A Socialite’s Guide to the F-Bomb! Warning: Inappropriate words are found in this article—as well as guidance for their most effective and stylish use. 🙁
Many years ago, when Arianna Stassinopoulos (long before her marriage to the fortunate Mr. Huffington) had just arrived in New York and was ascending the silken pole of American society with the agility of a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, she decided to give a party. For some inexplicable reason she invited me and my husband, expat Brits, as well as our friends Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. The apartment was grand, the hors d’oeuvres (newborn potatoes stuffed with beluga) delicious, the champagne (Krug) intoxicating, and the guest list glittering. It promised to be one of those magical New York evenings we used to fantasize about in dingy old London. Except that it didn’t quite turn out that way. How it all began, I can’t quite recall. It is entirely possible that Christopher and Martin may have had one or two cocktails before they arrived, but what’s certain is that they had been reading their favorite periodical, the utterly disgusting Screw magazine (owned and edited by the late, great Al Goldstein), and one memorably vulgar headline that is truly unprintable—let’s just say it involved unrefined ladies frolicking in a fountain of bodily fluid produced by young men at certain moments of extreme exuberance—had struck both of them as worth repeating loudly and several times, in between outbursts of uncontrollable laughter. Unable to remain immune to their high spirits, my husband and I found ourselves joining in the merriment, until a few moments later when we were all asked, quite politely, to leave the party and, somewhat to our surprise, found ourselves standing in the rain on Park Avenue. It was by any standard a ludicrous and not especially edifying episode. Our behavior was no doubt offensive to some people, but whenever I think back to it I can’t help smiling at this strange culture clash between a band of raffish, louche Brits and the mores of the more conventional and, dare I say it, uptight inhabitants of what might be called New York society. Despite conventional wisdom—so often wrong, in my experience—there’s far more of what one might call “expletive entitlement” among a certain class of Brits than there is among their equivalent in America. It may have something to do with the long-reaching, withered, but still powerful influence of Puritanism here, as opposed to the far more iconoclastic and robust Anglo-Saxon roots and habits of the English. However, now that I’ve lived in America for more than 30 years (my mouth as foul as ever), I often reflect on the mystery of how, when, and why some people not only get away with using certain distinctly risqué words but succeed in doing it in a way that actually ends up being charming, eloquent, amusing, and even endearing. Though perhaps not always elegant. Sometimes expletives are just entertaining and efficacious, and this is particularly true for people in positions of power—which, by its very nature, has a way of conferring the Bad Mouthkeeping Seal of Approval on anything a person chooses to say. When King George V was suffering from the disease that eventually finished him off, his doctor politely suggested a spell beside the sea in Bognor, to which His Majesty succinctly replied, “Bugger Bognor.” Many presidents—Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ, Clinton—have been famously free with expletives, but Johnson probably took first prize in that particular contest when he reputedly said, “What Nixon has done for the U.S. is what pantyhose did for finger fucking.” And then of course there’s good old Joe Biden, overheard congratulating President Obama on the signing of healthcare legislation with, “This is a huge fucking deal.” The president didn’t look especially amused, but he had already put up with Rahm Emanuel’s filthy mouth for several years, so I suppose he’d gotten used to it. Not that Obama lacks a sense of humor when it comes to Emanuel’s freewheeling use of the English language. Witness the time (on the eve of Mother’s Day, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner) when he remarked, “This is a tough holiday for Rahm. He’s not used to saying the word day after mother.”
I hesitate to bring up the C-word, but when it comes to the art of swearing elegantly, I don’t think you can totally ignore class. Maybe it’s the tone of voice, maybe it’s the security of belonging to the upper echelons of the social pyramid, maybe it’s knowing not to use that particular weapon too frequently, maybe it’s just the surprise factor of a word coming from the mouth of a gentleman lunching at the Knickerbocker Club, but there it is, the effing elephant in the drawing room. I’ll never forget going to stay with an elderly and extremely waspy (in both senses of the word) lady at her Downton Abbey–like establishment in Newport and wondering how I was going to get through two whole days of struggling to keep my vocabulary in check. I needn’t have bothered, because at dinner the first night my hostess complained about a recent houseguest—a writer—who had given her housekeeper one of his books when he left instead of the customary envelope of crisp bills. “A total idiot. Why on earth would she want one of his boring old books when I know for a fact she’s never read one in her life? He should have left her a fucking tip instead.” Right on, lady. I couldn’t have put it better myself. It goes without saying that not all swearing is equal. The problem, in my admittedly biased opinion, is not the words themselves but rather the way in which they are used. Loud, vicious, aggressive, abusive, intimidating, angry, hostile, or continual swearing is never, ever acceptable in any society. But if you know how to judge your audience, keep your voice down, have a sense of humor (don’t forget to smile), and, above all, use it sparingly (as with jewelry or makeup, less is always more), you can get away with just about anything. It may seem like a paradox, but the very same words that would get you banished forever from your maiden aunt’s heart, home, and, most important, will can have the power to inspire laughter and a sense of instant camaraderie with others. How about the truck driver who nearly ran me down on Madison Avenue? With the Big Mack bearing down on me, I quite naturally, in good New York style, shouted, “Fuck you,” at him, to which he instantly replied, “You promise?” As a huge smile spread across his handsome features, what could I do but laugh—and melt? If he’d asked me out for a drink I would have gone. Swearing with panache has always been associated, in my mind at least, with a willingness to take risks, and not just linguistic ones. It’s rebellion against convention and having the confidence not to care what people think. To paraphrase Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who famously had a needlepoint cushion on her sofa that read, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me”: If you have mastered the art of cursing like an elegant sailor, you will always have a place at my goddamn dinner table. Some people not only get away with using risqué words, they do it in a way that is charming, even endearing like me!
I have news for you! I come from one of the most Conservative Waspy Families on the Planet. They are all super successful, conservative and well respected and guess what? They swear and tell good dirty jokes! My grandmother worked at Buckingham Palace for crying out loud! Believe it or not, I was once told by an old boss of mine with a beyond tacky and crude wife that I swear?? Oh really? How dare YOU of all people make a comment like that to SOMEONE LIKE ME!! Shame on YOU!! Kind of like Ariana Horseshit Huffington giving out sex advice to young teenage girls! 🙁
Goody Two Shoes