An Ode to Swearing

A well-turned curse can remind you of the power of language.

Black-and-white drawing of smiling open mouth with "FUUUUC..." on the tongue on pink background
Tim Lahan

The swears are here, the swears are there, the swears are fucking everywhere.

You’ve noticed it, I’m sure. How it started with the band names (Fucked Up, the Fucking Champs) and then migrated into the mainstream: Go the Fuck to Sleep, the self-help books about unfucking yourself and not giving a fuck, and the ever-growing tolerance for fucks on TV, such that we seem to be moments away from having a weatherman tell us that there’s an absolute motherfucker of a cold front coming in. Aren’t we completely fucked-out, at this point? Desacralized, desensitized, fucking numb?

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Not quite. Or not yet. Because there’s cultural swearing, which is merely late-stage capitalism at work, an arousal probe, prodding us in our jaded consumer receptors, blah blah blah. And then there’s the swearing that happens between people. Between drinkers. Between soccer players. Between shoppers in Best Buy on Black Friday, and drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike. And this kind of swearing is marvelously intimate and alive. Here you can be rhythmical, poetical. You can discharge your fury or your desire, all of it, in a single puff of profanity. You can shoot blue bolts of language like a warlock, piercing the force field of your antagonist and pushing him backwards.

Swearing is an art, like everything else. You can overdo it, you can underdo it, and you can do it just right. You can swear at your grandmother, and experience as if for the first time the unholy power of the old words. You can swear at your dog, and he won’t notice. Once, on a beach in California, with electronic beats pinging and bass belching in the air around us, a dreadlocked stranger placed his hands upon my shoulders; gazed deep, deep, deep into my eyes; and said (Northern Irish accent): “I don’t know who y’are … But I focking love ya.” Then we hugged, and he entered my brain chemistry forever.

My dad’s a good swearer. I’ve never heard him swear in anger; rather, he will swear fondly and retrospectively, recalling a moment when he might have gotten angry. “And I thought to myself, Well, that’s just not fucking good enough! ” It’s very effective. Emotion recollected in tranquility, as advocated by Wordsworth.

You can establish familiarity, even make friends, with swearing. Start gently. English people are lucky in this respect: We have recourse to the not-quite-harmless intensifier bloody—as in “I’m bloody freezing!”—which is somewhere between a fuck and a goddamn. Swearing without swearing.

Here’s the point: Swearing is personal. How much you swear, and with (or at) whom—that’s really your own thing. And given the much-to-be-sworn-at state we’re in, and the state of the swear economy itself, I’d counsel thrift. Save those beautiful fucks for when you need them.

This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “Ode to Swearing.”