Well, Fuck Me: The Swearing Festival Report

I had spent a few days recovering from a cold and general malaise. The time had come to get out of the house or die trying.

swearingcrap.JPGThe crowd drinks and swears.

Several people had mentioned a Swearing Festival that was going on at Edinburgh Castle, a fantastic little pub in the Tenderloin that hosts various artistic and cultural events. I had no idea what a Swearing Festival was. Was it in any way like a Ren faire? Or was it an excuse for strangers to shout “Fucking hell!” and drink beer? I had the feeling that various strangers shouting profanity would galvanize me and perhaps restore my senses. And since I tend to trust my gut instinct on these things, I decided to check it out.

I arrived at 6:45 PM. I sailed through the doors as effortlessly as a duck jetting across an expansive pond.

Since I had styled myself as some kind of half-assed journalist (many people, seeing the rinky-dink camera around my neck, approached me as I was some professional chronicler), a pint was regrettably out of the question. I was on the job. And besides I would need both hands to take notes. There was a panel to pay attention to.

The panelists included Dr. Jonathan Hunt, a Stanford man dressed in a crisp grey worsted suit and a slightly mistied red bowtie. His sartorial complement was so adorable that I wondered how I would react to him if I were gay. Plus, there was the neat economy of his name. It sounded as if he traveled to far off locales. Perhaps when he wasn’t teaching at Stanford, he was an adventurer not unlike Allan Quatermain or Indiana Jones. As I learned later, he was a married man. The other two panelists were Beth Lisick, of which more anon, and a British journalist named Andrew Orlowski, whose work from the Register I was acquainted with.

I alighted to the second floor, which houses a diminuitive theatre. By the time I got there, it was SRO. Amazingly, the folks at Edinburgh Castle had only anticipated about 20 people to show up for this panel and were quite astonished that so many people were interested in seeing the great local minds of our time discussing the use of “cunt” in mixed company.

My shoes became instantly glued to the sticky floor. I tried my best to sway my body around to allow other people to pass. But alas, one only has so much maneuverability when one’s legs are locked in an inert position. Sure enough, my right foot went fast asleep on me about halfway through the panel.

Concerning the theatre, there were no lights in this room to speak of, save two small China globes and what looked to be two meager 650 watt arcs cross-lighting the area, angled and positioned stage left and stage right. (And indeed these lighting conditions should explain the rather grainy quality of the accompanying photos. For this, I apologize.) Behind the table was a red curtain that suggested a bawdy cabaret act. And as the crowd pushed their way into this small room, I got a distinct 1962 Cavern Club vibe. I briefly considered the possibility of a Great White-style conflagration. Would I roast alive? I didn’t even have a last will and testament prepared. Should I scribble an impromptu version down on my notepad and let the lawyers sort it all out?

Fortunately, these fears passed as I saw a chair raised up into the air from the front row and passed back over two aisles to accommodate two very nice women standing next to me, both of whom I had apologized to, because I am a tall man and I was occluding their view of the front, because I was in a fixed position, because of the sticky floor.

There were at least three people in the crowd who I thought I might know. But the soles of my shoes had by now settled into the glutinous floor. I wondered if I had something in my bag that would help extract me. Or perhaps I would have to improvise like MacGyver and use the cover of the hardback I was reading to scoop my feet up like two dignified pancakes. Oh well. Such solutions would have to wait for later.

There were at least two podcasters in the crowd, not counting myself. One dark-haired and bespectacled young lady, with headphones affixed to her ears and a minidisc recorder in her hands, was trying to plug into the unmanned sound board at the back right of the room to capture the discussion in full. I offered brief technical advice. Apparently, she worked for a program called “Weekend America.” The other podcaster sat at a table about seven feet in front of me. He was explaining to his friend that he had recorded a podcast in which he had explained for ten minutes what the purpose of the podcast was. He was apparently still mystified about what his podcast was all about. But it sounded quite lovely. We should all be so gracefully confused. That is one of the podcast medium’s virtues.

The other notable individual was a stunningly attractive blonde to my right. She was alone. And I was too shy to talk to her. So I smiled. She responded with a look of contempt, presumably to ward me off. Perhaps I resembled a unpleasant man she had once known. Or perhaps the fact that I was wearing a dark wool coat in a somewhat salacious locale made her think that I was a flasher. Not impossible, given that I was in the Loin and you see a lot of interesting things in that area. But she warmed up to the “Weekend America” gal. Oh well. The next time I cover one of these things, I’ll have to strap audio equipment to myself and not be so shy.

The panel sets up.

The crowd was almost entirely Caucasian, presumably because Caucasians enjoy swearing the most. They could be easily split up into two groups: tidy metrosexuals and scruffy-looking folks clad in grunge chic. You could tell the difference between the two groups in the way that they held their pints. The metrosexuals tended to curve their fingers delicately around the pint glass, as if they were attending a reception for some event of cultural importance. Their fingers remained locked in place. It seemed a faux pas for them to even place their glasses on a table. The grungy crowd valued function over form and emphasized that point between thumb and forefinger as the major source of strength in the hand. Or perhaps they were simply more experienced drinkers.

Many of the latter group of pint graspers had their origins in the United Kingdom. It was now approaching 7:15 and the audience was starting to get antsy.



“START THIS SHIT UP!” (I should note this third remark came from an American. Perhaps “fuck” was not in his regular vernacular. Or perhaps the ferocity of the first two statements, which had came from Scotsmen, intimidated him. Whatever the case, I think I preferred the first two cries to the third.)

The delightful coordinator of Edinburgh Castle, whose name unfortunately escapes me, apologized for the delay. He was instantly called a prick. “Thanks very much,” he replied, “I’m Scottish, not English.”

The panelists were introduced. Many of them were decried with “fucks” of all calibers.

The moderator, who held a black Moleskine notebook with prepared questions, asked the panelists what would happen if we loosened television restrictions on bad language. Would television improve?

Hunt and Lisick field questions from the audience.

Beth Lisick answered this question. And it became immediately apparent that she was a bit tipsy. (Where the other two panelists had settled upon pints for their panel drinks, Lisick had a martini and two bottles of Calistoga. What kind of person drinks a martini at a Scottish pub?)

She was distraught over the fact that the bleeps over the words had become shorter. It begs the question: why bleep at all? Lisick called for more innovation in swearing.

Hunt noted that cussing began in medieval times and there was some discussion about how profanity would evolve without God. After all, with the advent of cell phones in public places, we’ve become a sound-oriented culture.

Orlowski suggested that if swearing would disappear, there would be a new lexicon of swearing. With the Internet, there was an abundance of swearing. Would swearing lose its impact?

Hunt remarked that in the early 20s, someone proffered the suggestion that swearing will die out, possibly in collusion with the League of Nations.

The moderator asked now that “fuck” was increasingly permissible, what were the new taboos?

Hunt pointed to an interesting 1934 essay called “An Obscenity Symbol,” in which it was pointed out that “fuck” had quite a fascinating history and that certain taboos were instrumental in the formation of other substitutes (“ass” and “cock” were presented as chief examples). When pressed for a substitute for “fuck,” he daringly responded, “Use your imagination.”

The moderator noted how class played into the acceptability of use, singling out the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Hugh Grant utters “fuck” multiple times. There were several examples proffered by Lisick about how swearing is on the decline: people, for example, using “fucking” as a modifier ad nauseum: “My fucking iPod broke down. And I went to the fucking Apple store to fucking replace it.”

Is there any real reason to use “fucking” in this context? There’s simply not as much punch.
Still, as one audience member pointed out, there was a colossal difference between using “Fuck me” versus “Fuck you.” The former was acceptable and used in the context of genuine surprise. The latter was threatening.

Orlowski pointed out that in the UK, it was fairly common to refer to a friend as a “cunt.” He noted that unless you had a watershed, “there’s no distinction between adults and children.” He observed that on British television, one could find all manner of anal sex jokes after 10:00 PM.

Hunt remarked that every book on swearing had a chapter devoted to Scottish swearing.

It was agreed by all the panelists that the lower your stature, the freer one is to swear.

It was then posited whether swearing represented some cheap artistic shock value. Lisick noted that she took great care in her writing to place a “fuck” at the right moment.

She then relayed an anecdote about a friend of hers named Bucky Sinister and realized that she had made a colossal mistake in allowing her mouth to flap off. Now I wouldn’t have revealed his name, but I’m committed to telling the truth here. Besides, Lisick had a troubling tendency to interrupt the other two panelists with inebriated swerves for the mike, all this with staccato bursts of adenoidal slurs, when not propping her slightly drowsy head up with an arm, that quickly got on my nerves (and I suspect several others), particularly when these wild interjections disrupted Hunt and Orlowski when they had things very interesting to say. Further, Lisick prefaced her story with a pugnacious warning, “If anybody is a blogger, fuck you.” Clearly, diplomacy and sangfroid are not Lisick’s strong suits.

Anyway, Sinister met a woman in a bar, got lucky, and, the morning after, found pillows with the words FUCKING COCKSUCKER and the like needlepointed on them. This suggested then that swearing can be creepy and psychotic when applied to a throw pillow.

Hunt suggested that the rise of “fuck” and “cunt” in everyday discourse might have something to do with its inclusion in several dictionaries during the 1970s, thus giving it a sort of mainstream acceptance.

swearingandrewpuzzled.JPGOrlowski, apparently puzzled by Lisick’s response.

Lisick offered another anecdote of a friend of her father’s who suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Throughout the 1960s, the Tourette’s sufferer would repeatedly ramble “Goddam.” During the late 1960s, this had shifted to “Shit” and during the 1970s, it had become “Motherfucker.” She suggested with this empirical tale that the Tourette’s sufferer had subconsciously picked up the words that were suddenly acceptable.

Orlowski offered a rhetorical question: When God was out of swearing, what do we swear by? Is hate speech all we have left?

Hunt noted that up until the 19th century, censorship was limited to subversion or sexuality. But he noted that what the state censors doesn’t necessarily match what is considered profane in everyday conversation.

Just as Hunt was about to cite some interesting examples of this, Lisick cried out, “We’re going to take back the cunt!” to a largely bemused audience reaction, who had not expected this gruff segue. I suppose she assumed the crowd hadn’t heard of Eve Ensler or the many books that had announced this noble goal in the 90s.

Was it possible to eliminate swearing altogether?

Hunt noted that you had to swear to testify. So he didn’t think so.

Lisick suggested that the words would simply shift if you removed the taboo on the current words.

Orlowski offered an interesting example of how soccer referees in the UK were often called wankers or cunts when making a call that the crowd didn’t care for. But he noted that Italy had gone one step further by saying, “That ref’s a cuckold,” which seemed to him a more diabolical thing to impute.

There was some brief discussion of the origin of the word fuck, which, as all scatological philologists know, originates from the German “fleichen.”

Lisick noted that assfucking was the new blowjob.

Hunt remarked that the word “to occupy” once had obscene connotations during the 18th century, before reemerging as a more benign word years later.

I then got a chance to ask a question based on something I had once read in Ashley Montague’s great book, The Anatomy of Swearing. In that book, Montague makes the case that saying “What the fig” instead of “What the fuck” was just as profane. And did the professor (Hunt) have any thoughts on this?

Hunt was very clear to tell me that he was not a professor, but a lecturer. Stanford is apparently quite specific about these things. And I realize now that you can’t always judge whether a man is a professor on his bowtie and worsted suit alone.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of an answer from him, in large part because the audience and panelists alike were mystified by the idea of anyone saying “What the fig.” Although Orlowski did bring up Norman Mailer’s use of “fug” in The Naked and the Dead.

At this point, the lights went down and my notes become illegible. But the crowd was then urged to disperse.

I was then faced with a predicament. How could I leave the room? My right foot was asleep and the soles of my shoes were stuck to the floor.

I asked a gentleman to my left if he could push me.


“I’m afraid I can’t move,” I said. “My feet are stuck to the floor.”

Thankfully, the gentlemen, who seemed to take far too much pleasure in helping out a stranger, did indeed push me. Much harder than I expected. There is now a welt on my left arm from his blow. But this did manage to knock me off balance and release my left foot, which was not asleep, and I was able to pry my right foot off the floor with some effort.

After repeatedly stomping my right foot into tactile sobriety, I made my way downstairs to see what other marvels the Swearing Festival would offer. I figured that a pint of Newcastle would restore my feet to a healthy and agile condition. While obtaining my drink, I met a very beautiful go-go dancer who was being accosted by a gravelly-voiced man who called himself “The Devil” as well as a gentleman who introduced himself as “Curtis Mayfield.” Mayfield proceeded to ogle the poor go-go dancer and I then attempted to save her by getting involved in a tete-a-tete. The Devil and Mayfield, who apparently had some shared yet difficult to parse history of conquests and sundry debauchery that they hoped would impress the go-go dancer, soon became enamored of their respective bravado and backed off. Copious amounts of alcohol will sometimes do this to men. Unfortunately, once the Devil and Mayfield disappeared, so did the go-go dancer, whose name I never learned.

“And I say….fuck that.”

The main center of action was up the staircase, where a screen projected various images of words. Not long after this an ecclesiastical figure appeared and proceeded to deliver a number of benedictions to the audience, concluding each passage with the words, “And I say….fuck that.”

What was particularly interesting about the Swearing Festival was that I noticed that people were using “fuck” far more frequently in their regular vernacular than usual. And that’s saying something, given the denizens you’ll encounter at Edinburgh Castle.

But I had somehow formed the impression that the Swearing Festival would be more theatrical and audience participatory. Yes, it is true that the moderator guy (whose name I still don’t know) did invite the audience in a profane round robin. But the Festival relied far too much on shownig video clips of Rowan Atkinson’s “Headmaster” sketch and George Carlin, playing such obvious music as Prince’s “Sexy MF.”

Co-Ed Prison Sluts.

Then there was a gentleman named Dennis McIntyre and another actor who performed a scene from Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which I know as being a long-running musical that played in Chicago. Unfortunately, the delivery was amateurish. They led the audience in a half-hearted singalong of “Shit Motherfucker” (the chief chorus being “Shit. Motherfucker. Fuck you, you cunt or prick. Blow job. Suck my dick!”). The song didn’t come across as particularly musical or even amusing from a puerile perspective. Or perhaps I was still thinking about the go-go dancer.

Shortly after all this, I took my leave, in large part because it seemed that most of what was prepared involved prerecorded clips from movies and standup acts. And if I wanted to watch television, I could always do that at home. But I’m not much of a television watcher.

When I left, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Hopefully, they got some fucking thing out of it.

[2/21/06 UPDATE: A reader writes in suggesting that I mischaractertized Ms. Lisick. This individual, who is acquainted with Ms. Lisick, notes that Ms. Lisick is quite naturally ebullient. I have never met Ms. Lisick, but if this is the case, then I contend that it is within the realm of possibility that alcohol was not as severe a factor as I have described and that Ms. Lisick and I might share a common personality trait. You see, I’m one of those idiots who tends to interrupt people with the crazed ideas running around in his head — and all this without alcohol. I’ve been working on this problem for years.]

[UPDATE 2: The SFist has a report up.]

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