Draft:  Speaking Crudely

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 ‘Insults and Courtesy’

(A Bit of Ordinary Language

 Existentialism, in which I mention the ‘F---’ word)



            It’s a familiar idea that features of everyday language may carry interesting embedded philosophical premises.  This paper will reflect on the implications of some standard ways we seek to offend or insult someone, and some features of what it is to speak courteously.  The central thesis of this essay is that we insult people by denying their freedom, and we are courteous when we affirm it. There are lots of counter-examples: some of these —not all – subtly support the thesis in interesting ways. A secondary thesis is that inhibited speech represents a willful constraint of ones freedom, and uninhibited speech willfully proclaims ones freedom.  A third and inter-related thesis emphasizes the difference between being active or passive, between what you do and what happens to you. In sum, speaking crudely and speaking politely are largely about freedom.  My method in this paper consists in trying to tease out some rough implications of speaking with the aim of insulting someone, and speaking with the aim of being courteous.  If I have a method here it is somewhat in the tradition of what John Austin hesitated to call ‘linguistic phenomenology.’  (Rather a mouthful, he said.)[1]  The (tentative) conclusions I draw resemble some key features of Existentialist philosophy.  This is, I suppose, an essay in Ordinary Language Existentialism.

            Many of us would like nothing better than to have sex and have it soon.  Why is it, then, that we are insulted if someone says ‘F___ you!’ when that’s just what we’ve been hoping for?  And why do I suppose that I will not be insulting to you, my audience, if I say ‘F___ you!’ or refer to ‘the F___ word’, but run a risk of offending if I say, ‘Fuck you.’  It’s interesting that among the unspeakable imprecations this is one of the most popular and most sure to offend.  Putting aside those insults which show thought, originality and sophistication, and considering just the clichés of verbal assault, this one is probably tops.  But it’s about sex, something we like and seek, would be happy to get (or have, or do).   Not infrequently, under different circumstances, it’s something we might not mind having –doing-- with the very person who’s said the dreadful words.  It looks like someone’s wishing on us pretty much what we wished for ourselves.  So what’s the insult? I think it’s the sense that the  fucking should happen to you, whether you like it or not.  It is one thing for you to seek out an intimate experience, and quite another for it to happen to you regardless your say-so. Of course there are plenty of other dimensions to the remark which make it insulting.  Context is crucial.  So is tone of voice. Generally, the ‘f__ word’ is understood to be off-limits, crude, taboo, and it is, besides, a plainly harsh word, notoriously a main player in the language games of speaking with the aim of being  offensive.  But I want to highlight the feature of your passivity, the denial and violation of your freedom. 

            The role of rendering you passive can be seen in relatively more tame insults, like ‘screw you’ and ‘get laid’, though plenty of other insulting features, and the tone of harshness, remain.  With ‘up yours’ we lose the feature of desirability (putting aside those with a penchant for buggery), and by the time we get to ‘go to hell’ we are clearly in the territory of the unwanted. Merely willing that something should happen to someone is hardly enough to make for an insult, or we would never tell someone to ‘have a nice day’.  But staying a bit with things desired, given how hard I’ve tried to be an ‘egghead,’ why might I take offense at your calling me one?  Even ‘intellectual’ might be understood be a put-down.  Just about anything can be said with a sneer.  But besides that, there’s the implication that I’m stuck with being an egghead, that I’m hopelessly and pathetically stuck with it.  In that regard you could put me down with labels for things ordinarily highly prized – being smart or handsome or part of some sort of elite.  Roughly, with lots of exceptions, we don’t like to be stuck with a label.

            Beside context, and beside how it’s said, who does the labeling is mighty important.  I can call myself an egghead, or ancient, an old fart, or chubby, or a dummy, but you’d better be careful.  A Black man can call himself a ‘Nigger,’ a no-nonsense woman call herself a ‘bitch,’ a gay man call himself a ‘fag’, and as self-imposed descriptions these may be jarring but they are not insults.  Why can a member of a racial group use a slang term about that group that would be offensive if said by an outsider?  Part of the answer, I think, is a difference between a description and a proclamation.  When you label me you seem to confine me with your description; when I label myself it is self-imposed, and it’s likely to carry with it the flavor of a boast, a spirit of defiance, and something like the expression of resolve toward the future. Maybe I don’t have a commitment to being chubby, but I do have one toward being an egghead.  With terms routinely derogatory the spirit of defiance comes through clearly.  It need not be gratuitous defiance (‘You can’t fire me – I quit!’).  It need not be a confession of defeat (‘It’s true: I’m a dolt!’).  It may be a truly prideful proclamation.  (‘You’re damned right I’m a liberal!’)

            My proposal is this:  to proclaim something about myself is (or is likely to be) an assertion of freedom.  To be labeled as something by you is to be stuck with it, pinned down: my freedom is denied. More generally, to insult me is – often enough to be interesting—to deny my freedom. 

            Consider the following rough categories of insults, with examples: 


§      Intelligence:  you are stupid,  a moron,  an imbecile

§      Sanity and maturity: you are out of your mind; are you nuts, crazy, kook, senile, child, baby

§      Sickness: You are sick, gross, a pervert, ill.  Also, responses of nausea: you make me sick, want to puke, etc.. 

§      Scatological comparisons:  You piece of shit.  You stink! Piss on you!  Ass-hole.

§      Heritage, slurs against parents: son of a bitch,  bastard,

§      Breeding, sophistication, class:  low-life, redneck, hick, snob, rich-bitch, white trash, yuppie, bum, high and mighty, middle-class,

§      Race: derogatory reference to ethnicity:  Kike, Wop, Gook, Spic

§      Gender and genitalia: slang or non-slang put-downs based on gender: bitch, bastard, dick, prick, cunt, pussy, broad, chick

§      Sexual inclination: fag, fagot, queer, dike, butch

§      Appearance: ugly, fat, skinny, sawed-off

§      Deformity: gimp, weirdo, four-eyes

§      Lack of skill or ability:  clumsy oaf

§      Moral censure: evil, liar,

§      Psychological diagnoses: neurotic, psychotic, borderline, paranoid

§      Character traits generally:  selfish, conceited, vain, self-centered, arrogant, obnoxious

§      Religious disrespect and disrespect generally: damnation, taking the Lord’s name in vain, disparaging patriotic or other identifications 


            An interesting thing about this rough list of insult categories is that several headings refer to conditions not under ones control.  You can’t help it if you’re not too bright.  Insanity is a defense.  Sickness is something we undergo.  You didn’t ask to be born, had little say about your background, no choice of ethnicity or gender, height, frame, vision, coordination, maybe not much choice of sexual inclination.  What’s striking here is that the language with which we mingle insult and fault-finding is pretty much the same as the language with which we would frame an excuse.  The bulk of the entries on this list are, passive conditions which one might think would serve to excuse. This is interesting: we fault people with the very sorts of terms which might serve to excuse them!  You’d think we’d forgive someone for what they do if we think it’s because they are “sick,” yet calling someone sick is among the harshest of condemnations. There’s something of a continuum here from crude insults to measured criticism, and it coincides with a continuum ranging from the purely derogatory  to facts about you which are beyond your control.  We insult people by denying their freedom.

            Again, we insult people by denying their freedom, and it is also by that route that we excuse them.  This suggests to me that we may sometimes mix up the connection between denying agency and assigning blame.  On the face of it, we don’t blame you for what we think you couldn’t help.  But perhaps we get this turned around.  Because there are reasons for empathy and compassion we don’t elect to blame you.  So we portray you within a language game of passivity. We say you couldn’t help it because we are disinclined to blame you, though it comes out as if we don’t blame you because you couldn’t help it. Often when we say you couldn’t help being short-tempered, or giving in  to temptation, or a bit unreasonable, what we mean is that it would be too harsh and too insensitive to the realities of being human to insist on highlighting your role as an agent.  We begin to see more clearly than usual how much insulting, blaming, and excusing all reveal how extensively we construct the world with words that masquerade as descriptions.

            Attributions of sickness deserve special mention.  One could hardly think of a bodily metaphor that better captures utter rejection than that you are so sick that it makes me sick.  How much more fully could one express the degree to which something is not wanted than to say it’s something one is inclined to vomit?  This is an insult that lives up to my central thesis and goes a step beyond.  To say you are sick is to label you with a condition beyond your control.  More so, to say you are sickening.  To underscore further how deeply I wish to insult you, I allow that my own freedom is compromised: your condition is so extreme that it produces a condition in me that is beyond my control.  A rarely noticed nuance here is worth mentioning.  Nausea is about getting rid of something that is in me.  So when I say ‘you make me sick’ I may betray the possibility that what I so dislike in you is something I fear resides, as well, in myself.  The passion with which we condemn the pervert may draw from what Freud regarded as our own polymorphous perversity.

            Competing with vomit for metaphors of rejection, we need to consider shit and the scatological insults generally.  Insults are replete with excremental comparisons and references to the sphincter muscles which dose these things out.  At first blush one might think that whereas intercourse is something we wish for, excrement is not.  We get rid of excrement; it has no redeeming value and no prospect of changing; to compare you to a piece of shit certainly is insulting in a lot of ways, not the least of which is to castigate you as utterly suitable for rejection and as having absolutely no prospects for being any different. 

            Moving ahead on my list of varieties of insults, when we call someone evil or a liar we seem to be treating them as a free agent as well: what does this do to my central thesis? Two points here.  In general, to the degree that we are telling the truth about someone, we are not so much insulting them as we are simply telling the truth.  It is a general (though not universal) characteristic of insults that the more they approach the patently crude insult cliché’s end of a continuum—e.g., ‘fuck you, you piece of shit’—the less seriously they recommend an activity or a literal comparison.  Conversely, the less seriously we wield our adjectives and adverbs, the more likely we are aiming to insult.  So I’ll stick to my thesis here:  when I insult you by calling you evil or a liar, it’s because I’m going beyond what you do to sketch a caricature of your destiny.  So too with the insulting versus fairly descriptive use of psychological diagnostic terms.  If I really think you are neurotic I may not be insulting you by saying as much.  The point continues to hold as we move to the fairly tame end of the insult to description spectrum. If I call you selfish or obnoxious, we surely want to consider the possibility that it’s just plain true.   Character traits presumably refer to behavioral dispositions which do fall within the category of agency.  However, as labels for enduring traits these—too—seek to sum up ‘how you are’ (like it or not).  Parents are advised to fault the action and not the person. ‘I accept you and who you are, even though I don’t approve of what you did. This seems to maintain courtesy and to avoid insulting labeling.  ‘You are lying’ is easier to take than ‘you’re a liar.’  One can go too far with this purported non-judgmental-ness, since if the ascription of character traits is to have any meaning at all it will refer to the things one routinely does. Sometimes the shoe fits.  I insult you when I jam  a ‘shoe’ on you which neither fits who you are nor what you want to be.

            This central thesis perhaps will have been plain and convincing from the start. .  ‘F___ you!’ and ‘screw you’ are a sort of verbal rape. Apart from many other reasons for the word ‘fuck’ being off-limits, and apart from it’s being otherwise clear from context and intonation that it’s an insult, the insult insults by depriving you of any say regarding what happens to you.  You are being dismissed as a person.  This feature of ‘dismissal’ remains even where a bit of the voluntary is left to you, as in ‘go to hell’, ‘go fly a kite’, and ‘go jump in the lake’.  ‘To hell with you’ more clearly dispenses with residual autonomy.       

            Last on my list, how do cursing and allusions to religious doctrines figure into insulting language?  ‘Damn you’ and ‘go to hell’ pretty plainly fit with my general thesis about derogating your freedom, but how well does the thesis hold up for blasphemous language that isn’t directly about you, such as ‘damn it!,’ ‘God damn it!’,  ‘Christ Almighty!’, ‘Jesus Christ!’ and the like?  Similar questions arise in the case of insulting your country, your patriotic alliances.  While clearly an attack on your identification and values, and clearly part of speech generally understood as intentionally offensive on various grounds, these kinds of remarks do not seem, exactly, to be denying your freedom.  Again, I think we can salvage my central thesis, though not as neatly as one might wish.  First, if I say ‘God damn it’ knowing that you know that saying such a thing is supposed to be provocative, it is supposed to flaunt my nasty mood with intentional disregard for whether you like it or not, then it’s a species of ‘fuck you’.  Secondly—and this is perhaps just an extension of the first point—if I happen to know that you take seriously the religious or patriotic values that render some utterances blasphemous then I am, in a way, treating you as stuck with, confined by those values, so that my insult is, indeed, of a piece with disrespecting your freedom.  By insulting features of your religion I am assuming something about who/how you are and then assailing you based on that information.  If I know you wouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain then I know I can offend you by my doing so.  Indeed, here is a shortcut to a very general thesis about the nature of insults, which is that if there is anything at all that I know you will find offensive, for whatever reason, then I am in a position to offend you by saying that thing just because I know it will offend you, i.e., impose something on you against your will.


            Let’s turn to courtesy.  If there is a central theme to speaking courteously, I think it consists in a deferential acknowledgement of the autonomy of the other.  If you are standing in a line where I need to walk through, I’ll say ‘would you mind if I got by here?’  Would you is derived from ‘will you’.  It’s about what you will.  Consider:

Would you___?

Could you___?


With your permission (Spanish)

Would you do me the favor of____ (Spanish)

If it pleaseth your majesty (antiquated)

If you please (French)

If you would be so kind___

Would it be all right with you if___

I wonder if you could____

I wonder if you would___

Would you mind if____

Do you think I could____


The bottom line:  it’s up to you.—your will, your way, your wishes, your ability, your convenience, your preference.  Courtesy is about deferring to the other person’s will.  There are interesting borderline cases here, e.g. the ‘could’ formulations (along with ‘I wonder if it would be possible’)  On occasion one hears this sort of rude exchange:   One chap says, ‘Could I get through here please?’ The other, a smart-aleck, replies ‘You could, but no, you can’t.’ The idea is, yes to the ‘can’ of physical possibility but no to the ‘may’ of authorization; yes, you can do it, but no, you may not: ability granted, permission denied.  Of course, this is a rude exchange. But why is ‘could you?’ a less elegant variant of ‘would you?’ and what do these have in common with ‘I wonder if you could’?  If you are standing in a line where I need to walk through, I’ll say ‘would you mind if I got by here?’  Why put it that way?  Why do we say ‘please,’ and why do we sometimes favor ‘Would you pass me the salt, please?’ and other times opt for ‘could you’?  All are tentative, all are deferential, all seek to be non-presumptuous, all seek, basically, to leave it up to you. Even ‘would you?’ is a bit presumptuous, because it seems to require you to make a response.  When you get something in the mail with an ‘’R.S.V.P’ on it --- French for ‘respond, if you please’ there is pressure to respond despite the rider ‘if you please.’  By the time we get to ‘would you’ the pressure is on, and courtesy runs contrary to pressure.  So ‘could you’ lays the groundwork for ‘would you’ and with luck one doesn’t have to push the request to that level.  So too with ‘I wonder if you could___’.  Before I am so imposing as to ask if you would, I’ll ask if you could, and before I’ll be so imposing as to ask if you could, I’ll ‘wonder’ if you could. 

            If courtesy is about deference to your will, it is also about restraint.  This brings us to another curious and even amusing feature of polite speech.  If one were to present a caricature of ‘niceness’ it might include the likes of:  ‘gosh’, ‘golly’, ‘geez’, ‘shucks’, ‘fudge’, ‘drat’, ‘goll-darn’,  ‘son-of-a gun’.  It doesn’t take much to detect the terms that are suppressed: Jesus, shit, fuck, damn, God-damn, son-of-a-bitch. It’s a little hard to see why ‘God damn’ is taking the Lord’s name in vain, and ‘gosh darn’ is not.  No one will miss what’s alluded to with ‘F--- you’ or ‘the F--- word’, and ‘may you be the unwilling recipient of intercourse’ will never have the punch that ‘fuck you’ has.  Why so?  If it were a mere matter of content these efforts to clean it up with cuteness would be just silly. If it were just a matter of attributing degrading conditions to someone, one could easily think of worse than ‘God damn you’ or ‘fuck you’.  But the forbidden words have a track record of being relegated to the offensive; what makes them offensive is that they are generally thought to be offensive.  Typically the very point of using these terms is to be offensively shocking. The squeaky-clean nicy-nice substitutions make a show of trying to be nice.  Even though the implied content is about the same, an effort is made to be deferential to the will and values of others. When in the mood to be discourteous I am not willing to inhibit myself, and when I am in the mood to be courteous I am at pains to be inhibited, in deference to you and your autonomy.  We saw this point before:  Cursing violates you even when it’s not about you; restraint is a courtesy to the other even when it is about things which might, in principle, be offensive. 

            Lest I sound like an advocate of syrupy speech, let me join Nietzsche and Freud in pointing out that we pay a price for straining at self-restraint.  My guess is that excessive efforts to clean up my language in deference to you may be at the expense of a more authentic expression of myself, a dis-acknowledging of my own freedom, my own style.  Indirectness begets indirectness.  I have to wonder: in working so hard to organize myself around what you would like to hear, am I implying that you lack the capacity to handle me and the freedom I would proclaim were I to express myself in a less inhibited fashion?  Arguably, I would respect your autonomy more were I to assume that you had the capacity to handle mine.


            As stated at the outset, my third and inter-related thesis about insults and courtesy comes from emphasizing the difference between being active or passive, between what you do and what happens to you.  This really is to repeat what I have already proposed, running through the bulk of what has been advanced so far. We are courteous to people when we are deferential to their will, and we excuse people sometimes and insult them at others when we portray them as victims.  Let me, then, sum up with a sketch of that goes on when we insult someone with crude speech.  If I insult you with crude speech I will likely be doing the following things:   I disrespect your will, your autonomy, your freedom.  I employ language already regarded—for whatever reasons—as being offensive, and I seek to offend you with that language by telling you who (or what) you are in a way that denies you the right or capacity to say for yourself.  I indulge myself in language notoriously uninhibited, subserviating your will to mine by faulting you for conditions that are not your fault, and portraying you as the victim of your own nature. 

            I shall conclude by testing my sketch against a sample of a commonplace cliché foul-mouthed insult.  The best—or worst—I can do as I review crude insults I have repeatedly heard is:  ‘You stupid cock-sucking mother-fucking son of a bitch.’  Let us reflect on this one. It holds much of potential philosophical interest.  It’s nasty, crude, unimaginative, and fairly common.  It is presumably an instance of a male insulting another male. The attribution ‘stupid’ fits with the central thesis that you are being violated with an attribution over which you have no control.  While you might, in principle, be excused for what you do out of stupidity, this is clearly not offered as any sort of excuse.  ‘Cock-sucking’ is an interesting attribution because it’s a verb, it implies agency, hence seems to run against my contention that insults attribute passivity.  However, recall the earlier generalization that the cruder the insult the less the concern for truth.  Whether or not the attribution of the verb in this case happens to be true, we can assume that generally it is not known to be true by the person doing the insulting.  It might be a lucky guess.  On a more psychodynamic level, we might speculate that the gay-bashing accuser is unwittingly revealing homosexual impulses of his own.  Suck-ers need suck-ees, after all.  The lurking implication, I think, is that the whimsical attribution to the other is rooted in a repressed wish of ones own.  A similar mingling of unconscious factors goes with ‘mother-fucker’.  This is, after all, a rather curious thing to say of someone.  It is obviously intended to degrade the accused, along with his mother, and perhaps one has no need of a darkly Freudian account to see the degradation.  But in case I have any Freudian fellow-travelers, the implication is that the accused manages to do what all of us secretly wished to do in infancy.  So is this an attribution of passivity or activity?  It looks like a bit of each.  It almost says ‘you do what at some deep level I would like to do; but I wouldn’t do it and I don’t do it, because I free to not do it, and you do because you are stuck with your perversion, and your mother is no better.’  Finally, consider ‘son of a bitch’.  To be honest, this one poses a challenge to my account.  On the face of it, this seems to attribute to you a condition beyond your control, namely a familiar slur of your heritage.  It is not seriously intended as a description of a real state of affairs; no one thinks you have canine ancestors.  You are being told ‘who you are’, like it or not, and you are, it seems, the recipient of a condition wherein you have no agency.  It’s this last that’s the rub.  I think that in actual everyday usage when we call someone a bitch, a bastard, or the offspring of such, and contrary to the surface grammar, we are cursing them for things they’ve done.  So caution is in order: it’s not always easy to sort out the categories of activity and passivity to where it’s entirely clear which is being used.

            Elsewhere[2] I have argued that the explanation of human action is well served by the everyday language of desires, intentions, beliefs, and the like, and that built into these ‘language games’ is a notion of agency that is incompatible with causal explanation.  Positions like mine have sometimes been condescendingly dismissed  as ‘folk psychology’.  My opinion is that everyday speech is rich with wisdom about philosophical and psychological matters.  So to those who would prefer that serious efforts to understand persons be cast in terms of a more ‘scientific’ cast—scrapping implications of freedom in favor of explanations of a causal sort—I would urge that we cannot do so without giving up an extremely large part of how we understand one-another as human beings.  In particular, we would have to embrace a way of talking which people find insulting, and, at the same time, give up much of what it takes to be courteous.





Michael Russell

December 7, 2003




[1] Austin, John,  “A Plea for Excuses,” in Collected Papers, p. 130.

[2] Russell, J. Michael, “Desires Don’t Cause Actions,”, The Journal Of Mind And Behavior, Winter 1984 pp. 1‑10.