Friday, October 14, 2011

Rhetoric, I Swear

I swear.  I swear pretty much every day.  Sometimes it's for a stubbed toe, other times, a forgotten homework reading.  But sometimes I swear to make a point.

Rhetorical swearing works on several levels.  First, it is an attention getter.  Second, swearwords are often the most intense word for a thing ("shithead" is way grosser and meaner sounding than "poopyhead"), or they can be used to modify a word to make it more intense (not just "crazy," but "fucking crazy").  Third, swearwords can express a sense of humor about a serious subject -- which can either lighten the mood of a piece, or make it irreverent.  This third use is probably the most complex.  (As we talked about in pedagogy class today, we are not allowing our students to write on a funny ad when they write their essay about a commercial.  Funny is too hard.) 

I use swearwords on this blog in all three of those ways.  Although, I probably avoid the attention-getting tactic unless the attention-getting obscenity ties in with the tone of the piece. (I was going to title this "Some Fucking Rhetoric" or something like that, but decided to play with words instead.) The Onion uses attention-getting swears in article titles all the time.  When the rest of the article keeps up that tone it works, and it does not seem out of place.  This is true for the recent Steve Jobs obit, "Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing Dies."

I can't think of an example that uses attention-getting swears without going for humor.  I don't know if that tactic would even work for intelligent people.  I'm mostly talking here about what works in essays and articles. But rhetoric is for everyone. So, to take it to the streets, "REPRESENT, BITCHES" probably gets more attention than "DO WHAT IS RIGHT, WOMEN" when someone wants to be persuasive within a group of she-thugs.

The second use of swearwords is pretty much the standard one.  They enhance our message, making it more intense, and more "colorful," as the prudes like to say.  While I do that all the time here, and everyone already knows how to do it (if you do need a swearing lesson, I can probably hook you up), there is still a rhetoric to swearing this way.  The most important thing to do is to build up to the dirty words.  If you haven't set a tone with a title like "Comma Splices: An Asshole's Delight" then you haven't yet let on that you are among the potty-mouthed.  This is good -- you have a rhetorical ace in the hole!  When your reader can't see that "FUCK!" coming at the end of an exasperated sentence, it is a pleasantly unpleasant surprise.  "Jeepers, this writer doesn't like to curse, but this thing makes'im mad enough to kick a cat by golly! Must be important!" (Says your newly-convinced reader.)

Swearwords as humorous interjections or humorous modifiers in an essay create a complex system of truth combined with hyperbole, seriousness combined with refusal to take things seriously.  I try to use my swears like this as much as possible. It's a goddamn bitch to pull off sometimes, but so fucking worth it.

So I write this because I have a serious (serious!) problem with people who think swearwords have no place in an argument, i.e. an article, blog entry, etc.  A commenter on my Jimmy Buffet post from a couple years back said:

"I doubt if you were face to face with a parrot head (or me) you would use poor language like that, but I suppose you feel safe behind your computer sweety. What next, going to call us "retards?" To think, this whole time I thought liberals were supposed to be politically correct."

I had used the word "dumbasses" to describe a bunch of drunken parrot heads spilling margaritas all over themselves. She took it quite personally.  Poor language? Some of the best words are swears!  And somehow, since I am educated I'm not allowed to use bad words.  And somehow, she thinks swearing is politically incorrect.  I'm not sure how her logic got her there, but there she is. When people get offended, they say all kinds of stupid shit.

And there is the KEY WORD!  Offended.  The possibility of offending is the number one reason some people think that cussing is off limits for educated people, even when they're writing down to earth stuff.  Well, it offends me that someone would be offended by a swearword.*  In the class I'm teaching, we read a story entitled "All Beings Are Interconnected."  The author uses humor and ethos (among other rhetorical strategies) to tell a story of demoralizing captivity.  He makes up funny words for gross things, like the Unfortunate Mess Rag.  One of my students wrote on this story, and she said his essay was effective because he made up those words to make sure he didn't offend anyone!  I think she used the word "offend" about five times.  I wrote on her draft that she was missing the point.  Since when does an author write a story about something so important and life-changing, and stop to change words so that they don't offend someone?  He chose not to use swearwords, but I'm pretty fuckin' sure that's not why.

*(OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE is another thing entirely.  Language that is meant to do harm to or to make generalizations about women, African-Americans, gays, or other groups [excepting parrot heads] should not be tolerated by any educated person.  But saying "Fuck" is not the same thing.)

To provide some support for my offensive arguments, I can point to many examples of swearing in very popular, widely read, and even incredibly intelligent magazines and websites.  I mentioned The Onion, but another favorite of mine is Rolling Stone magazine.  That's the first place I ever saw the "f" word in print.  I was fucking flabbergasted. Every issue drops f-bombs I'm sure.

To go beyond the printed word, since rhetoric is a spoken thing too, a colleague of mine mentioned today that she counseled a student with this advice: "You'll really have to bust your balls if you want to get caught up."  She wondered if that was okay.  I assured her there is a rhetoric to swearing, and that she had pulled out a crude turn of phrase at just the right time.  That student needed his attention grabbed, and he needed to know that she A) is taking his absences seriously, and B) still has a sense of humor with her students, even when they fuck up. That one little obscenity took care of all that rhetoric!

I could continue with anecdotes (like one of my pedagogy instructors nodding his head vigorously when I suggested some of my "rhetoric of swearing" in class), but anecdotes (and my own attempts at rhetorical swearing here) are all I have.  I could not find an article that argues what I am saying here.  There is plenty on the cultural value of swearwords, on the linguistics of swearwords and how they can be just about any part of speech (or even in-fixed!), and even on how swearwords can help relieve pain!  But no "Rhetoric of Fuck."  Maybe I should formalize this and do it up proper. (Without removing the swearing, of course.)

You'll notice I never swear when I'm writing a piece on Milton.  That's one fucker I do not wish to offend.


  1. Someone should have offended Milton's early poesy. It was grammatical silliness. Best - DMQB, Graduate Student, Rhetoric and Composition, URI.

  2. I love this article! You are brilliant. I'm a university student attempting to do a formal presentation on why people swear, and this is exactly what I needed. I was, of course, going to go into the entire "pain" thing, and then the linguistics of swear words, but I just couldn't answer the question "why do we swear when it offends" until I found your article. Thank you!

  3. Thanks Elizabeth! Did you see the new one wrote last month? I keep going back to this because those two angles you mention (physiological, linguistic) are the only ones I can find in papers on swearing. No one is doing the rhetorical angle (no one I have found yet, anyway). This may be a niche that we can fill.

    Here's my current take on it, after some life lessons made me think long and hard about swearing at jerks (and no, I didn't decide to stop swearing...)


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