Say It With Feeling: Have Curse Words Lost All Meaning?

There's an amusing screed from New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris on the magazine's website on the subject of swear words.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

There's an amusing screed from New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris on the magazine's website on the subject of swear words. Part complaint; part, maybe, satire; part free-form poetry; part commentary on modern language and its fripperies, the piece is titled "Dropping the F-Bomb." Its presence indicates that worse than the proliferation of f-words in one of the most historically "language-traditional" (remember the diaeresis!) publications in existence is the fact that the f-word and its ilk are in grave danger of losing their remaining powers.

"Nothing is so debilitating to a copy editor as having to lavish care on illiterate tweets laced with obscenities," writes Norris, who explains of last year's article by Kelefa Sanneh on Earl Sweatshirt, "After reading the piece seven or eight times, making sure that such immortal lines as 'Shit sucks' and 'LETS SWAG IT OUT' were rendered exactly as they were in the original, 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? There should be a detox facility for proofreaders who have undergone this kind of extreme experience." The point here is not that curse words are bad or shocking or awful, but only that there are so damn many of them they're brain-numbing, ants swarming a log, making you forget what the log is there for in the first place. (The log is writing!)

The satire or performance-art element of the piece is that Norris then goes on to use the f-word herself at least 11 times, including to commend New Yorker writer John McPhee this week for breaking "new using 'fuck'—as verb, noun, adjective, and interjection—fourteen times in a single paragraph." (In comparison, back in the old days—Norris has been at the magazine for more than 30 years—Pauline Kael struggled to get 'shit' past William Shawn.)

Hilarious New Yorker anecdotes notwithstanding, this discourse makes me wonder. Curse words are now so mainstream that we hardly give pause when they're used at all. One recent episode of the show Modern Family involved a child using an expletive and the "trials" her parents faced, which mostly involved a lot of laughing, and maybe some embarrassment. (In the outside world, some protested this plotline, but only the real conservative weirdos.) Because mostly, this is just funny, right? Ha, ha; wink-wink. And maybe swear words are so par for the course it takes a tiny little kid doing it, adorably, for there to be much of an impact at all.

I remember the first time I dropped the f-you-know-what around my parents. It was in college (yes, late bloomer here). I used it casually, because that's what we did in college, just putting it in conversation, a peppery little adjective to punctuate my noun and give it a little more serious adult clout while also adding a frisson of shock value. My parents said nothing. A few years later, I used it again, with verve, after being directed into a hailstorm on a ski hill, but that was more of a shout and I was angry. In any case, the f-bomb has since mostly dropped out of my speech to my parents, while, funnily enough, they've actually adopted it in their own. This goes to show something about the mainstream-ization of the curse word, I think. (Or maybe my parents are just foul-mouthed.) Maybe as a people we're drifting into two groups of curse word users: Either we've stopped saying them much at all because they've lost their power, or we say them all the time because these words are just another word, like the or it or like or whatever. For such users, an f-bomb is remarkably adaptable, ready for any moment, but at the same time, neither the user nor the listener or reader really notices it. It's less a bomb than just an f. In the old days, we were counting up the f-bombs Tina Brown had added to the venerable publication of which we speak. Nowadays, it's more like, we're just over it all.

Norris explains how far we've come in terms of swear-word shock in copy-speak: "It no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously, as in 'I missed the fucking bus.' I used to be a prude, but now I am a ruined woman. We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be “f”-word, f word, f-word, “F” word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. Fuck euphemisms. Get on the goddam fucking bus."

When New Yorker copy editors print it, over and over again; when the mass-produced language guides include "swearing sections"; when it's in Merriam-Webster (with sound!) and only classified as "usually obscene";  when everyone's doing it and nobody seems to care, you have to wonder... Are the days of the f-bomb numbered? But if the f-word goes by the by, what do we do with that famous old Mom-threat, "I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap!"—to say nothing of the soap itself? Fuck.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.