The Art of the Swear: How Films Turn Profanity into Poetry

Samuel L Jackson

Wicked Little Letters is a film starring Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in which there is a tremendous amount of swearing. A small town is gripped by a spree of vicious hate letters sent to various townspeople containing what for any time would be hardcore swearing but in the 1920s would be beyond shocking.

 Four Weddings and a Funeral
Four Weddings and a Funeral // credit: Working Title Films

Swearing has a long and noble history in films. If we exclude silent movies the first use of swearing in cinema is usually attributed to Gone With The Wind, with a word that was once shocking and now barely registers as swearing. Certainly, some films use swearing poorly but when films get it right it can be wonderfully cathartic, or accurately represent a world where these words are used or just very very funny. Four Weddings and a Funeral has a startling opening scene consisting mainly of Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman saying the word “fuck” over and over again as they realise they’re late. Quentin Tarantino’s work is littered with swear words, however, the best use is perhaps not even in one of his films but in the soundtrack. Pulp Fiction starts with a scene in a diner with two people discussing their next holdup target, and whilst there is swearing in that scene it ends with a titanic storm of swearing from Hunny Bunny, whereas the soundtrack starts with that swearing storm, before moving into Misirlou.

“Jeez, he swears a lot, doesn’t he?” Ray, In Bruges

In Bruges
In Bruges // credit: Universal Pictures

Martin McDonagh has done much in the services of swearing for movies but In Bruges stands out as probably the best. From Ralph Fiennes’s fuck-filled message left at a hotel to Brendan Gleeson going too far – and this is going too far in a gangster film where people are regularly getting shot and are soaked in swearing. It comes down to a conversation between Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes’ characters where Gleeson puts forward the statement that the only change Fiennes’ character is going to make is become “more of a cunt, and have more cunt-fucking kids”. Which is immediately retracted due to bringing someone’s children into their imminent gun battle which is just not on.

“So Just Use The Word M’Kay” Mr Mackey

 South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut
South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut //credit; Paramount Pictures

Matt Stone and Trey Parker are known for swearing and just general controversial behaviour but of course, they have to go one further and put it into song. South Park, Bigger, Longer & Uncut features a number of songs with a tremendous amount of swearing – “It’s Easy M’kay”, “Kyle’s Mom Is a Bitch” and “Uncle Fucker”. Unsurprisingly their parents are not thrilled with all this swearing and perhaps overreact by starting a war with Canada. Not one to rest on their laurels in Team America: World Police they managed to sum up American foreign policy in the song “America, Fuck Yeah!” and the film is an ongoing onslaught of swearing, uncalled-for violence and puppet sex scenes.

“Do You Have To Use So Much Cursing?” The Stranger, The Big Lebowski

Some films have aggressive, insulting swearing; for some, it’s just how they talk. In The Big Lebowski the word “fuck” is used 260 times, but often just as a part of a sentence, not with anger or malice. When The Stranger questions the Dude’s use of swearing his simple response is “what the fuck are you talking about?” He just doesn’t understand. The Wolf of Wall Street has a truly ludicrous amount of swearing but again, much of it is not meant as an insult just simply part of their speech or odd rhetoric.

“Stay Classy, San Diego” Ron Burgundy, Anchorman

Anchorman // Credit: Dreamworks Pictures

American movies have to comply with the MPAA and their idiosyncratic approach to censorship but this limiting factor can lead to great moments. To get a PG-13 rating in America, films can only have one use of the word fuck – used to devastating effect in Anchorman with Ron Burgundy’s news signoff of “Go fuck yourself, San Diego”. The fact that the use of swearing is so limited in the film does increase its impact on an audience likely familiar with Tarantino films, and we get a small sense of what such a sentence uttered on the news would have.

“Sorry I Know You Disapprove Of Swearing” – Malcolm Tucker, The Thick Of It

The Thick Of It // Credit: BBC

A minor note to perhaps the greatest example in television of swearing – The Thick Of It – said to have a swearing consultant who perhaps came up with this fantastic outburst “Feet off the furniture you Oxbridge twat, you’re not in a punt now.”. Then, of course, there is the Shakespearean very aggressive swearing of Succession such as “Fuck you, too, you pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold. Fucking silver-spoon asshole.” And if Succession’s swearing is Shakespearean then Curb Your Enthusiasm’s is a riotous Noel Coward. One of its great scenes is the finale to Season 3 where to show solidarity with a person suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome Larry David leads a restaurant in a expanding chant of swearing culminating in “Fuck you, you car wash cunt”.

Also Read: The Tarantino Crossover That Never Happened – Django & Zorro

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.