I see they're having a “No Cussing” week somewhere in California, and I'm sure hoping they don't bring the son-of-a-bitch here.
Note that it's “No cussing” and not “No cursing.” No cussing would be harder on me than no cursing inasmuch as I do considerable of the former and not much of the latter.
Cursing is a more serious thing — usually directed at somebody in particular — while cussing is most often just an intensified and untargeted form of muttering. There's malice in most cursing, but most cussing is good-natured, even when it sounds hostile. A brief example is that when you cuss some pals of yours by inviting them to eat a stinky substance and die, you don't really expect them to do so, and you'd feel just terrible about it if they did.
You put a curse on somebody, but you don't put a cuss on them. Job's wife told him to curse God and die; it would've made no sense to tell him to cuss God and die, cussing being such a relatively trivial thing that God probably wouldn't mind it, or at least he wouldn't mind it a whole hell of a lot.
Cussing is a much simpler matter, besides being a more genial one. There are many kinds and degrees of cursing but cussing can be broken down into three small categories, none of which amount to very much.
One of those categories is cussing that involves impiety or profanity. “Damn” was considered a cussword of this denomination until Rhett Butler restored a measure of respectability to it in “Gone With the Wind.” “Hell” was too. And “The Devil,” as when my father told Lee Williams that time, when they lost their boat on the way home from a fishing trip, “The Devil, Lee, we ain't even got no boat!”
Or Joe Tayman, feeling remorseful over some miscreant behavior at age nine, saying: “I just feel like the Devil.”
I guess the prospect of eternal damnation was so dreadful to people once that the merest mention of it had to be suppressed — especially a jocular or frivolous mention, which is the preferred cussers' way. In the same sense, it was cussing, if not a violation of Commandment No. 3, to speak of God Almighty or Jesus Christ irreverently, or as an interjection, or with the middle initial H.
Cussing of this sort had to go underground, into euphemism, to survive, and so damn became darn, Hell heck, and the Devil went off into the details or took the hindmost. God was lower-cased into gosh or golly, Jesus Christ into jeepers creepers, and By Our Lady into the limey abbreviated cussword bloody.
It's still problematic for cussers — and for others, as Bro. Jeremiah Wright learned last year — to pair the Creator in the same oath with the gloomy business of souls being trundled off to perdition. It's OK for gosh to darn but not for God to damn. Cussers as a rule eschew such tepid substitute expressions. When you need to cuss, dagnab it or doggone it just doesn't get the job done.
The second cussing category concerns bodily functions or the organs through which these functions are accomplished. The covered functions involve either mating or waste elimination, and the covered organs were summarily described by Monty Python as the “naughty bits.”
It's the four-letter version of these words, give or take a letter, that will get you accused of cussing. Use the long Latinized version and don't snigger and people might mistake you for a social scientist or health-care professional, and give you a pass.
There are exceptions, however. George Carlin's famous list of the seven words you can't say on TV contained both a 10-letter rascal — the one that combines the rooster with the lollipop — and the 12-letter hip-hop standard that can mean just about anything or anybody.
That 12-letter mother of all cusswords isn't about what it says it is. It has nothing to do with what it says it does. The reductio ad absurdum of this already reductioed absurdity was in one of Jim Webb's Vietnam novels, which had a soldier using it as noun, verb and modifier in the compact space of a four-word sentence: “Mf the mfing mfers.”
Mf the mfing mfers — there's your modern eloquence; the post-modern residue of having something to say.
You know what the bodily-function and body-part cusswords are, so with apologies to Butt-head I'll forgo the glossary. Of those little nasties, the F-word is probably the most common (it certainly is in movie scripts and in rap music lyrics, where variants of it make up most of the nouns, verbs, modifiers and punctuation), but I suspect the s-word would be hardest for ordinary cussers to do without. There's just no adequate substitute for the s-word when you hit your thumb with a hammer, for instance, or find yourself about to drive your car off a cliff.
Cussing's third category consists of crude insults directed at a person's parents or lineage. Cussers in this category may call you a bastard or an SOB, but again that's hardly ever to be taken literally, and as one of the memorable Seinfeld episodes essayed to show, these can be terms of friendly outreach, and, if nurtured, can actually grow into terms of endearment.