“To the men I write about profanity is adornment and ornament and is never vulgar and I try to write it so,” John Steinbeck wrote to his godmother in 1939.
“In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer,” wrote Mark Twain, who also summed up the sentiment in the briefer: “When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.”
No wonder the e-mail from an irate University of Maryland Delta Gamma sorority girl, excoriating her sisters for “LITERALLY being so [bleeping] AWKWARD and so [bleeping] BORING” at mixer events with the Sigma Nu fraternity, has received more than 1.3 million hits on Gawker. It has a rhythm to it seldom found in polite speech.
For sheer joy of utterance, little beats well-applied vulgarity. Anyone who has seen “In the Loop” or the film’s parent series, “The Thick of It,” knows that a stream of profanity, correctly applied, has a kind of music. There’s something lavish and indulgent about an extended bout of vile, insulting language. It’s like eating gold-plated lobster or killing an endangered bird with your bare hands. Cursing in French, as the Merovingian says in “The Matrix,” is like wiping your [obscenity] with silk. Curses are like sriracha for the bland food of ordinary conversation. Use them correctly, and the world is your oyster. They each have their peculiar virtues. David Sedaris called the S-word the “tofu” of cursing. The F-bomb is the little black dress of vulgarity. Noun, verb, participle, verbal noun — it goes with everything. “Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do,” said Johnny Carson.
Then again, says Harvard’s Steven Pinker, using curse words in excess diminishes their efficiency. Once they slip from taboo to normal (up to 60 in a day), they cease to have their potent effect — and given that this single e-mail contains at least 51, their impact might be diluted.
What makes a really good string of profanity is both that the source is unexpected (a little old lady like Betty White, a sorority club president) and that it is lavish and unrestrained. This e-mail’s quote-worthiness lies in the total disproportionate flair of the insults. It is deadly serious about something most readers would consider basically frivolous. Leaving aside the jokes about Sorority Girls Taking Things Too Seriously and Ack! Greek Life, it’s a verbal feat. It combines words in ways you never thought to combine them. Now you can’t unsee it. It’s exuberantly vulgar. It’s so completely out of all proportion to the alleged offense that you can’t help but laugh and forward it.
You can learn a lot about someone from his or her preferred style of cursing. There’s the simple, unadorned, monosyllable — “[bleep]” or “[&*&$]” or the vintage “damn.” There’s the euphemistic curse that plants you in Ned Flanders Sunday school territory — “Gol-dang it to H-E-double-hockey-sticks!” There’s my personal favorite, the composite curse — adjective noun-verbing adjective verbal noun. The e-mail mingles the first and third forms.
I didn’t curse for years. Growing up, there was a curse jar, and I discovered it was a money-making proposition to cultivate the habit of swearing like an old-timey sailor. I banged around high school shouting “Gadzooks!” and “Zounds!” and “Odds Boddikins!” But if you really want to be taken seriously, you can’t stop there. People tell you to get back into your time machine and move along. And this sorority girl wants to be Taken Seriously.
There’s an art to the well-structured rant. This one is almost Mametesque in its exuberant overkill. No wonder it reads so dramatically well, as Michael Shannon has demonstrated in a video I can’t link here because it is too profane. It’s so outsized, so tone-deaf, so insensitive and deliriously unhinged. Poor Sigma Nu and Delta Gamma don’t know what hit them. Now they are trying to dig their way out of it. (“Those are not the values our community values. We want to stress that that was just one woman’s opinions and the rest of our community is kind of upset about it and we’re looking forward to finishing Greek Week with a great ending,” Molly Alsobrook, president of the Panhellenic Council, told the UMD Diamondback.) You don’t say.
I realize that few exercises are so futile as writing about profanity without being able to use any. It’s like describing the plot of pornography while excluding the sex — a sterile, awkward and unpleasant exercise.
“Good authors, too, who once knew better words now only use four-letter words writing prose, anything goes,” laments one verse in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” But each word has its peculiar cachet, as George Carlin described in his Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television monologues. And this woman knows how to deploy her four-letter words. It’s mesmerizing, if terrifying. You’d better bet I will not show up to a Sigma Nu mixer after this.