A Crash Course in Fake Cursing

by Nathan Pensky

15 September 2010

Through a kind of final detachment from any intended lexical meaning, fake cursing can constitute a natural progression of a word meaning very little to one indicating only emotional residue.

Oftentimes artists use a baseline of existing superficiality to make larger points. Lady Gaga’s dance-pop songs, for instance, are effective as music, and also as an interesting critique of the superficiality inherent to the genre. Comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Rock have effectively appropriated racial stereotypes, both expanding upon their stilted thought processes and lampooning them as a means to containment.

The use of profanity in movie dialogue also works with a baseline of superficiality, as cursing is meant in cinema to superficially distinguish along class lines or difference of cultural or moral standards, this somewhat parallel to the use of accents in film, as well as provide a certain transgressive emphasis within those designations of difference. Of course, cursing is used most effectively in playing against such stereotypes, as when a character employs the emphasis of a curse without following through to say the actual word. Words like “frick” and “shoot” allude to curse words through likeness of sound; others like “crap” have the same meaning as the more typical bad words. This second type of fake cursing is a bit like spelling “W-A-L-K” in front of a dog, where one wants the meaning of a word without any of the heightened emotion attached.
Also, fake cursing is almost always funny. The comedy comes from a reversal of expectation, and from a certain pathos as attached to the fake curser. Like a 98 lb. weakling dressed like a medieval warrior, the lameness of a failed show of strength is highlighted through proximity to the real thing. Even more interestingly, fake cursing can linguistically illustrate what actual curse words over time have come to signify. Through a kind of final detachment from any intended lexical meaning, fake cursing can constitute a natural progression from a word meaning very little to one indicating only emotional residue. The word “shit” may have one time meant “excrement,” and in some contexts still does. But the use of “shoot” in the place of “shit” truly means nothing and even expands upon the most common use of “shit,” as only a thing to say to express raw emotion.

Here are a few notable examples of fake cursing in pop culture:

Almost Famous

In an early scene from Almost Famous, a character played by Zooey Deschanel confronts her mother about her draconian household rules. Deschanel’s character ends an argument by throwing up a pointed finger and screaming “Feck you!” before storming off to her bedroom. The camera lingers for a beat, while the audience wonders what exactly was just said. Then the younger brother says in his sister’s defense, “I think she said ‘Feck’” This is fake cursing at its most definitive. There is no more succinct way to bridge the gap between the Deschanel character’s emotional need to be heard and her unwillingness to follow through on this need than through the speech of a word that sounds like, but isn’t quite, “fuck.” She doesn’t mind incurring her mother’s wrath in one sense but isn’t quite ready to take on the punishment for saying a “bad word.” The comedy of the scene is also the ground floor upon which all fake cursing jokes are built: the expectation of something meant to shock and the delivery of something else entirely.

Napoleon Dynamite

In Napoleon Dynamite, the titular character’s fake cursing so distinctive as to suggest a rich back-story of frustrated emotional need. Napoleon’s outbursts of “frick” and “what the crap” are both hilarious and sad in their evocation of stronger dialogue. They also contribute to the characterization of his arrested development in the same vein as his obsession with kung-fu and “ligers.” He is an isolated innocent who can only dream of the epic battles he draws in his three-ring notebook. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Napoleon trails a plastic action figure with a string out of the school bus window, a direct lifeline to childhood. The dialogue following this visual cue adds to the moment: A little boy asks him what he’s going to do that day, and he answers with too-strong volume, “Whatever the crap I want! Gosh!”

Flight of the Conchords, “Drive By”

In an episode of The Flight of the Conchords called “Drive By,” Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie profoundly self edit their cursing in a rap send up, “Too Many Mother Uckers”. The edited profanity of the song alludes to urban culture, yet applies this would-be strong language to such small matters as annoying bank fees. Fake curse words are here less a parody of hip-hop than a self-effacing appraisal of the triviality of their own complaints. Hip-hop artists, whose subject matter typically involves real problems of a survivalist culture, have earned the right to vent their rage through profanity, while the Conchords’ use of fake cursing makes light of their own much less serious troubles.

The Sopranos, “A Hit is a Hit”

Sometimes actual cursing is so far removed from its correct usage that it can be said to be “fake” in the exact opposite sense as fake cursing. As cursing would superficially signify cultural or socio-economic difference, those represented as being in positions of prominence sometimes show how they are “of the people” by cursing. Of course, by assuming such postures they are also crassly reinforcing profanity as a designation of cultural ill. The hypocrisy of their position is usually the supposed joke.

One good example of this occurs in an episode of The Sopranos, where the mob family’s doctor and neighbor befriends Tony as a way to buddy up to his fellow country club members. In one scene, Dr. Cusumano’s wife remarks at a dinner party that whenever her husband hangs out with Tony Soprano, for a few days after he takes on the mobster’s trademark foul language:  “Every time he comes back from there it’s “fucking this” and ‘fucking that.’” Dr. Cusumano’s vicarious enjoyment of Tony’s lifestyle is paralleled here with that of the show’s audience.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson’s films often portray a deeply flawed intelligentsia; his gifted but stunted characters offer deconstructions of cultural elitism. Cate Blanchett’s character, a magazine reporter, falls into the well-heeled cinematic trope of the muse/witness to a troubled genius. She wants to stop cursing because she’s having a baby and doesn’t want to pass on her bad habits, yet the actual strain of taking on this challenge itself causes her to curse. She constantly substitutes the word “effing” for “fucking,” and yet when asked why she doesn’t just curse like everyone else, she says she’s trying to stop “for her fucking baby.”

You Can Count On Me

Laura Linney’s character, Sammy Prescott, in the gorgeously realized You Can Count On Me, seems like an only slightly older version of Blanchett’s character in Zissou. Also a mother, Sammy seems to have kicked the cursing habit a while ago, though in certain moments of stress some zingers get through. At one point in the movie she wakes up in a hotel bed next to her married boss, screaming “Oh, my gosh, what time is it?” He tells her, and she immediately screams, “Oh, my God!” Linney comes down hard on the word “God” in this line, emphasizing the difference between it and the just previously spoken fake curse word.

Battlestar Gallactica

The Battlestar Gallactica reboot included documentary-style cinematography and a realistic storytelling. However, because it was a network series, it couldn’t use the spicy language that would be most appropriate to the military culture it depicted.  Show writers got around this restriction by supposing futuristic developments to commonly used curse words of the present. Hence, the birth of “frak,” a clever stand-in that has since made its way into the greater pop culture lexicon.

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