Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

I’ll start with the cliché about the leopard not being able to change its spots. That doesn’t have anything to do with my frequent use of profanity. It explains why, when I sat down to say “here’s why I like to occasionally say ‘fuck,’” I lost an hour of my day reading fascinating articles written by linguistic anthropologists about that and similar words.

None of which have a fucking thing to do with the topic at hand.



The F-Bomb and Me, a personal history

I have two uncles on my dad’s side of the family. One was a contractor, the other was the bartender at the Irish Center in San Francisco. Both were Irish immigrants and, as far as I know, neither ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain at least one F-bomb. That doesn’t explain anything about my use of such language, it just shows how I was introduced to it – probably in conjunction with my initial language acquisition skills as a toddler. “Fuck,” “fucking,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker” were what my uncles said instead of “um.” If they otherwise would have said “um” a lot.

[They also got me drunk the first (several) times and I tend to slip into an Irish brogue if I’ve had too many, though that has nothing to do with the topic at hand.]

My parents, on the other hand, do not cuss. I don’t remember having a conversation with my parents about my uncles’ version of “um,” although I’m certain I did. I would remember being sent home from kindergarten for asking some cocksucker to pass me a motherfucking crayon, and that did not happen.

Some years later, when I was around ten, my friends and I discovered those words anew, peppering our sentences with them as liberally as my uncles ever had. Of course, that was only when we were alone, unobserved, and certainly far, far away from our parents’ ears. I’m sure we did it to impress each other and younger kids, to feel “grownup,” and for a host of other reasons that tend to evaporate after dropping ten or twenty thousand F-bombs.

By the time I was in high school, in the right company and circumstances, I wouldn’t hesitate to use profanities for emphasis. For the next ten years or so, those lines were primarily generational. I seldom swore in front of someone my parents’ age, but had no problem doing it with someone my age or younger. Circumstances matter, too. I wouldn’t drop an F-bomb in front of anyone if I was, say, in a church, but I’d probably be willing to say “shit” on a racquetball court or by a campfire even if my companion were Mother Teresa.

This all seemed natural, and I never gave it any thought. Then I had kids.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming need to censor my language in front of not only members of my parents’ generation, but also my children’s. Which is ironic as hell, because I will never have as many conversations with anyone about the subjects of shit and piss as I’d had with each of my children by the time they were three. Granted, the vernacular was different (“potty,” “tinkle,” “poopie,” etc.), but shit is shit, whatever you call it, and we were literally talking shit to each other several times a day for years.

Cussing at the Office

Around the same time I was constantly talking shit, er, poopies, with my kids, I was also earning my chops in my professional life, where I was introduced to cussing at a different level. First, becoming a “grownup” meant that people ten, twenty, or forty years older than me were now my peers. I was practicing law, which meant I had to at least pretend I was the peer of every opposing lawyer I dealt with, even if he (and the ones that old were all “he”) was forty years my senior. Being the frustrated linguist I really am, that’s also when I started paying close attention to how people were using swear words. I noticed that people who cussed in this context fell into three groups:

  • Buster Blowhard. He’s one tough motherfucker. You know this, because he is constantly saying what a tough motherfucker he is. He might as well have “Super Insecure and Overcompensating” tattooed on his forehead. I say “he” because, while I am absolutely certain there are female versions of this, I have not done business with one yet.
  • The Casual Cusser. Talks to everyone (or at least most people) like they’re all in a high school gym together. Takes no offense to profanity also assumes you don’t give a shit. Doesn’t really put any thought into it.
  • The Strategic Swearer. Appears not to use any profane or inappropriate language whatsoever. When it’s time to call bullshit on something, the word “bullshit” silences a room.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to any who reads this blog that, among my friends, I am a Casual Cusser. Professionally, though, I am squarely in the Strategic Swearer group. So much so, that most people who only know me professionally may be inclined to think I don’t swear at all.

While I’m a Casual Cusser much of the time, I have to admit, the Strategic Swearer is BY FAR more fun. Swearing is all about how much power we give words, and being the Strategic Swearer lets me manipulate them like a power-mad comic book villain.

My favorite example is a deal I’d worked on for six months, never venturing south of the word “darned.” A new lawyer came onboard with the other side and started trying to jerk things around. After three days of this, I stood up and told him he was “pissing all over everything we had worked on for six months.” Then I told his client to contact my client directly if he was more interested in doing the deal than playing “bullshit games.”

Before the meeting, I told my client “start getting ready to walk out if I say the word ‘piss.’ If I say the word ‘shit,’ stand up immediately. Don’t talk to anyone.” He did, we left, and before the elevator arrived to take us downstairs, the deal was back on track. If I’d been saying “shit” this and “fuck” that for the prior six months, those words would have had almost no power. Coming as they did, though, they were powerful enough to make the person representing the other company go – quite literally – pale.

As I watched the blood drain from his face, all I could think was, If I said he was tinkling on the deal and they were playing games with cow poopies, IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE SAME FUCKING THING.

Where That Power Comes From

It would have meant the same thing — and it wouldn’t have at the same time. That’s the amazing thing about swear words.  Their context is their meaning. The meaning of any given swear word happens somewhere between: (1) the speaker’s use of the word and (2) the listener’s feelings (a) about the word generally and (b) how the word is being used at that moment. As writers, we can look at it as the ultimate exercise in usage and cognitive construction, because the true meaning to the listener does not have one fucking thing to do with the literal word we are using.

You can see the same thing on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. We have a huge Mormon population where I live. They never (ever, which is to say, at least not when another Mormon is around) say the word “fuck.” Which makes sense, because Mormons are notoriously proper, well-mannered people (particularly so if another Mormon is around). Go watch a Mormon basketball game – don’t ask me, basketball seems to be a significant aspect of their religion. You’ll hear the word “screw” and “screwed” thrown around with abandon. And it’s being used exactly when and how the F-bomb would be dropped by someone comfortable with dropping F-bombs.

They say a word that means the same thing. They say it in the same context. They say it with the same intent. The only fucking difference is the significance they have subjectively given that word as far as it’s “badness.” Fuck is bad because – and only because – they have decided it’s bad. Screw, which fucking means “Fuck,” for fuck’s sake, is fine, because — well, it’s not “Fuck.”

And I don’t mean to pick on Mormons, here. They’re just a convenient example. The same is true for all of us. Or, should I say, Every Fucking One Of Us. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have the friends we tell “I’ve gotta take a piss” and the friends we tell we “need to go to the bathroom.” There are people we ask for the “restroom,” and we may tell a three year old we “need to go potty.” Almost all of which we do without thinking twice – it’s a natural part of our language.

So, why do I cuss on this blog?

Because you’re the friends I tell “I’ve gotta take a piss.” 🙂

Properly used (if that isn’t an oxymoron in this context), I think swear words are a more effective way of placing emphasis than the main alternative, an exclamation point. For me, they are also the more honest – this blog is about the most unfiltered (and unrefined) version of my “voice” imaginable. This is what I sound like in my internal monologue and when I am speaking to my closest friends. In other contexts, there is some form of filter – usually so ingrained it’s subconscious – making decisions about the propriety or utility of those words.

Which is one of the reasons I think I love blogging so much. In here, I don’t have to give a fuck.

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13 thoughts on “The Post in Which I Answer the Question: “What’s With all the F-Bombs?”

  1. Except around you, I am a strategic swearer. I silenced a classroom for reading ‘shit’ when we were doing a staged reading of a play in high school. I swore in front of my sister’s friend and she turned around and said, “do it again!” If I were to swear in front of anyone but my husband and my sister, I would be taken seriously. I think it’s the best way to swear.

    My MS has twelve “shit”s and five “damns.” I thought damn hard about every one of them. My character Amelia swears a lot. Nadari swears sometimes. Cora swears once–and when she swears, you can feel her world turning upside down. SHE is my strategic swearer. (Ironically, I don’t think my men swear at all. Hmmm…)

    The social constructs of swear words have always fascinated me. Great blog post.

  2. Thanks! I’m glad I bring you out of your Strategic Swearer shell, too 🙂

    I’ll have to take a look at my MS. I’m guessing I a bit north of your totals, although I would be willing to bet my MC uses less profanity than yours. Denise, on the other hand…

    • Do you count all the times she’s cut off before she has the chance to swear? 🙂 I ❤ Denise.

      Page 233 of my MS holds 5 of my 12 "shit"s. Amelia asks if Dar wants the "no bullshit" answer to something, Dar says, "yes, please," then amends to "no bullshit," and Amelia's story has the other three. 7 of the s words are hers. Two to my MC.

      Damn is in the narrative twice, but only said aloud by three characters. the two times my MC says "shit" are her only swears aloud.

      More interestingly, with the exception of one damn in chapter 4, all of the swears are between chapters 11 and 23. When the situation gets a lot more intense. Although that was intentional.

      • That raises an interesting question — I’d be surprised if I have many swearwords beyond the occasional “hell” or something in my narrative, either. I’d bet zero F-bombs. Although, as you know, the main POV character isn’t one to use that language much in the first place. That would change some if it were told in first person. I’m not even sure I can think of a manuscript told FP from his sister’s POV.

        Now that I think about it, maybe I could. But I’d probably give her an entirely G or PG internal perspective, which would be a nice contrast from the way she speaks to all those motherfucking cocksuckers.

  3. You are the male, educated, non-New Yorker me. Ok, so you aren’t really me at all. But there’s very little I didn’t directly relate to in this post–except your uncles vs parents. Pretty sure I learned every curse I know from my mother. Yes, I’ve passed this on–1 kiddo is fluent (cursing and all) in 3 languages, another kiddo is fluent in 2. My 3rd only speaks English now, no cursing. Neither had any issues discriminating btw when cursing in *English* shouldn’t be used…Spanish took a few lessons on discretion.

    More than anything, I relate to your thoughts on your blog, and using more casual, colorful language in it. A few of my online friends who only knew me through forums were quite surprised to get to know Mrs Fringe. 😉

    Great post!

    • My kids are, literally, my four closest friends, and our language shows it. I’m probably the equivalent of your mom on that one. I made sure they had a good grip on where and when, but at home there’s not much censorship. With one tween and three teen daughters to try to wrangle, whether someone said “shit” is the least of my concerns.

      Not that they cause me too many concerns, anyway. Right now, my biggest parenting challenge is learning to do a waterfall braid.

      • Couldn’t agree more, re the importance (or lack thereof) of “bad” language vs trust and open conversation with our kiddos.

        Ooooh, you’re fancy! I haven’t even attempted a waterfall braid, been trying to figure out a decent fishtail. 😀

  4. Linda on said:

    Fun post. Got me thinking about how far from strategic I’ve wandered. Is it verbal laziness? Perhaps — but there are few words that feel as satisfying rolling off the tongue.

  5. Carol Schlehlein on said:

    Oh Mook you are such a piece of work. I wonder what category I fall into when at age 82 I missed the last step and fell on my arch (that’s ass in German). I was amazed that the first words that came from my mouth were son-of-a-bitch. As I lay there checking nothing was broke, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get up. It took all the piss and vinegar I could muster, but the old lady made it to stand up and walk proud again.

    • Glad to hear you’re up!

      One other weird fact I ran across when I started skimming research about cussing is that those swear words (literally, measurably, and medically verifiable) reduce pain. It’s bizarre, and has to do with the two parts of our brain we use when making sounds — those “involuntary oaths” are mostly coming from our animal brain.

      Mostly, though, just glad to hear you’re walking tall!

  6. this is an amazing post.

    i’ll admit now, that i had a hard time following your posts at first. the cussing does distract me from what’s being said. that being said, i generally fall into angry cusser or comedic cusser. get me mad an the profanity flows like water out of broken pipe. and if i think i can get a chuckle out of it, i’ll drop an f-bomb.

    i’ve had to curb my tendencies around my one-and-a-half year old, too. I used to say goddammit without even thinking about it, but i’ve trained myself to say god bless america instead. this gets me some odd looks sometimes, but the worst i can do it make my daughter patriotic.

    i think if we got together and started drinking it’d be a cultural experience. 🙂

  7. Somehow, the drinking if we got together seems to be a theme 🙂

    The thing with little kids is funny. I certainly had to watch my mouth until mine were old enough to have a solid handle on the “when and where” question.

    Thanks for commenting.

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