One of the most memorable scenes in The Usual Suspects takes place when the main cast is standing in a police lineup and improvises, one by one, a simple phrase: “Hand me the keys, you fucking cocksucker.” Aside from Kevin Costner cussing out an umpire in Bull Durham, it’s likely the most famous instance of the other C word in cinematic history.
Not that others haven’t tried in the subsequent 23 years since The Usual Suspect’s release. In fact, it’s still very much a favorite of writers penning the gritty interactions between bad men that have become the hallmark of prestige TV — from the Sopranos…
to even Mr. Robot offhandedly using it to refer to Trump.
In an era, though, when we’re looking at — and interrogating — language more closely than ever before, how can a word with such a seemingly offensive connotation (essentially that there’s nothing more vile and/or demeaning than placing a penis in your mouth) remain such a popular insult?
Per usual, I’m here to help make sense of it all.
Bracketing for a moment its sociocultural origins, “cocksucker” has a great deal working for it as profanity. While “fuck” feels great to say in part because of its hard “k” — known as a voiceless “velar stop” to linguists — “cocksucker” provides extra value, packing in two of those delightful phonemes in quick succession. It’s a “woody” word, if you’ll pardon the pun.
“Cocksucker” is also something of a general-purpose swear. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes it as an “all-American insult,” and it certainly does have a peculiar American resonance: From drill sergeants to businessmen, it’s employed by some of the most star-spangled archetypes in film. In this way, one could argue that the term has come to occupy a similar place in the culture as “son of a bitch.”
The Closer/Cocksucker Binary
But of course, no cuss word exists in a linguistic vacuum. So let’s be real here: “Cocksucker” is about as close as you can get to calling someone a “fag” without actually saying it — Alec Baldwin’s famous speech in Glengarry Glen Ross employs the words more or less interchangeably:
When you get down to it, calling someone a “cocksucker” is saying they suck cock, which obviously wouldn’t be an insult in the first place if homophobia wasn’t a thing.
But to call someone “a cocksucker” isn’t to simply say he has sex with other men — it specifically paints him as the receptive partner. This is old hat, but that’s because sexism and homophobia are closely intertwined. It’s also why, outside of porn, women are seldom called “cocksuckers.”
In practice, the crime of the cocksucker isn’t necessarily actually sucking cock, but being womanly, effeminate or ineffectual. Thus, “cocksucker” is closely related to “pussy” on the put-down family tree. It’s differentiated, though, by its specific flavor — “pussy” usually points to a kind of general cowardice, whereas “cocksucker” is often more sinister, indicating duplicitous or repugnant behavior.
Essentially: If it’s bad to be a pussy, it’s awful to be a cocksucker.
You Can Do That On Television, But Should You?
Perhaps the most notorious example of this in recent memory was when Stephen Colbert said the only thing Donald Trump’s mouth was good for was “being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” (“Cock” was bleeped out, and Colbert’s mouth was blurred.) It wasn’t the first time Trump had been portrayed as literally in bed with the Russian president — a mural of the two kissing also made the rounds in 2017 — but it went a step further, pointing to the perceived power of Russia over the Trump government.
The comment didn’t only incense Trump supporters, it pissed off those who felt there were better ways to critique the president than to call him a cocksucker. The FCC received so many complaints that it opened an investigation into whether Colbert’s words constituted “obscenity,” and thus, warranted sanctions. It ended up deciding not to take action against him.
It did so because “cocksucker” isn’t “obscene,” but merely “indecent” for children — and such “indecent” content is allowed to be broadcast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Then again, Colbert’s use of the word “cock” was bleeped out. Of course, this begs the question: Would Colbert have been sanctioned if he’d used a term like “faggot”?
Maybe, but back in 2014, Macklemore was allowed to say it during a Grammy performance during which numerous curses were blocked out by censors.
FCC fine or no FCC fine, language definitely evolves, and “cocksucker” is now probably uttered even by people who would be loathe to use a slur like “fag.” It’s the grown-up, businessman version of the middle schooler’s “gay,” a kind of all-purpose cuss word whose users may claim is without personal bias or malice. Still, it’s hard to ignore the roots of the word, and the raw cultural disgust for homosexuality it connotes.
Perhaps one day this will change, and sucking cock well and enthusiastically will be a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame. Until then, let’s use, I don’t know, “corncob”?