On Shit: Profanity as Weltanschauung

By Mark EdmundsonDecember 29, 2015

On Shit: Profanity as Weltanschauung

MY FAVORITE VULGAR WORD by far is “shit.” I was about six years old when I learned the word, and ever since I’ve felt the greatest fondness for it. It seems to me one of the truly irreplaceable words in the language.

I learned the word from my childhood friend, Tony Tanzio. “Shit” was not the first bad word that Tony taught me. The first was “asshole.” It was Tony’s appellation for the ants that thronged around and into an ant hole that Tony and I found at the base of an aged, rather patriarchal oak tree. I knew that the primary name for these creatures was ants, but when Tony referred to them as “little assholes,” I decided that there was a secondary term. Many items in the world seemed to go around under two names, why not ants? 

The day after Tony increased my vocabulary with the “little asshole” appellation, I introduced it to my mother. “Hey,” I said, “did you know that ants are also called ‘little assholes’?” My mother was quite close to falling over flat on her face, like a flipped pancake. “Go tell your father,” she said. My father was shaving in the bathroom. His face was fully lathered, his towel was wrapped around his mid-section in Roman- senator-on-his-way-to-the-bath style, and he was smoking. (When my father was awake, he was smoking.) I told him how Tanzio had expanded my vocabulary and he jumped as though rather than speaking words, I had pinched him by surprise in the rear of his senatorial towel.

I was always trying to make an impression on my parents. What kid isn’t? I memorized poems, made up songs, and even tried a physical trick or two — like trampolining on their bed before they were awake. No trick that was so briefly enacted and so easy to bring off ever had the effect that the two-word incantation “little assholes” did. Talk about magic words.

Though maybe they were black magic words, since the reaction they garnered from my parents, though intense, was not quite so approving as what I got by learning the opening lines of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or singing a ribald song my father taught me about a woman from the Bible who danced before Saul the King. (“And what she wore didn’t amount to anything.”) I sang this for a few of his Greek card-playing buddies and made quite a hit. I may have danced it out too. But the singing and dancing reaction was nothing as strong as what I got by renaming the ants.

Words with power! It wasn’t close to “Let there be Light”! But swearing could really make things happen. Did my father backhand me across my offending mouth? He did. But damn did I have his attention for a minute.

There then came interrogation. How did I learn that word? Where did it come from? Who had put it in my mouth? I forthwith blamed Tony Tanzio and was of course forbidden to play with him. But I had no real power over whether I played with Tony or not. He simply appeared from time to time on the top of the fence by the oak, with his floppy curls and his jesters’ rags and marvelous strong shoes that seemed to have been made by a village shoemaker for a boy who was about to go adventuring, off and up the beanstalk maybe, to kneecap the giant. “Tanzio arrives!” Tony would cry. Like Caesar and certain other worthies Tony Tanzio often spoke of himself in the third person. When I told him that my father had forbidden me to play with him, Tanzio simply laughed and said that he didn’t care and I shouldn’t either. My father was at work. What was he going to do? 

I could not believe that anyone would take an adult commandment so lightly. It seemed blasphemous. It was as though God had told you to cut out what you were doing and get into the ark and you, in a fit of pique, told him you were staying outside because you liked a little rain. Tanzio was a lawless person, or so he seemed. He had aspirations to some kind of heroism. It often seemed that he had arrived from another era. I sometimes imagined he came to me from a medieval village down the hill and past the Converse Rubber plant.

I persisted in telling Tony that he had to go, but he placated me by promising that if he stayed he would teach me some more words and phrases like “little assholes.” This was a promise too good to be true and I accepted immediately. So under the leaves of the fatherly druidical oak — the druids were said to be tree-worshippers, and this one was big enough for awe — I was initiated into the canon of bad words.

There were two sorts, it seemed. There were the ones that were associated with religion, and in general those were not to be messed with. A casual “Jesus Christ!” or a “God damned” could readily put you on the express to the dark place below the surface of earth. But something like “asshole” was at most a side-bet sin that could maybe extend your stay in purgatory by — who knows? — maybe an hour, maybe a decade or two. It all depended on how fast you managed to climb the purgatorial hill — a hill I’d heard a little bit about at church. I assumed that purgatory was described in the Bible, though how it could be there, affirmed in a book where a woman danced before Saul the King wearing an outfit that doesn’t amount to much of anything, was a mystery.

So Tanzio taught me how to swear. Really committed swearing was not completely unlike songwriting. And I had done a lot of spontaneous songwriting — often traversing my house chanting ditties to my three mothers (my aunt, my grandmother, and my actual mother), my father, our parakeets Ike and Mamie, and the characters on TV that I liked, most especially Rex Trailer and Pablo. Top-flight swearing involved getting a pseudo-song together drawing copiously from the bank of salty words that Tony put at my disposal. As in “Shit, fuck, balls, piss, asshole-face.”

It was a given that religious oriented cursing was the worst, only to be undertaken under major duress. To bop your finger with a hammer and yell “Jesus fucking Christ!” was an outrage and the chances of being zapped by lightning from the father’s index finger were not negligible. Tony said that you could pull out the heavy, religious guns only if your mother or father died or if you were hit by a car or something equally dire. As Melissa Mohr, the author of a fine recent book on obscenities, observes, “For more than two thousand years, swearing has alternated between the twin poles of oaths and obscenities, between the Holy and the Shit.” 

But even within the category of earthy vulgarities (the Shit), there were distinctions to be learned and observed. “Fuck” was about the worst word you could use. If your parents heard it, they’d smack you down right away. If grown-ups from the neighborhood heard the word pass your vulgar lips they had the right to make your cheeks ring, too. What was “fuck”? What did the word mean? We did not know. Even though by the age of seven I’d had a few people — crazed adults, rogue older kids — explain the dynamics to me, I could not believe the practice existed. I could not imagine that anyone would do such a thing as tangle up with another person in the described manner. It did not make sense. It was impossible. The thought that my parents would have done it, and that they would have done it to produce me and then the tiny brother who had recently arrived on the scene, was not one I could even begin to entertain. On the subject of the derivation of babies I was a full-out agnostic. I did not believe in the stork or any of that nonsense. But I could not commit myself to the copulation theory any more than a scientist of the Middle Ages could commit to the notion that the earth travels around the sun.

“Asshole” was a fine word, though not for one’s parents. There were prick and balls and cunt and the rest: anatomical profanity. But what about “tits”? We came to feel that balls and tits were about on par, and not in the more dangerous league of prick and cunt. Then there was the holy lexicon (Jesus, Mary, God, the Saints) to be generally avoided. And there was shit — which also morphed occasionally into a phrase that Tony and in time I used frequently, with verve and appreciation. (I still have a particular affection for it.) This was, Holy Shit!

Tanzio and I were Jesuits of profanity. We acquired new words steadily; we evaluated them according to their level of intensity and seriousness; we deployed them with and at each other. As time passed and I got to know more kids, the discourse on bad words unfolded further. When I was nine, I was often to be found sitting on the brick wall constructed by Tony’s grandpa, in company with a half dozen other kids theorizing about what might be the worst swear you could create. I think the prize went to terms that blended the super-sacred with the rankly vulgar: so that if you were in the mood to purchase a one-way to hell you might say something about a certain sort of act with the Virgin Mary.

We did not say the worst things outright of course, but put into play techniques of circumlocution that would have made a lawyer or a politician envious. I have no doubt that some of the richest and most complicated speculative discourse of my life came in my pre-pubescent years when I and my buddies were working out the metaphysics of profanity. When we tired of this sort of discourse, we often passed on to the fate of the soul after death; the topography of hell; the chances of Russian invasion, and the strategies we would employ to save the Bell Rock neighborhood of Malden, Massachusetts, from Soviet control; then there was the question of whether or not it was possible to see Ellie Kaufman naked if you stood patiently outside her family’s bathroom window at about nine o’clock at night, her alleged shower time.

Most of these discussions were spiced with profanity. By the time we were teenagers, not all that many significant nouns existed that did not call out to be modified by the word “fucken.” The fucken dog; the fucken paper route; and most common of all, such that the words were so deeply merged that they might have been married, “fucken school.” Tony Tanzio was rarely called by his first name. Rather he was referred to as “Fucken Tanzio,” a reflection of the combined exasperation and affection with which his friends regarded him. In time, he launched a campaign against the appellation. He would hold out his hand to one of us and say, “I’d like you to meet Mr. Tanzio, first name Tony.” To which, we could only reply, “Ah, fucken Tanzio.”

Our parents would have been blown down flat like sailors in a typhoon if they heard us cursing. They would probably have been less shocked if we had run out of the local variety store with a fistful of cash swiped from the till, or made an inept try at setting fire to a parked car. They probably wouldn’t have been impressed by our theological disputes; and they would not have been in love with the way we denounced our teachers; but they would have burst into rage if they had heard us swear.

Sometimes too, our exchanges got just plain weird. Tim, a buddy of mine from across the fence that I met when I was eight or so, used to have a fantasia that he recounted from time to time. In it, the parents of all the neighborhood kids got together for a game of football. They played fast. They played hard. There was lots of blocking and tackling, and they threw themselves into it all with abandon. O, and there was one other factor: they played naked. Mike got graphic in his description of woggly breasts and flopping dicks. (At least they stayed flopping.) I’ll say no more. Weird, right? 

But kids are weird. There used to be a feature on The Art Linkletter Show, called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Every darned thing the kids said was cute, sweet, peculiar, and most of all innocent. It was a sanitized version of kid discourse, and I’m sure that on some level the adults who watched the show knew it. They’d been kids after all, and they must have at least partially recalled some of the subjects they’d spent time brooding on in those kid symposia that are held around the fire with marshmallows going black, or in the tree fort after the resources of a found-on-the-street Playboy magazine have been exhausted, or in the girls’ bedroom during an exploratory game of Barbies, when the complaints about what Ken possesses and what he lacks become most intense.

But no one wants to be reminded of this part of kid life. Nor does much of anyone want to hear kids curse. (I did meet one dad who assiduously taught his seven- and eight-year-olds the most emphatic profanity. I recall that he soon ended up in prison. I am not sure what the charges may have been.) If my mother and father had heard me and Tanzio, then later my other kid-friends in a big league swearing session, my mother would have fainted and my father would have sent wind-mill backhand slaps in every direction.

But why, really? It’s not as though the kids are putting themselves in danger, as we were when we played around in the abandoned site where an elementary school had burned down five years before. It’s not as though we were committing petty crimes, like stealing a Coke from Charlie’s, which might develop into actual crimes of consequence. (People from my neighborhood and thereabouts did sometimes end up in prison.) No, swearing was just words; swearing was a matter of shaping the air that you’d taken into your lungs. Swearing was shooting the breeze. So why the big deal? Why did I know that if I got caught swearing, I’d be hung by my thumbs, whereas if I got caught jumping off the Brennan’s garage roof, I’d be reproved some, but that there would be latent admiration for my doing something significantly boyish?

I suspect that the swearing of kids cracks open illusions for adults. When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity — someone who summons up what Shakespeare might have been, if he decided to become practiced in the art of the headlong cursing symphony. And who knows, lover of language that he was, he may actually have created such compositions from time to time. What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits?

What’s lost then is the myth of innocence. Suddenly your child has become a kid. And what better way for the child to rebel against his period of confinement as a child than to become an adept curser? It’s not like having sex just at puberty, or holding up the neighbors with a wooden gun and scampering away with a wallet and a purse. But it really can create a gap, a true facture, between the self that was and the self that now is. The first time you hear your beloved 10-year-old say motherfucker: well, on that day something changes.

Why does it disturb us so? I suppose something called parental narcissism is involved. We want the child to be perfect. We want the child to avoid all the wounds and disappointments that we suffered. We want the child to be without flaws. (For surely we had our flaws.) The child is a sort of second chance for us — a way to approach life another time and this time to get it right.

A shrill cry of “shit!” from your five-year-old suggests that even with all the preparation you had and all the thought and all the love you invested, you didn’t manage to get it right this time. The popping sound that you hear when your child curses you, the heavens, or fate is the sound of a narcissistic bubble breaking.

But there really is reason to be dismayed at a cursing child. There are motives to be truly distressed that go beyond the ruin of parental narcissism. What is profanity at bottom? What is the use of vulgar language all about?

I think it’s possible that religious profanity is the least distressing kind. For what is religious profanity but prayer in reverse? If you cry out on God and even use him to curse your state — God damn! — then you are exhibiting some belief in God. If you swear with Jesus’s name, you are expressing a certain sort of backhanded homage to Jesus. Religious swearing is a form of faith: it’s just faith that’s gone awry, often temporarily. Often you’re mad at God or Mary, Jesus or Allah for not having come through for you. And you believe they should have. You believe that in the future perhaps they will. As Adam Phillips says, anger is a form of hope. The angry person believes it could have gone well and didn’t and that maybe it will be better the next time.

But basic vulgarity is something different. The word “shit,” my old favorite, is constantly used to denigrate that which passes itself off as high in value. When we say that school is shit, or church is shit, or life is shit, we are bringing them down to the basic, biological level. We are saying that, for the moment at least, it all comes down to mere organic waste. Shit is foul being: being without soul. The word “shit” takes the pretentions out of that which pretends. But it can also blow apart legitimate human achievement: faith, civilization, art, what we humans have created that divides us from the animals, or should. Shit is a one-word demystification, a harsh syllable of total disillusionment, a thrust that seeks to turn ideals into idealizations, then stomp them out. When you say that the speaker is full of shit, or the book is, you are denying all lights of inspiration — every gleam of the spirit.

No doubt sometimes this denial is fitting. There is no end of shit and bullshit in the world. But when use of the word “shit” becomes programmatic, then one has reached a level of disillusionment with life that is distressing — distressing for the individual who uses the term and for those around him.

Profanity beyond a certain point is a philosophy: it’s a Weltanschauung, a worldview. A man who salts all of his nouns with the adjective “fucken” is doing a great deal to display his sense of life. And perhaps foremost his view of sex. If words like “make love” and even “have sex” are not in your vocabulary, having been replaced by permutations of “fuck,” then one can probably say that your attitude toward erotic love is anything but hopeful. Profanity is a form of reduction. It reduces something exalted, or at least something respectable, to something debased. It is a kind of secular blasphemy. When you prefix a noun with fucken, you have debased it; when you say that this or that is nothing but shit, you have brought it back down to earth and below earth — for we tend to bury our waste. You have said that what was once worth saving, or even admiring, is really a matter of dreck, crap, waste matter, shit.

And it is a good thing that humans have this capacity. I am glad that we are able to call out against pretension, imposture, and illegitimate authority in brief, hortatory terms. I’m glad there’s an economical way to say that the emperor is cavorting in the altogether. I’m delighted that we can call a spade a spade and do it quick. Swearing is one of the divine rights of man, or better, anti-divine. It’s the way we let the air out of the cloying pink balloon; challenge the teacher; turn on the boss. “Go shit in your hat,” says the enraged worker to the factory owner. Then, how much more does he have to say?

But if one’s every utterance is peppered and red-sauced with profanity, well then I believe you have revealed something that might in another context be called a worldview. This is what you think life is all about. To you, implicitly, there is nothing that is exalted; nothing that ultimately matters; nothing that can contain hopes for uplifting meaning.

Would it be wrong to say that our culture has been ever more given to profanity since (say) that time, 50 or so years ago, when Tony Tanzio and I sat under the druidical oak and learned to swear? Now everyone seems to curse. What was once a male preserve — this land of profanity — has now been amply colonized by women. When I was a boy, the only woman likely to issue a curse was a bartender or a lady of the evening. Now it seems at least half do. Business executives say Fuck; professors do (I can testify to that); politicians do when the microphones are not around (and sometimes unfortunately when they are). One would not now be surprised to hear a priest or minister let fire a string of curses, like bullets from an automatic weapon. Profanity is everywhere. What once could not be said anywhere but at the construction site and the bar (and under the druidical oak) now sounds from the TV and the internet. The movie screen is an orgy of profane language. The babysitter curses and the baby does, too.

What is to be made of this cultural saturnalia of the profane? A full answer would take a treatise, no doubt. But we might guess that what is true for an individual may be true for a culture too. People curse frequently when they are in the process of becoming cynical, even hopeless. They curse reflexively and constantly when the process of losing hope in life has become complete for them. Is it any different with a culture?

It feels like a step toward full freedom, a real stroke of liberation, when the talk show host on network TV adds another piece of profanity to his lexicon of the permissible. And maybe in some sense it is liberating. But the movement toward the omnipresent profane is a move away from hope. It’s a move from spirit to body, from soul to self, from affirmation to negation, from glory to shit. It seems to me that our culture at large is now engaging in precisely that movement.

What is the opposite of cursing? Well, it is easy enough to say that the flat opposite of sacred cursing — turning the sacred into the debased and debasing, is no doubt prayer. For as we’ve said, sacred cursing is only prayer in reverse. You wanted the lord to intervene and he failed, thus he comes in for some chastisement. Good enough for him.

But what’s the opposite of the vulgar curse, the sort of curse that has been the larger subject of my thoughts, such as they are, up to this point? Simple. That’s praise. Praise of the world in its plenty and joy; praise of humanity, noble in mind, majestic in reason; praise of men and women builders of cities, begetters of cultures. There’s praise of what god has created (or gods), or what came here of its own, and still must be praised, so marvelous do we find it.

Shall we tell our children not to curse? Maybe, maybe, though they will do it anyway and in so doing they will sometimes break our hearts. But rather than resting our teaching on prohibition, let us try to impart something else. Let us teach them the art of joy and thanksgiving. Let us teach them how to praise.


Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.

LARB Contributor

Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His newest book is The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching.


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