Home / General / Pay attention or I’ll **** you up, you little ****.

Pay attention or I’ll **** you up, you little ****.


Though I suppose this would get me fired in Arizona, I’ll admit that I strategically punctuate my lesson plans with profanity. That guy in the back of the class who thinks he failed his engineering midterm yesterday and spent all night fretting about it instead of sleeping? He’s drifting off — and would be, no matter what time it was or class he was attending. How can I keep him awake?


Don’t believe me? Ask science:

The unique emotional power of taboo language reflects properties that affect cognitive processes like memory and attention. Cursing is unlike other forms of speech; it is more physically arousing, as evidenced through physiological responses such as skin conductance or neural activity such as amygdala activation (Jay, 2003; Jay, Harris, & King, in press).

The image accompanying that post also caught my attention, as it reminded me of something I wrote a few years back but feel all the more strongly about now: the language of Deadwood. I’ll put it below the fold, though, as this is a family blog, but I’ll note that the best part about what I wrote may well be one of the comments. So:

Why does this sentence work?

Ellsworth: I’ll tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.

My best guess:

The “I’ll tell you what” is conventional enough.  Only, which convention does it partake of here?  Is it the quiet, conspiratorial “I’ll tell you what” salesmen whisper when they want to do us a favor and throw in the top coat for an extra $400?  (They’ll have to run it by their manager.) If it is, the “tell” and “what,” the speech and its content, would be emphasized; the “I” and “you” would sink, unstressed, in order to abnegate responsibility for the fucking “I’m” about to do to “you.” That doesn’t seem to work.

So, how about the one in which the stresses fall drunkenly on the first and third beats?  “I’ll tell you what” embraces the responsibility for the beating “I” declare, for all to hear, that “I’m” gonna put on “you.” This works much, much better.  Such statements should, by law or enforced custom, incite terrible violence … only this one doesn’t.

Instead, we’re treated to a somber but forceful self-introspection.  Ellsworth, we learn, “fucked [his] life up flatter than hammered shit.” Look at mess of alliteration and assonance there.  We have the f sounds stumbling in and out of “fucked,” “life” and “flatter.” Notice how the poetic trickery staples the phrase together.  The  occurs in “fucked” and draws “life” and “up” together, almost into a single word (li-fəp), uniting life up with that what’s been fucked.  You know, life.

The third f introduces the next sound, what linguists call the “near-open, front unrounded”) æ which occurs in the word which best describes it: “flat.”  The flæ pulls together the alliterative fs with the assonant æs.  (It also flips the l and f sounds of “life up,” a mirroring which’ll manifest thematically half a second later.)  The repetition of the internal æ does what it describes: it hammers.

The æææ drives home the content of the phrase, too.  He may have “fucked up [his] life,” but he did so methodically and with force, rendering it “flatter than hammered” … and at this point we expect something worthy of the assonant pounding it just took.  I’m not sure why we do, since the phrase itself is difficult to imagine: how do you fuck up something flat?  Begs the question:

How do you fuck it up flatter?

The image we have at this point in the sentence is one of drunk declaration; of the man who makes it, we sense that he’s ruined his life through long effort, through the labor evoked by the mention and soundscape of hammering.  So we expect the object on the anvil, so to speak, will be worthy of the beating it’s taking.  Something substantial, you know, dull-red and ready for a vicious forging.

Instead, we get “shit.” That’s been “hammered” flat, no less. Suddenly, the entire sentence turns on its head.  The rugged worker, ruined by his steady toil, turns out to have been hammering shit.  Those forceful æs suddely sound as tinny as the i in shit.

It’s pound, pound. pound, clank.  Thud, thud, thud, tick.  Our brains skip a beat.  In short, our impression of Ellsworth changes from proud prospector to tedious slattern in the space of a sentence.

When he realizes his mistake, he pulls back and changes course. “But,” he says, and mouths another, equally conventional, opening statement.  Unlike the threating “I’ll tell you what,” however, “I stand before you today” belongs to the rhetoric of the public confessional.  No one stands before anyone, today or any other day, unless they’ve come to repent (or pretend to).  Realizing the bluster of “I’ll tell you what” has come to naught, he decides to fluff his feathers Protestant-style with a declaration of sins past.

As with all such declarations, this one suggests the current superiority of the speaker to his audience.  Do they stand before the crowd, listing their iniquities for strangers to judge?  No, they don’t.  They stand there, comfortable, quiet in their sin.  But the speaker, in high Protestant-style, aims to clear his name.  In public.  He is no Catholic, absolved in isolation.  He has a direct relation to God and a firm commitment to the community.  Just like Milton.

Who, incidentally, Ellsworth suddenly channels: “I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.” The unnecessary and archaic “beholden” thrusts Milton in your mind, as does the pejoratively adjectival “human.” This “human” reeks of “mere.” God will judge him, it suggests, not some human authority. Given the implicit insult of “human,” then, we expect something exalted, like “authorty,” to follow.  Instead, we’re treated to “cocksucker.”

The dissonance is jarring.  We may not think it consciously, but somewhere, our brains know “cocksucker” ain’t sufficiently exalted to be diminished so.  We wonder what, exactly, is lower than a “human cocksucker.” We imagine the angelic host on its knees, The Great Chain of Being collapsing before our eyes.  Links collide with unlike links and ungodly things starting slouching, waiting to be born …

… and then we realize: This, kids, is literature.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • mark f

    The first time I remember reading anything by you, it was this post. I think I found the link in an Unfogged comment.

    Not being anything like an expert political scientist or historian, I had Deadwood in mind as I made my way through Seeing Like a State and, especially relating to this quote from Ellsworth, The Art of Not Being Governed. I think I need to make time to go through the series again.

    • SEK

      That post began as a comment on Unfogged, way back in the day. Strange to think of myself as a “comment producer” instead of a “content producer,” but I’m old now. Point being:

      You should watch Deadwood again. I did so over the Christmas break under the delusion that I might be able to teach it, but there were just too many hurdles: profanity, nudity, and, well, the language. Freshmen just aren’t able to process it.

      • mark f

        It’s easily my favorite show. Unfortunately the wife can’t take the violence, and there are only so many non-shared entertainment hours in the day.

  • Jager

    When I was went through US Army basic training in the 60’s the drill instructors were highly skilled in the selective use of profanity as a motivation tool.

    For example: “I’d like you fucking people to understand one thing and do not ever fucking forget it! I’ll never step on your dick, but I god damn well gaurentee you will, do you understand me?

    Yes, sgt!

    What did you sorry, little hairless pussies just say? Because I can’t hear you.


    That’s better, but you still sound like a fucking bunch of little girls. Fall Out!

    • Unfortunate.

    • LKS

      Misogyny is always a skillful and effective attention-getter. Alas.

    • Tom M

      Having attended 12 years of Catholic school, including an all male high school ( what a mistake that was), when I enlisted in the Navy I found my profanity skills much more honed than the DI.
      I have to say, though, that his ability to insert “fuck” into any polysyllabic usage was impressive.

  • blowback

    I used to work for an America company and nothing worked better when presenting to the Americans than tossing in the odd profanity now and then. For some reason, that profanity mostly had to be “fuck” or its derivatives; cunt and prick never seemed to work as well. However, bollocks, bugger and screwed also seemed to be acceptable.

  • Reilly

    Cursing is unlike other forms of speech; it is more physically arousing, as evidenced through physiological responses such as skin conductance or neural activity such as amygdala activation

    Testimony from the It Ain’t Kinky, It’s Science! file:
    The other night my girlfriend says to me “Hey lover, you just don’t seem that into me tonight.”
    “Well” I replied, “Why don’t you try and activate my amygdala?”
    She sits up looking all angry and says “I don’t know what a f***in’ amy-goddamn-dala is, what the motherf***er looks like or where to find that lame s***, so how the f*** am I supposed to activate it?”
    “Just like that, baby”, I said. “Just like that.”

  • rea

    I don’t know about your state, but here in Michigan you could be convicted of a misdemeanor. It doesn’t matter whether you are tteaching a class, or falling out of a canoe.

    Although, having said that, talking about the language employed in Deadwood might not qualify as using profanity–use/mention distinction.

    • rea

      Actually I guess, I misremembered the outcome of the case I linked, and it turns out, you couldn’t be convicted.

      • Not WC Fields

        … in case I fall out of a canoe, which I also keep handy

    • Adam

      In Rhode Island you could be fined “not exceeding five dollars“.


    This observation — your observation — on the Shakespearean lyricism of this Deadwood dialogue — is in my humble opinion, the greatest blog post in the history of blogiterature, and is what made me a regular reader of this blog. That and I always liked the Zevon song anyway. Bravo Zulu.

  • Colin

    When I give the “don’t plagiarize” lecture, I close by saying “Don’t fuck with me on this one.” The selective (and, at that point in the semester, first-time) use of the word is remarkably (and intentionally) effective.

  • LKS

    Because, you know, the ONLY place college students will ever hear profanity is in the classroom.

  • Arizona sure does come up with some interesting laws.

    I guess it would get me out of having to teach Chatterley in the Banned Books class, to be fair. Except it would also make the rest of the class kinda short, what with the utter inability to teach pretty much the entirety of modern literature and so forth.

    • Arizona sure does come up with some interesting laws.

      You spelled “unconscionably shitty” wrong.

  • this is a family blog

    Since fuckin’ when?

  • I was pleasantly surprised to find other people who consciously use cursing /slang as a teaching tool.
    Twenty years ago I taught inner city teenagers about birth control, planning, responsibility, options and how their bodies work. I don’t remember every using “fuck” but I did use slang and street talk. Since I was an older white woman nurse in a a clinic for cash strapped children. my language came as a shock. I wasn’t talking “white”. There was always a ripple of giggling and a sitting up posture of more attention. More and more girls came to the “show” to hear “Miss Louise” I think I might have done some good.
    Some years after I retired a sturdy policewoman stopped me in an MVA parking lot,and asked me if I used to work in a particular downtown clinic. She had recognized me and even remembered my name. We chatted. She also used standard English without jargon.

  • bartkid

    So, he’s beholden to a non-human one?

It is main inner container footer text