick summarizes it, all of mat is based on four words: “there is khuy (‘cock’), pizda (‘cunt’), ebat’ (‘to fuck’), and blyad (‘whore’).” Victor Erofeyev went into startling lingustic detail in a New Yorker piece that ran under Remnick. “The term mat itself derives from the Russian word for ‘mother,’ a component of the key phrase yob tveyu mat’ (‘fuck your mother’),” Erofeyev wrote. A flexible system of prefixes and suffixes makes it possible to twist and build the four words into an incredible variety of obscene shapes. Peter the Great, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Lermontov – all made use of khuy and ebat’. One of the milder expression cited by Erofeyev, khuem grushi okolachivat – an equivalent of the beautiful Italian idiom dolce far niente – translates as “knocking pears out of a tree with one’s dick.”

It is as if The New Yorker had developed a raging case of Tourette’s syndrome since the days when Pauline Kael fought constantly with William Shawn to get the word “shit” into print. Kael was on leave in the late summer of 1979, when Apocalypse Now came out, and Mr. Shawn let Veronica Geng, who was filling in as movie critic, quote the opening lines: “Saigon. Shit.” Kael had missed her golden opportunity. Years earlier, Calvin Trillin, covering the desegregation of schools in the South, had determined to quit if Shawn did not agree to quote in full the words spoken by Lester Maddox, the governor of Georgia: “the federal government could take its education money and ‘ram it.’” Shawn ultimately agreed that the specific words were germane to the story. Robert Gottlieb carried on the conservative tradition when he decided not to let John McPhee quote sailors saying what sailors actually say in a report about a merchant marine. McPhee got his satisfaction years later in a piece about writing when he simply turned on the tap and filled a paragraph with “fuck”s.

The generation of writers who were hired by Shawn in the midseventies to write for Talk of the Town were often puzzled by some of Mr. Shawn’s prohibitions. In addition to the usual bodily fluids – piss, shit, blood, and spit – he was squeamish about fish hooks, wigs, and midgets. Mark Singer once had a reference to Ex-Lax removed from a story about the dirty-tricks campaign for state senator of Roy Goodman, whose family money came from Ex-Lax. And in a story tabulating the cost of taking the subway to a movie and buying refreshments, the editors cut Junior Mints. When Singer asked why, the style editor, Hobie Weekes, told him, “A New Yorker writer should not be eating Junior Mints.” The sentence incorporating as many Shawn taboos as possible was “The short, balding man wearing a wig took his menstruating wife to a boxing match.” Singer said, “Twins was kryptonite.”

But by now the pendulum has swung to the other end. Ian Frazier, who, not incidentally, studied Russian for his travels in Siberia, wrote a piece for a magazine produced by the Russian artist Alex Melamid, the Rubber Band Society Gazette, which was basically a page covered with obscenities. Remnick “said he liked it,” Frazier recalled, “and that emboldened me to do one for him.” Thus was born the Cursing Mommy, a sort of Heloise whose hints veer into rants with lines like “Somebody please tell me I have not lost my stupid goddam fucking drink.” She uses a vacuum cleaner called the Suckmore. Thanks to the Cursing Mommy, Frazier was able to claim, “I’ve put more curse words on a single page of The New Yorker than anyone.”

My sense of what is truly profane – what is fun and what is journalism – has been untrustworthy since the Earl Sweatshirt incident. When Ben McGrath, writing about a soccer team in Brazil, used the phrase “bros before hos,” my first concern was the spelling of “hos.” I might have been distracted by the Portuguese – it is the only language I’ve ever studied that brought me to tears. I used the universal search to put the accent over the a in “São Paulo,” and insisted that for real, the Brazilian monetary unit, we use the Portuguese plural, reais. (In Portuguese, r is pronounced like h, and l like w, so real is pronounced hey-ow and reais is hey-ice.) That accent in ão represents a nasalized diphthong that sounds like a prehistoric bird uncorking its love call. When mispronounced – and it is virtually impossible to pronounce correctly (except by certain prodigies from Flint, Michigan) – it will make you a laughingstock in the bakery when you think you’re asking for a loaf of bread (pão) but are actually demanding wood (pao), which, in Portuguese as in English, is a variant on “dick.”

Anyway, in context, “bros before hos” referred to soccer players on a bus when one of them wanted time off to spend with his new girlfriend; in a display of “bros before hos” camaraderie, he was denied. The second reader on the piece circled “new girlfriend” and “hos” and wrote, “synonymous?” Well, of course they weren’t synonymous. I did not take the query seriously. I was still bent on making sure no one confused “hos” with “hoes,” the garden implement. It came up again in the closing meeting: “Is it really OK to print this?” someone asked. I mentioned my colleague’s qualm – he is a jock, and he is married, and he wouldn’t want his wife to see herself dismissed as a ho. Still, I thought that in context it was clearly not serious – it was lighthearted, a reference to guys talking trash. So we left it in. The piece was no sooner published than someone tweeted about The New Yorker’s first use of “bros before hos.” Of course. The contest now is more about being the first to get into print an obscenity that has not been used by anyone else. Then a story broke in the Brazilian press – something about a soccer team being compared with a whorehouse  and I realized that those soccer players and their wives and girlfriends would naturally be interested in what was being written about them and would ask someone to translate it for them. How would “bros before hos” come out in Portuguese? Would it be something like “players versus prostitutes”? Had we inadvertently compared a soccer team to a whorehouse? I spent a terrible day and night thinking about those players and their wives and girlfriends and how the women would be outraged at being called whores, and all the wives would boycott the sport and the controversy would reach the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who is a woman, and it would become an international incident, with Brazil denying entry to American journalists. Brazil is a Catholic country, and although soccer is not above violence and vulgar insults (there was an anecdote in the piece about a player who had posed kissing another man, to show his support for gays; the fans called him a faggot at the next game), maybe it’s not so funny for a woman to be casually called a hooker. I had been careless. I never stopped to think how a bit of American slang would sound translated into Portuguese. Then again do you always have to stop and think how something is going to sound in Portuguese?

Sports often raise such dilemmas, where you have to choose between reporting some crude thing someone said and reflecting that maybe this isn’t actually news. It turned out that what had excited comment in Brazil was not the “bros before hos” line but something a Brazilian had actually said in the piece – a direct quotation, in English, in which the vice-president of a soccer team compared running the team to being in charge of a whorehouse, and loving it. Because it was in a quotation, it did not occur to me to query it, even though I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. So I stopped worrying about having caused an international incident. “Bros before hos” produced a letter from an irate reader in Milwaukee, who thought the usage demonstrated casual misogyny and made me realize that my job had been to stop the writer, to protect him from himself. Mea culpa.

In another demonstration of impaired judgment, I read a piece in which an executive in charge of an important group was quoted as saying to his critics, “Fuck you!” I thought, That’s kind of harsh. But I didn’t suggest changing it. The reporter was scrupulous, and the executive had said it. I had a chance to query it again on the second round – a second chance to have second thoughts. But again I told myself that this executive obviously didn’t care what anyone thought. When I read the piece one last time, the “Fuck you” was gone. At the closing meeting, the editor made some reference to a final decision, taken at last. Had I again shown a lapse in taste by not querying a profanity? And if I hadn’t queried it, who had? And did whoever queried it think I was not doing my job? Had the writer and the editor just been waiting for me to take it out? Was I like a parent who should be setting limits? I found myself relieved once it was gone, and that, more than anything else, made me realize that I should have queried it.

I followed up on it with the editor and found out that it was the executive who objected to being quoted saying something so forceful, so bridge-burning and provocative – and in the boardroom, no less. The editor described himself as “merciless,” inclined always to go ahead with the verbatim quotation and letting the subject live with it: “If you said it, you said it – you can’t take it back now.” But the executive claimed he had been paraphrasing himself. This one instance of the word’s being withheld was more instructive than all the times the word was printed. It showed that it still had force.

*

Every once in a while, the power of the euphemism asserts itself. “Euphemism” is another word with Greek roots: eu, good (as in “eugenics,” good genes, or “utopia,” good place, as spelled by Thomas More), and pheme, something spoken. It means a sugarcoating. “Fiddlesticks” is Scarlett O’Hara’s way of saying “Fuck that shit.” “Phooey” might be Shirley Temple’s preference. “Jeepers” and “Jiminy Cricket” are variations on “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ.” I have spent whole hangover days laughing at the idea of a law firm with letterhead stationery printed “Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson.” I don’t know why it took me so long to find the name of the Band-Aid and baby-shampoo company in my college town funny: New Brunswick’s own Johnson & Johnson. I am sure that Samuel Johnson, the father of lexicography, would get a kick out of knowing that his surname was synonymous with penis. In the course of my mundane working life, one day I read the words “Robert Caro writes in the most recent volume of his Johnson biography . . .” and cracked up. I know that Caro has written the definitive biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, but in the privacy of my office I permitted myself to picture Robert Caro as a square-looking guy who had yet led a life of such sexual adventurism that he needed to write a multivolume biography of his Johnson.

I’m not sure how much further we can take profanity and still enjoy it. The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower edited The F-Word, a 270-page alphabetized collection of variations on this versatile oath. My colleagues and I have argued in the office over whether it should be rendered F-word, F word, “F” word, or “f” word, but who really gives a fuck about the proper form of a euphemism? It is an odd thing to strain to be consistent about. Downstairs at the Strand, New York’s biggest used-book store, in the section on language, copies of Sheidlower’s lexicon take up a few feet of shelf. My own copy is a late edition, a sleek red hardcover, but when The F-Word first came out it was packaged as if wrapped in plain brown paper, like pornography. The F-Word is a little bit like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: a dictionary, like a museum exhibit, is bound to deprive the thing it enshrines of the raw quality that gave it its vitality in the first place.

You cannot legislate language. Prohibition never worked, right? Not for booze and not for sex and not for words. And yet no one wants to be pummeled constantly by four-letter words. If we are going to use them, let’s use them right. Profanity ought to be fun. I love the title of this ultimate chapter and thought I should spell those words uncensored – swag it out! But I liked it even better with the blessed euphemism: those asterisks standing in for the vowels are interior punctuation, little fireworks inside the word.

This is an extract from Between You & Me: Confessions of a comma queen, by Mary Norris, and published by Text.

Mary Norris

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978, and has been a query proofreader at the magazine since 1993.

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