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How to Curse Correctly

It's time to give back to cursing the power it used to have.

Once when I was 8 years old, my mother chased me around the house with a bar of soap after I angrily emitted a “bad word.” She briefly shoved the soap at my teeth, in order to wash my mouth out. (Liquid soap would have been more efficient but wasn’t around then very much.) She never did it again since I learned I could outrun her.

“Bad words” included sh**, and, most grievous, f**k. I convinced her that calling my little brother an a** was not an infringement, since I was merely saying he acted like a donkey. I could even get away with “b*tch” when I insisted it was related to our dog. Really bad words, like motherfu**er and c**k s***ker were not even known in my vernacular.

Today bad words are ubiquitous, in books, movies, TV even, with some restraint, broadcast TV, although in many widely published venues, like this one, they must be camouflaged (even though everyone knows what we’re saying).

Growing up, I was titillated by the increasing expression of forbidden language. It made a point. It exploded the punchline. A bad word was so much more emotionally cathartic than “I’m so darned mad!” or “I didn’t know what the heck to do!” or “So I told the police officer I didn’t like that!”

Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, early Richard Pryor knew how to punctuate and bring home a story with a judiciously placed profanity. Today’s comedians seem to invoke f**k in every sentence. Now, I’m not offended. I’m just disappointed that they’re burying the punch line. Every movie rated PG-13 and above has cursing throughout. It’s inuring. And most people don’t talk that way. Most kids don’t talk that way. Putney Swope (1969) was the first film I saw that at a perfect moment used what was then scandalous profanity. It was shockingly hysterical to the movie audience when the young kid, standing beside the chain-smoking nun, yelled at Putney, “F**k you and f**k the establishment and f**k you people who are trying to make me part of the unestablished establishment!” You just never heard words like that before at the movies. Fifty years later, when young kids’ film dialogue employs dramatic cursing, it’s not as funny, and not necessarily that authentic.

Really, most people don’t curse all the time. You get a much better effect when you save it for emphasis, or to enhance the joke. Now that we’re getting used to using a lot more soap to wash our hands, we can also use it to scrub away the detritus that obscures the punch line. Save profanity. Use it when it f***in’ counts!