Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fuckwords and Other Swears

It is a common exercise, or so the works of Jessica Valenti tell me, to spend a few minutes of one's introductory Women's Studies course discussing the nature of obscenities and insults.  The classical questions:
  1. What are the most insulting names you can call a male?
  2. What are the most insulting names you can call a female?
Valenti has the answers to your pop quiz in Full Frontal Feminism.  Off the top of my head (I left my copy in Manhattan, sigh):
  1. Sissy; fag; bitch; girly-man
  2. Slut; whore; cunt; bitch
The point of the exercise, of course, is to note that the most damning trait for any gender is to be feminine.  I am rehashing her argument because I am this curious to know your thoughts on this matter:


Why is it that sex is so closely tied to insults?  Perhaps it is because making very intimate matters public is inherently shaming.  Certainly it has to do with the Puritanical wave that dominates the country.  These theories help explain catcalling but fall flat when facing the Great Pumpkin of all insults:

Fuck you.  Why is this not a compliment?  "Oh, thank you for that, you know, it's been quite awhile since anyone has wished sexual fulfillment upon me!  You're a gem!"  At least this is how things in my imaginary universe go.  Damn you, on the other hand, is easily explained: the insulter wishes the insulted party damned for all eternity.  But fuck you?  Please, someone alleviate my confusion!

*YES.  Watch me resort to lolcats!  This will not be the last time!  Ha!**
**Ok, it was gonna be a lion batting a porcupine, but that's comparing your ideas to quills.  Also this cat has counselor paws, so there.


  1. don't forget about "douchebag"! Sometimes I justify my use of "douchebag" by telling myself it is insulting because Douches are bad for your vaghealth, but I am pretty sure it is supposed to be insulting just because of its association with the Va-JJ in question. Sigh.

  2. Douchebag is the perfect word! Your justification is an official reason to use douchebag.

    See comments:

    Jezebel is too cool for douchebag, however, for some valid reasons:

    Douchebag is often fucking accurate, and we mean it with much disgust, it is certainly not received as very insulting. Sometimes it's even a goal, which is certainly consistent with everything else that's unhealthy for cunts and based in lies.

    "Fuck you" has always intrigued me. I've gotten a "Thanks!" to a "fuck you," typically from dudes trying to minimize my frustration or anger. But "fuck you" is so ambiguous: who is doing the fucking? How participatory is the fuckee? It doesn't even sound like wishing sex upon a person. It sounds like sex; person. The options I see are, "Sex is shameful/disgusting and I associate it with you!" or, "Yeah, wishin' sex upon you, but I get to choose the terms, not you."

    Did Valenti look into origins of the phrase at all? I don't want to be wishing sexual assault on anyone. Hopefully my speculation is misguided.

    (I do very much like "Fuck me" as an expression of shock, but only in the right crowd, and I forget to use it anyway.)

  3. No, the 'fuck you' wonderings are all my own. Valenti spends all her time on slutshaming and the meaning of femininity being evil. I was hoping we could shed some light on the fuck you business. Looks like homework will be necessary...tell me everything I need to know, Google!

  4. Steven Pinker has a whole chapter on swearing in The Stuff of Thought. Now, S. Pinker and I have plenty of issues, but the bit on "Fuck you" is useful. Summary: for various linguistics reasons (which our resident linguist could surely say more about than I), "Fuck you" =/= a second-person imperative, as in "Have sex" or "May someone have sex with you," etc. ("Go fuck yourself" is second-person imperative, but that's different.) It's also not short for "I fuck you," so it's not assault-y.

    The best explanation he offers is that it's like "Where the fuck," which is an intensification of an older religious swear. "Where the fuck" is roughly equal to "Where (in) the hell," but religious swears just don't pack the same punch anymore, so we throw in a fuckword instead. Similarly, "To hell with you" and "God damn you" just don't bother people the way they used to, when everyone literally, truly believed in Hell and damnation, so "Fuck you" has taken their place.

    In conclusion: it doesn't have much denotative meaning, and we may use it freely.

  5. Now, I just spent perhaps an hour researching the history and meaning of 'fuck you' online, which yielded this nugget of knowledge:

    ...................../..../ /
    ..........''...\.......... _.·´
    ..............\.............\ spent a surprising amount of time insisting that 'fuck you' is a shortening of 'go fuck yourself,' which makes more sense, given the sex-negative atmosphere we Statesians create.

  6. Makes me think of George Carlin's bit about "fuck," the main part I remember is that fuck is the only word that can form to be every part of speech, i.e: "fuck the fucking fucker"

  7. Going back to the non-fucky part of the discussion, I wonder how much of the "insulting terms are female" is tied into the gender-war thing that you've got going on in early-to-middling childhood, i.e. boys vs. girls that then persists through highschool (anybody remember girls vs. boys school-organized competitions?), which is a result of different styles of approach to the gender war (and, of course, the societal influence of what is acceptable competitive behavior for girls/boys, women/men).

    But I think when listing derogatory terms we also have to remember the less-complicated terms--"asshole" and "shithead"--and also the more-complicated terms--"motherfucker," arguably, "retard." Although I don't want to deny the original argument, as there is a very clear trend of feminizing terms being derogatory, I do want to point out that the world of insults can get pretty complicated, and that analyzing the reason and development of the derogatory feminization isn't just a factor of "girls bad men good"* but also, as Panthera points out, a factor of the White Protestant German ethical ideal of emotional-but-more-relevantly-sexual self-control, the problem of a country founded by prudes, etc. etc.

    *Girls/women boys/men dichotomy intentional