Recently I watched a 10-minute YouTube video purporting to be the “100 Greatest Movie Insults.” It’s a pretty diverse collection, though as you’d expect it favors American films from the 1980s and later.
Some of the insults are mildly entertaining—Cher’s abuse of Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick (1985) is nicely done—but most consist of low, generally nonsensical vulgarity. You get Joe Pesci in Casino (1995) calling someone a “s—t-kicking, stinking, horse manure-smelling motherf—” and John Candy in Uncle Buck (1989) advising someone to “take this quarter, go downtown, and have a rat gnaw that thing off your face.” Paying a rat to gnaw on something? And this line from The Breakfast Club (1985), written by the revered John Hughes: “That’s what I thought. You’re a gutless turd.” Some turds have guts, apparently.
Even when they’re not actually nonsensical, these Greatest Movie Insults consist mainly of imbecilic retorts and put-downs spiced with what I like to call bang words. “What’s your name?” shouts Ed Harris in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), to which Alec Baldwin responds, “F— you! That’s my name!” And here is Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges (2008): “I mean no disrespect, but you’re a c—. You’re a c— now, and you’ve always been a c—. And the only thing that’s going to change that is—you’re going to be an even bigger c—. Maybe have some more c— kids.” Perhaps there’s a hint of comedy in that initial I-mean-no-disrespect, but the rest is just witless verbiage camouflaged with naughtiness: You can’t change your status as a c— by becoming an even bigger c—. Which is why these lines would be totally unmemorable if you substituted c— with, say, jerk or even jackass. They need the repeated bang! bang! bang! to make you think something clever’s being said.
The appeal of the bang word is that it can lend excitement to an otherwise boring or predictable sentence. Take this exchange between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005):
Perry: “Look up the word ‘idiot’ in the dictionary and you know what you’ll find?
Harry: “A picture of me?”
Perry: “No, the definition of the word ‘idiot,’ which you f—ing are.”
Clearly the screenwriter, aware that this exchange wasn’t quite funny, decided it needed the help of a bang word. Yet the trouble with licensed vulgarity is that it creates dependency. Why should a writer struggle to find just the right words when he can slip in a couple of bang words and call it a night? Why go on wracking one’s brain for a striking metaphor or turn of phrase when one can write “s—t-kicking motherf— or “f— you!” and be done with it?
This point is made nicely by the fact that the aforementioned collection of a hundred insults contains, by my reckoning, exactly one memorable line. It’s this exchange, in Casablanca, between Ugarte (Peter Lorre) and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart):
Ugarte: “You despise me, don’t you?”
Rick: “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.”
The zing in Rick’s line doesn’t depend on delivery, and it’s even funnier when you remember that the principal meaning of the word “despise” is “to have little regard for,” “to regard as unworthy of one’s interest.” Rick can’t be bothered to disregard this man. But imagine if Casablanca were written today: You can see the screenwriter, unsure of his powers of wit, wanting to be done with the script and collect his fee, deciding to take the shortcut.
Ugarte: “You despise me, don’t you?”
Rick: “Why don’t you go f— yourself, alright?”
I started thinking about all this a few weeks ago, when I began work on a novel. At the outset, I made two decisions that proved to be difficult to stick with: The first was to include no reference to email or the Internet, and the second, almost as difficult as the first, was to include no bang words.
It wasn’t easy; people use profanity all the time. Not so frequently, and regardless of circumstance, as British and American films lead one to suppose; but profanity is a part of life and always has been. And of course, the novelist’s goal is to write dialogue that sounds as lifelike as possible. The use of profanity in fiction and film is therefore nothing more than an acknowledgement and reflection of reality. To write a novel without profanity—or rather, deliberately to exclude it in a narrative that would otherwise naturally include it—is to impose an arbitrary rule on what should be a reflection of life as it’s really lived.