“You curse like a sailor!” is something I’ve been told more than once in my lifetime. And while it’s true that I generally am pretty potty-mouthed, my vulgarity didn’t come from the Navy, or any sense of personal bravery. Instead, it derived from growing up on a regular diet of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino movies. Regardless, every time I’ve heard the trope about potty-mouthed sailors, I’ve wondered to myself, “Do sailors really curse that much?”
So I decided to ask three Navy vets if there’s any truth to that old saying, as well as how they felt about various curse words. As for which curse words, well, what words are vulgar can be fairly subjective, so I decided to defer to the late George Carlin and his famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” from 1972 — which, in order, are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.
Some seem tame by today’s standards and others are still bad, but that’s kind of the fucking point. So, armed with Carlin’s list, I enlisted some sailors to see if they do indeed swear like, um, sailors.
On If Sailors Really Curse That Much
Glen Varcoe, veteran of the USS Swordfish, served 1978 to 1984: Back in the day, we definitely did, but today I think it’s not so much. The culture, in general, has changed so that people curse more, but still not quite as much as sailors do.
The thing about sailors is that, when you go into boot camp, especially back in 1978, that’s your first exposure to a shit-ton of cursing. There’s just no comparison to it in your life experience. The example of Full Metal Jacket wasn’t that different from my bootcamp experience. The purpose of it is to get your attention to the seriousness of your situation, because not only is it profane, but it’s very loud and they need to get your attention and they got our attention really quick. And, as you go through it, you get desensitized to it and you start to use it yourself.
When you get to the ship, there’s a whole new level of seriousness and a whole new set of profanity and hazing that you have to endure and it sticks with you. Even now, I curse as much as I did in the Navy, depending upon my situation. When I’m in the office, I’m not dropping f-bombs left and right, but when I’m out drinking or fishing, it’s different. Every Saturday, I’m down at the harbor with these two guys, one’s a Marine and the other’s a Navy Seal, and when we get together, we swear like sailors. That’s just the way sailors talk.
Linda Howard Foley, veteran of the USS Fulton, served 1979 to 1989: Yeah, I definitely curse more than other people. I’ve always been a potty-mouth, but when I joined the military, it got worse. I had to be one of the guys, you know?
I’m pretty sure the Navy and the Marine Corps curse the most, too. With the Navy, they’re all cooped up and it’s a form of comradery that men use. If you’re ever around a whole bunch of them, every three or four words is “fuck.”
Brett Hinson, former commanding officer of the Seattle Military Entrance Processing Station, served in the Navy from 1993 to 2016: It comes down to context. The attitudes toward that type of colorful language has changed over time as to when that’s acceptable. In yesterday’s Navy, you’d expect it a bit more, but over the years, the image of the military has become as important as what the military does and the language goes along with that. So you won’t hear it when they’re in uniform or they’re being observed or when they’re representing the U.S. military, but behind closed doors you’ll hear it in the natural flow of conversation.
On George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words
Varcoe: “Shit,” “shithead,” “What the fuck, you shit?” Shit is just a noun that applies to anything that you’re not particularly happy with. Going back to my submarine service, one application of the word “shit” is when a piece of equipment malfunctions catastrophically, we say it “shit the bed.”
Foley: I use “shit” all the time and I’ve always used it. “That’s a bunch of shit,” “That’s not worth shit” — I can put it in just about any form.
Hinson: That’s used as an exclamation point right there. You send the wrong email or you hit your thumb when you’re hammering something — that one stands on its own.
Varcoe: It’s a biological function. I think, though, that’s more of a British thing — “wicked pisser,” “piss off.” Piss doesn’t really seem like much of a curse word.
Foley: I say that, but not that much. I’ll say, “He’s not worth a squirt of piss.”
Hinson: I rarely, if ever, use that or hear that unless someone is piss-drunk. That’s it.
Varcoe: “Fuck” is a word that a sailor needs to use in at least every third sentence. It’s just part of your being — it’s part of your consciousness.
Foley: Fuck? That’s one of my favorites!
Hinson: That is much more prevalent I think, especially as an adjective — “I’m fucking hungry,” or “Those are the best fucking ribs I’ve ever had.”
Varcoe: That has never been a big part of my vocabulary. Even in the Navy, sailors don’t really use that phrase unless it’s associated with the word “dumb.” If you do something really stupid, you’re a “fucking dumb cunt,” but in my experience, it’s not in any way a sexual thing.
Hinson: No. That’s definitely not a word that is used or generally tolerated.
Foley: I’ve said it, but I don’t say it that much. Have I heard it? Yeah, lots. I don’t remember anybody calling me that though, and I’ve been called everything.
Foley: Yeah, I like that word too. At one point, I was in charge of about 80 guys, and I’d say stuff like, “What are you, a fucking cocksucker? Get your ass over there, I don’t give a shit!” If I’d said, “Listen buddy, you need to get your tail over there right now,” that wouldn’t have worked.
Varcoe: Obviously, the homophobia part of that was a lot less prohibited back in my day, but “cocksucker” was kind of rare. You really had to be pissed off and it wasn’t something you’d say to somebody else, it’d be the thing you said to the piece of equipment you busted your knuckles on.
Foley: Of course! “You motherfucker, what the hell’s wrong with you!?” “Motherfucker” you’d say if somebody pissed you off, the other words you just would say casually.
Varcoe: Well — cocksuckermotherfucker — if you bark your shin, that’s a “motherfucker” moment. It’s just an expression of frustration and anger, though my favorite along those lines was, “Jesus fucking Christ.”
Varcoe: “Tits” — it’s a friendly word. Everybody knows that.
Hinson: Not that much. So much has changed in society, so that anything that’s derogatory toward women has dropped off the list, and rightfully so.
Foley: It’s all changed now. Now you have to be sensitive to the women, but back then, I was on board a tugboat and I remember a chief petty officer telling me, “Get your fucking tits up on the deck, I don’t give a shit what you think!” If he said that today, I could report him, but back then I thought, “Okay, I better get going!”
I heard “tits” all the time. Now, they have all kinds of brassieres for women, but back then, they just had your typical holder for the boobs. So anyway, I was at this training, and this Marine that was pretty high-ranking told me, “Listen, your tits are slinging all over the place. You need to get a handle on that or you’re never going to pass this fucking course!” So I used to have to wrap them because I’m a little large. My nickname in high school was “Chester,” so I’ve heard the word “tits” a lot.
On Any Notable Exceptions
Hinson: “Damn” is one a lot of people use. Some people consider “Hell” to be one. I use “hellfire” all the time, like, “Oh hellfire, give me another shot!” and things like that.
Varcoe: What was really common back in my day was the term “licknob” — and, obviously, it’s a homophobic slur — but you’d say something like, “You took the last piece of pizza you fucking licknob!?”
Navy guys are also really into acronyms, so there’s DILIGAFF, which is, “Do I look like I give a flying fuck?” Also BOHICA, “Bend over, here it comes again,” which relates to when you’re getting screwed over something. Everybody knows SNAFU and FUBAR, and when I was in nuke school, when I’d give an answer on a test that wasn’t quite appropriate, the instructor would write RTFQ, which was, “Read the fucking question.”
Did I mention “check-valve”? It’s not really profanity, but, especially in the submarine service, when one of your buddies didn’t include you in some minor pleasure, you’d call him a check-valve. Like, if you’re sweating your ass off in the engine room and he comes back from the crew’s mess with a cup of Kool-Aid with ice and he doesn’t bring you one, you’d say, “Where’s my fucking bug-juice you one-way check-valve motherfucker!?”
On What the Fuck “Bug-Juice” Is
Varcoe: Bug-juice? Oh, bug-juice is like Kool-Aid, except it’s just generic colored water with sugar in it. But on a submarine, where you have so few pleasures, bug-juice was like the nectar of the gods.
And, Finally, On the Word “Seaman”
Foley: Well, you are a seaman. You’re a seaman recruit, then a seaman apprentice and then a seaman. It’s an actual rank. I heard “cum” more than I heard seaman as a cuss word.
Hinson: The other services like to use that term talking with their Navy friends, but that’s about it.
Varcoe: We used to have a lot of wordplay with that, because we were all seamen and that’s the submarine service — a giant tube full of seamen.