Notes on the Communicative Properties of Cursing

By Paul Crenshaw

For seven or eight years I worked at a golf course during the summer, selling tees and green fees and ninety-nine cent bags of chips to men who’d decided to spend their one day a week off chasing a golf ball through the weeds. My step-father had leased the golf course from the rich businessman who’d built it, and he’d hired me to work in what passed for a pro shop.  I’d come in at eight, hungover, and lock the doors so I could sleep for an hour or two, until someone knocked hard enough that I had to get up and let them in.

Besides the men who bought green fees and then disappeared onto the course, there were a few men who spent much of their day hanging out in the pro shop. These were teachers who had the summer off, or businessmen whose sons or daughters ran their businesses and now had nothing to do. A few were retired; others had family money and had no real need or reason to work—a fact I found endlessly fascinating. I’d been trying for years to come up with a master plan to not have to work, but, when my chain letter failed to return even the money I’d spent on Xeroxing, I’d had to go back to work for my step-father.

The men who came in were the most foul-mouthed men I had ever met. My step-father occasionally said hell or damn, and even my grandmother was known to call someone she didn’t particularly like a jackass, but they were rank amateurs compared to the men I was forced to spend most of my days with. These were pillars of the community, but when they got together it sounded like a boatload of sailors learning they had just been afflicted with various venereal diseases and then been forced to swab the deck while the enemy lobbed missiles at them.

Robert Miles was a high school principal whose favorite word was goddamn. He was short and had a protruding belly, and often told stories of conferences he’d had with students’ parents. “‘Goddamn,’ I told them, ‘Your goddam son hasn’t done a goddam thing this whole goddam semester, goddammit it. He needs to get up off his goddam ass or he’s going to be in the goddam eighth grade for the third goddam time.’ That’s what I told them,” he would say. “I don’t really give a good goddam anymore.”

Wally James was editor of a newspaper, and was fond of making fun of homosexuals. He peppered his jokes with the words ass-rape and dick-suck, ignoring the two elderly gentlemen in the clubhouse who were on vacation and had stopped to play eighteen holes, or the teenage girls who’d come in to sell magazine subscriptions.

Jim Oswyn started most of his stories with a question: “Hey, you ever fuck a girl in the back seat of a police car?” or “Hey, you ever fuck a police girl in the back seat?” Short, with pale hair and thick glasses, he had a tattoo on his arm that read Jimmy, which prompted Wally to ask him if he’d had it tattooed on there because he sometimes forgot his fucking name or if Jimmy was his gay lover.

David was the worst of them all. He was tall and slim, with a lop-sided mustache and a shock of dark hair that he habitually combed out of his face. He was in his late-forties, semi-retired, and often began sentences with “Fuck you,” or “Fuck you, cocksucker” or “You fucking cocksucker.” Here was a man who’d once yelled “Bite my cock” before a group of septuagenarians who’d volunteered to work in a yearly memorial tournament at our course. Here was a man who referred to women as either cocktease or sweetheart, depending on what he needed from them at the time, and it always fascinated me when he ended a conversation with both his eyes still intact and no claw marks running down his face.

“You mother fuckers,” David would say, entering the clubhouse and eyeing whoever happened to be there at the time. “Why don’t you cocksucks goddam do something instead of sitting on your dumb fucking asses all fucking day?”

“Fuck you, David,” Wally would say, then launch into a story about having sex on a snowmobile, and the day would begin.

*          *          *

Besides the old men who spent their days in the pro shop there were a gaggle of young kids whose parents dropped them off on their way to work and then picked them up late in the evening. They’d occasionally play a hole or two, or slap the ball around the putting green as their parents drove off, but mostly they hung around David, laughing at his language and storing up phrases for later use.

Sometimes David would give them lessons. He was a scratch golfer, both a great teacher and a terrible influence.

“Well, goddam, that shot sucked balls,” he would say. “Are you trying to play golf or just out here killing fucking snakes? Next time, why don’t you try it like I showed you instead of like a goddamed paraplegic with the DTs?”

Parents would drop their kids off with him, never knowing what they would get back. Their child might be a much better golfer after a few lessons, but I always wondered what linguistic viruses they might carry home with them.

“That was a great fucking shot,” David would tell them. “See what happens if you actually do what the fuck I tell you?”

The lesson would continue until the old men would wander outside and ask who all had gotten some pussy lately, and David would stop and point at them.

“See those motherfuckers right there?” he’d say. “No goddam class whatso-fucking-ever.”

“He’s goddam right,” Robert Miles would say. “We’re classless.”

“We’re probably faggots,” Wally James would answer.

“We don’t know shit about fuck,” Jim Oswyn would say.

“But seriously,” David would ask them, “When are you mother fuckers going to get some pussy?” He’d pause a second, waiting. “And when you do, can we have some?”

*          *          *

At some point, David decided that our cursing could be taken up a level; he thought we were stagnating in the language department. I suppose we could have read from the dictionary, but David felt there was nothing better than a well-placed curse-word. I suppose he thought it funny that people could be offended by mere words, that ass or shit or butt-fuck was no different a word than Wednesday or sandwich.

“A word is a goddam word,” he would say, if anyone ever mentioned his foul language. “We use the mother fuckers to communicate. You know what I goddam mean, cocksuck? It’s just a fucking word. A goddam tool. For communicating. See, I’m motherfucking communicating with you right now through the fucking use of some goddam words. Language is about motherfucking communicating shit through the careful motherfucking manipulation of words. Settle the fuck down.”

He would occasionally drop cocksucker or dickfuck from his repetoire when the Ladies’ Club met on Wednesday afternoon, or the local Baptist preacher was in the clubhouse, but when we started trying to invent new words, no one was safe.

“In a perfect world,” David told us, “You could say exactly what the fuck you wanted, and how you fucking wanted to say it.”

It was his idea that a man should be able to directly communicate his or her feelings, choosing exactly the right words, without the common strictures of society. To test this point, we began shouting out cuss words at random times. We’d be sitting in the clubhouse watching the British Open on TV and someone would yell asshair or monkey-fucker or cum-stain. We even got the young kids into it, a fact that I think made David proud, although toward the end of summer some of the childrens’ parents stopped dropping them off, which made me think the finer points of David’s theory of communication might be lost on some people.

 

*          *          *

 

Besides being what David called a license to curse with impunity, the idea was to create new and interesting forms of language. We attacked the idea much like Mozart or Beethoven must have approached their great symphonies, or the way Faulkner wrote his novels, searching for the right word or words with the appropriate amount of appeal and absurdity. One of the easiest ways was to attach two words together. Shit and fuck were fine by themselves, but together they became the much more interesting word shitfuck. Add fuck to any word and it became funnier: dickfuck, cockfuck, assfuck, motherfuck.

There was also cockwhore and cockhound and cocksuck; cockbite and cockbait and cockdick; whoreson and whoreslut and whoreface; buttnose and dicknose and assface—the possibilities were endless. “Fuck you” was good, and “Fuck you, cocksucker” even better, but unless it was delivered to a pastor or a group of Sunday school teachers, it had no style.

It became dangerous to enter the pro shop for all the vitriol flying. It wasn’t enough to tell a story—one had to communicate it:

“I told that stupid assfuck to shut his motherfucking asshole, is what I said,” Robert Miles would be saying as he entered the pro shop. “I said, ‘I don’t have to listen to this horseshit. You haven’t passed a goddam test this whole fucking year, you fucking genius.’ I told him, ‘I’m going to retire in a few fucking years and I won’t ever have to put up with dickfucks like you ever the fuck again. Maybe the next principal will put up with your stupid shit, but I ain’t fucking going to. Now get the fuck out of my fucking office before I hit you in the neck’. That’s what I said, boys, I’m goddam telling you.”

“I said, ‘That’s the worst fucking story I’ve ever fucking read’,” Wally James would be saying. “I told him, ‘I thought you were a goddam reporter, not a stuttering dyslexic. Did you totally fucking forget how to fucking write? You’re supposed to keep people interested in your story, not make them want to eat rat-fucking-poison’.”

It was strange to be called assfuck or whoreslut by a man smiling at you. It had been my experience that a person who would go so far as to call a man an asshole would very shortly be hitting that man in the lungs, but this was a different kind of language. One had to communicate. We were breaking down walls, inventing new methods of expression. One might say “Good morning, Assfuck,” with no qualms whatsoever. To strangers we were genial and polite, but as part of the group we were assfuckers and whoresons, bitchwhores and dick-asses. Were a group of strangers to hear us without any context we might seem to be lifelong enemies with the scent of blood in our nostrils. Once or twice people tried to stop bloodshed they were sure was coming. I couldn’t blame them—it’s not everyday you hear someone call a close friend dickbreath.

Old ladies and Baptists preachers would lecture us. Strangers would hurry away if they caught even a small part of a conversation. We knew communication was the key, but one had to be careful—others could not communicate as well as us.

“Because sometimes you just can’t fucking say what the fuck you fucking want to fucking say without throwing in a good goddam cuss word,” David would say. “How the fuck could you tell someone to go to fucking hell without fucking and hell? I mean, what the fuck is the fucking matter?”

He’d look genuinely perplexed, as if this were an obvious truth that other people had somehow overlooked. It’s possible that words mask our feelings, and by being abusive and offensive constantly one could never accuse us of having any, but that’s beside the fucking point.

Or it could be that we simply liked the ways the words rolled off our tongues, how fuck is hard and fast and final-sounding. It might be that we hate rules, and cursing is a way of telling societal rules, and society itself, to fuck off. Or simply that any word, delivered in the right way, can mean more than its sound implies.

“Am I fucking right?” David would say.

*          *          *

Eventually, the game ended. Wally started his own newspaper and didn’t have the time to waste, and Robert died. The kids all grew up. They started driving and didn’t spend as much time at the golf course, although they’d occasionally stop in to call David a cocksucker.

I went back to college and a few years after that I went to graduate school to learn to write, to learn the importance of words, what meanings they have, what you can make someone else understand if only you have the right words.

I still speak with David occasionally. Once he called me to ask if there was such a thing as a nipple-clip. He seemed delighted when I said I thought there was, and I could hear him yelling to people in the background that he was right, there was such a goddam fucking thing, just like he’d fucking told them. Then he said “Fuck you, cocksucker,” and hung up.

At my grandfather’s funeral he walked up and put his arm around me. All around, people were offering what they considered comfort, the same senseless words many say in times of grief and loss, words that echo around the skull and flash out into the nothing that is beyond. When a space around us cleared he leaned close.

“You all right, cocksucker?” he said, giving my shoulder a rough tug. “Hey, you stupid fuck, are you okay?”

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Paul Crenshaw

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