What does your favorite swear word say about you?
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
Sometimes, people ask me, “What’s your favorite swear word?” I don’t know why. Also, I don’t know what to say. I’m interested in profanity but not especially invested in one word over another. It’s not a competition. They all have their uses, or we wouldn’t use them. I’d have to say something like, “Well, Fuck! is best when I’m frustrated beyond words, and my favorite profane put down is probably No shit, Sherlock …” but it feels like I’m putting far too much thought into a taxonomy of swearing preferences — who has time for that?
Apparently, some people have the time, as well as the concentrated interest in finding a favorite swear word, because in the middle of my “I don’t really have a favorite…” the questioner interrupts with an enthusiastic, “My favorite is clusterfuck”, or the like. The conversational gambit wasn’t supposed to ferret out my favorite swear word but to allow the other person to share hers.
Why share a favorite swear word?
But why share a favorite swear word? Why ask to know someone else’s? What will it reveal if someone prefers the interjection fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck over the adjective fucking, as in “It’s just fucking hilarious that fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck is your favorite swear word — it’s so playful, and I never knew you were such a playful guy”. What should we think when we discover someone’s favorite swear word is shit? Do we say to ourselves, “I’m troubled by that guy’s interest in excrement and lower alimentary functions”, or “He’s so unimaginative — shit is, like, the white bread of profanity”? Isn’t the question overbearing, a challenge to prove that you’re interesting because you have a favorite swear word and it’s somehow special? “What’s your favorite food?” someone asks. Do you dare answer “mac and cheese”, or must you strain credulity with something exotic, like “Kentucky-style barbecued mutton”? Which reveals more, the real answer or the answer you give instead because you think it’s a better answer?
We suffer from the problem of ‘other minds’. There’s a head there with expressions and such and speech comes out of the mouth, but who is the person, really? What goes on in her mind, and how do we know? We’re convinced that by asking questions we discover the person. In the salons of Second Empire Paris, ladies grilled potential suitors with questions about their favorite flowers and composers and wrote the answers into their albums de confidences, the closest nineteenth-century France came to e-Harmony, for lack of algorithms. The questionnaire was thus shorter and less scientific — “What is your current state of mind?” These are perhaps useful questions. Still, are answers to such questions windows into personality or invitations to perform, even to make things up? Imagine the scandal when two confidantes who use the same questionnaire share their albums de confidences only to discover they have interviewed the same gentilhomme, who has provided different answers to each — the answers he presumes each wants to hear. Le Coquin! Le Connard! Pardon my French. There wasn’t much swearing in the salons, but I imagine there was plenty in the boudoir.
A personality-revealing question
Famous people — or people who would someday become famous — answered these contrived lists of questions. For instance, Marcel Proust is on record as answering two of them, and they are considered so exemplary of the practice that some call a list of personality-revealing questions a Proust Questionnaire. The French television interviewer, Bernard Pivot, adapted the questionnaire to his own purposes, habitually closing interviews with a Proust Questionnaire that became known as the Pivot Questionnaire. James Lipton, host and interviewer of Inside the Actors Studio, borrowed it to open his own interviews — a getting-to-know-you exercise. Pivot introduced the question, Quel est votre juron péféré? and Lipton borrowed it into English: “What is your favorite curse word?” How can we understand actors unless we know the answer to that question?
In fact, the answer reveals little about the answerer. According to Inside the Actors Studio, Sarah Silverman prefers motherfucker, Neil Patrick Harris likes just plain fuck (with emphasis on the f), Amy Adams admits “I like fuck a lot” (and goes on to use it in various ways), James Gandolfini likes the phrase fuckin’ douchebag, Alyson Hannigan also likes fuck, Bryan Cranston defies the trend with jackass (because you can say it anywhere), Steve Carrell refuses to play along with gosh darn it, Mariska Hargitay can’t make up her mind between shite and fucknut. What do we learn from answers like these?
The value of the curse word
One thing we learn is that fuck and derivative forms of it are very popular profanity, but didn’t we know that already? And as a means of plumbing personality, the fuck answers are more confusing than illuminating. Besides their favorite curse word, are Silverman, Harris, Adams, Gandolfini, Hannigan, and Hargitay really alike? I suppose we detect Hargitay’s sense of humor and exceptionalism in shite and fucknut. Like Tony Soprano, Gandolfini always wanted more, and fuckin’ isn’t enough for him — he needs to dirty it with douchebag. Amy Adams and Alyson Hannigan are probably more like each other than either is like any of the others, but that reasoning sounds a bit like a developmental assessment for four-year-olds.
Perhaps the value of the curse word answers is their sameness. When asked what profession they’d like to pursue if they weren’t actors, the interviewees tend to say “teacher.” When asked what sound or noise they love, nearly all reply ‘the laughter of children’. Maybe the fact that nearly everyone prefers fuck establishes our common humanity — who doesn’t prefer fuck and happy kids? Outside Inside the Actors Studio, in everyday conversation, sharing fuck or another favorite profanity with someone like-minded is reassuring and may mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Or maybe the question isn’t about the answer, at all. Perhaps it searches out people willing to collude with us by answering it — any answer will do. Let’s be intimate. Let’s do something together that at least some people think we shouldn’t do. Let’s talk dirty. Let’s talk about dirty talk.