As I wrote yesterday, I've started reading Helmet for my Pillow, the World War II memoir of Robert Leckie, who served in the First Marine Division. The book was published in 1957, and Leckie's writing shows how different the tolerance for foul words was back then. (Obviously, this post will contain some language.) The worst he'll write so far are words like bastard and raggedy-assed. This reluctance to use the foul language common among soldiers contrasts sharply with The Pacific, the HBO miniseries that was partly based on Helmet for my Pillow. The episodes of that show were filled with all the salty language that lurks offstage in the book.
Early in the book, Leckie talks about the Marine who took recruits to the train headed for the training center at Parris Island in South Carolina:
The master gunnery sergeant who became out momentary shepherd made the fact plainer to us. Those rich mellow blasphemous oaths that were to become so familiar to me flowed from his lips with the consummate ease of one who had spent a lifetime in vituperation.
(To vituperate is "to rebuke or criticize harshly or abusively; berate. See synonyms at scold," according to the American Heritage Dictionary.)
Like other times in the book when he talks about foul language, Leckie never shares what was said. It's kind of like a horror book or movie where the really gory stuff takes place without being described or shown, leaving it to your imagination. When it's well done, that can be a good thing, and Helmet for my Pillow is very well done. Here's another passage, from training at Parris Island:
The rifle range also gave me my first full audition of the marine cursing facility. There had been slight samplings of it in the barracks, but never anything like the utter blasphemy and obscenity of the rifle range. There were noncommissioned officers there who could not put two sentences together without bridging them with a curse, an oath, an imprecation. To hear them made our flesh creep, made those with any depth of religious feeling flush with anger and wish to be at the weather-beaten throats of the blasphemers.
We would become inured to it, in time, have it even on our own lips. We would come to recognize it as meaning no offense. But then it shocked us.
How could they develop such facility with mere imprecation? This was no vituperation. It was only cursing, obscenity, blasphemy, profanity -- none of which is ever profuse or original -- yet it came spouting out in amazing variety.
Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used as an insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never used to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and the nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.'s and Ph.D.'s -- until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of the Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting.
(To imprecate is "to invoke evil upon; curse," according to the AHD.)
I've read and heard plenty of people describe all the ways fuck can be used, but never so eloquently, and never without actually using the word. Leckie's analysis reads almost like poetry, as does much of the book.