Cursing: An Editorial Style Guide
April 26, 2012 § 32 Comments
Profanity. Let’s talk about it.
Some people find cursing funny; others find it crass and offensive. I’m OK with it. In moderation, of course – too much is too much, and there’s no sense in vulgarity for the sake of vulgarity. But there’s nothing else quite like a well-timed bit of vocabulary to set loose a laugh, break the tension of abject frustration, or even relieve physical pain. (Yep, scientific fact. Google it. It’s a primitive thing. Like when you stab a tiger with a stick and it growls. How funny would that be if animals could talk, and instead of ROWRRR, the tiger said, FUCK OFF? Pretty funny. But you should never poke an animal with a stick.)
As with any other element of language, there’s always room for improvement when cursing. Thus, I present this highly subjective guide to optimum profanity usage.
1. Show some ingenuity.
Contrary to what you may have heard, using profanity isn’t necessarily a lazy way of speaking or writing. Using the wrong profanity is lazy. Choose all words with equal care, I say. My mother, who by the way is one of the classiest dames you’ll ever meet, has been known to brandish curse words in entirely unique ways, inventing whole new parts of speech. She always has the right expression for a situation. For example, walking into an unkempt room: “Holy shitstorm, it looks like the ass end of destruction in a typhoid whorehouse around here.” [Exit with flourish.] What does it even mean? I don’t know. But somehow I can picture it. She is a genius. Always be creative and specific.
2. Forget substitutes – they don’t work.
I’m impressed by anyone who thinks fast enough to translate what’s coming out of their mouth in moments of dramatic exclamation. “Cheese and rice, the fudging son-of-a-buckaroo mailman ran over the dadgum cat!” That takes talent. But it’s not as cathartic, and it also sounds goony. I tried to replace shit with shazam for a while. It just made me sound like a wizard.
3. Don’t leave it to the men.
Sure, cursing is unladylike, as are lots of things. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it, girls. The key is to time your cursing properly and choose not to do it when in a situation that calls for utmost ladylikiness. For example, if you’re unhooking your stockings from your garter while singing a French lullaby and baking homemade scones and polishing your silver and writing thank you notes, and you want the whole thing to come off super ladylike, that’s the wrong time to verbalize your opinion that your neighbor is a cocksucking pain in the ass who makes you want to set your own damn fallopian tubes on fire. Or is it? Sometimes that element of dissonance really gets a point across.
5. Respect the next generation.
Learn when to turn it off. It’s a parent’s responsibility to help children hang on to childhood as long as possible, so we need to keep those grownup words to ourselves. Of course, there will be slips. I may have muttered a thing or two under my breath when I accidentally sewed my own hand to a cub scout uniform while trying to adhere a patch. But I covered it up quickly by shouting the Pledge of Allegiance. Keep an arsenal of those tactics at the ready. And when the time comes, sit junior down and teach him how to do it right.
6. Imagine a miniature Jesus sitting on your shoulder.
I believe Jesus may have done some imperfect stuff from time to time, including cursing occasionally; but religious belief is personal, and I would never presume to know Jesus’s business. To be on the safe side, it’s probably best to refrain from cursing in church or at a church-related activity. Also, it’s just tacky. I mean, “Pardon me, motherfuckers, but where do they keep the choir robes?” Nope. Again, just timing and common sense here.
7. Use body part/function words carefully.
Now we’re kind of crossing that fuzzy border between curse words and slang. Anatomical slang is useful for lightening a heavy moment. “I’m very sorry your horse died. Your snowglobes look great in that dress, though.” For real medical conversations, true anatomical terms are better, unless you want your doctor to think you’re not taking things seriously. “Doctor, be straight with me. Did I break my wang?” You don’t want him to start laughing and making wang jokes and then totally forget to give you your prescription for painkillers for your broken wang.
8. Make copious use of compound cursewords.
These have excellent mix-and-match potential and can be switched around to suit your whim, making them great fun and really useful for keeping your language fresh and unexpected. We’ve all heard dickweed, shitfaced, douchebag, and bitchslap. What about dickbag, bitchfaced, and doucheweed? See, just like that. Mixed it right up.
9. Never forget the classics.
The F-bomb never goes out of style. It can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a participle, a gerund (fuck yes, I just said gerund), and a fantabulous compound. It works beautifully with expressive gestures. You really can’t beat it for versatility.
10. Use your manners.
If you follow none of the other guidelines, observe this one: respect basic rules of civility. If you’re in a setting where you know the people don’t like cursing, don’t do it. Unless you’re in a setting where you know the people don’t like it, but you also know the people hate you and are just pretending to like you, and they think you’re so stupid that you don’t know that they hate you, like you can’t read body language or are completely lacking in social intelligence. In that case, play along nicely and with extreme restraint until it’s time to leave, then casually toss this over your shoulder as you walk out the door: