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.
It’s at least worth wondering, then, why film and fiction didn’t capitulate on the matter of filthy language (as it used to be called) until fairly recently. I have on my shelf a copy of James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, the bestselling novel of 1957. On page 507 the f-word appeared in the original. In the novel, the word comes from the pen of a reckless fool and is even described in the narrative as an “eye-jarring word.” But that wasn’t enough to mitigate its offensiveness in the eyes of the Book of the Month Club. My copy, a BOMC edition, replaces the word with four hyphens: “----.”
Were educated people really so prim in 1957? Maybe, but we carry vestiges of that same reticence even now. Leave aside federal laws about the use of hard profanity on the airwaves. Think of the way people actually talk. Even those who make frequent use of hard profanity have some sense that these words generally aren’t to be used to strangers. Asked by a waiter whether the lamb was satisfactory, there must be very few people who would respond, “Yes, it’s f—ing delicious, thanks.”
Why this discretion, even in so indiscreet an age as ours? Partly the answer has to do with what the words signify at a literal level. The more important part of the answer, though, has to do with their function: They lend otherwise ordinary sentences a feeling of aggression and menace. They turn commonplace sentiments, sentiments one might be inclined to ignore (“Turn the music down, please”) into expressions that grab you by the ears and force you to listen (“Please turn that s— down”). It’s that function of profanity—to heighten the importance of common utterances—that makes it so dangerous to useful thinking. Very few of our utterances are intrinsically important, and every sentence bearing the f-word (or one of its cousins) gets a promotion, deserved or not.
I used to work with a man who used the f-word as a weapon. When he felt threatened or angry, he would end every other sentence with a noun or adjective modified by the word “f—ing,” which he gave great emphasis: “I can’t abide any more of this f—ing evasion,” “That guy’s work is f—ing useless.” There would be a second of silence after each one, almost as if the word itself imposed a sense of deference on its hearers. You felt it was somehow ill-advised to disagree with him once the f-words came out. Not because he was dangerous or even because he’d react crossly, but because there must be some evasion going on if it’s “f—ing evasion” and work described as “f—ing useless” must at least be sub-par.
Outside of a battlefield or a bar fight, hard profanity is rhetorical cheating. It’s the forensic equivalent of pulling out a knife to win an argument. Certainly, films and novels full of bang words can appeal to an aesthetic of realism: People really do settle arguments with knives. But what used to be called filthy language distracts rather than clarifies, and not everything “real” is interesting.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.