One dubious pleasure of social media, where millions of strangers gather to address each other as though you were not even there, is the sense that what you’re reading is an augur of how people talk now. It’s like watching the weather; in the right mindset, a couple random clouds guarantee rain tomorrow. For weeks, now, the cloud on my horizon has been “fuckbonnet.”
Internet philologists will recognize “fuckbonnet” as the coinage of David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. In September, he wrote a blog post titled “A Fuckbonnet For Our Time,” in which he excoriated Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his “shitsquib minions” as “fuckstumbling stewards of an essential information resource.” Putting aside the question of whether Twitter is essential, these phrases sound fun. They take the swears we’ve known since childhood and combine them with phonetically pleasing non-swear words in new ways — ways that seem inventive and exciting for about one minute, until we realize that they are all basically the same.
As existentialists, we of course reject the idea that behavior constitutes identity. Still, the emergence of these new swears, their consistency in combination with their popularity, suggests a certain type of person. Willy Staley, a story editor at The New York Times Magazine, calls them “swear nerds.” What quality they share besides their interest in new swears is ineffable, but one encounters it again and again, in different but somehow uniform iterations.
Let us call this feeling that swear nerds are multiplying the Douchenozzle Effect. It’s difficult to say when people first began saying “douche nozzle” outside of a technical context. James Jones used “douchebag” as an insult in the novel From Here to Eternity in 1951; the “-nozzle” variation got its first Urban Dictionary entry in 2003. By 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education had declared “douche-” compounds the “Epithet of the Moment.” Since then, “douchenozzle” has emerged as the most visible of the new swears, burning so brightly as to brand anyone who still uses it.
Simon himself acknowledges that “douchenozzle was done in mid-2014.” Like phrenology or Apple Bottom jeans, it got so popular during one period of time that it now evokes that time more than any other meaning. To call some public figure a douchenozzle in 2019 is to say more about yourself than you say about them. It signals the worst admission you can make on the internet, that the old slang is still new to you. That is the Douchenozzle Effect: what was once a new coinage becomes a recognizable fad — i.e. an old fad — and begins working, as an insult, in the opposite direction.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education post linked above, Ben Yagoda points to a 2006 interview with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, in which the two liberal comedians throw “douche bag” around like a football on Christmas morning. As with the death of Crossfire and the ongoing career of Samantha Bee, I believe Stewart deserves credit for popularizing the swear-plus-funny-word construction. He had the reach, and in the last years of his tenure on The Daily Show — when political entertainment became less a battle of ideas than a contest to see who could most vividly express their frustration — he had the incentive to discover new packages for familiar irreverence. The formula he developed with “Fuckface von Clownstick” and other ventures into compound profanity is now understood by a generation of liberal internet subscribers.
What starts as culture proceeds by formula to become kitsch. Even if “fuckcyle” was funny to someone, somewhere, at one time, it now belongs to a class of insults so uniform in their construction that none of them can be surprising. “Fuckcycle,” “shitwhistle,” “cockbucket,” our ex-friend “douchenozzle,” and their ilk all follow the same pattern: familiar profanity compounded with a non-profane word of two unaccented syllables, known to prosody as a pyrrhic foot.
“Fuckbonnet” is a swear-pyrrhic compound. The double-n in the middle and stop consonant at the end make it fun to say, but — and this is crucial — the insult itself does not say anything. What is a fuckbonnet, exactly? Is it something you wear when you get…? Is it a hat that has fallen out of fashion and is now only good for…? There’s no discernible meaning behind the word; it only expresses contempt and the author’s vain originality. I submit that this aspect of the new swears is a feature, not a bug. The reason this formula has become so popular in our time is that it conveys the author’s outrage without running the risk of actually insulting anybody.
The guide to the formula embedded above points to this aspect of the new swears, describing them as “non-gendered insults” that are better than problematic old standbys like “bitch.” Coming up with insults that do not invoke gender or race or disability is good. The point of an insult is to hurt the person so insulted, not to deride an entire class. For this reason, though, the insult must describe or otherwise connect to its target. The signature feature of the new swears is that they do not carry any target-specific content. Simon can call the CEO of Twitter a “fuckbonnet,” but he might just as easily apply the word to Rand Paul or a QAnon conspiracist. Unlike a real insult, it’s nothing personal.
Bluenoses will say that the creator of a prestige drama calling the CEO of a media company a “fuckbonnet” is a breakdown of civility. In fact, it is civility purring like a kitten, the machine running just as intended. The essence of civility is to not say things that hurt people. The insults that proceed from the swear-pyrrhic formula are perfectly civil, because they contain nothing specific to the insulted party, no barb the target might have a hard time digging out. If I fire up Twitter to call the President of the United States a douchenozzle, it says nothing about him — only a little about me.
Perhaps that is why the new swears are so popular in political discourse on social media, where people tend to speak to an imagined audience rather than to each other. We talk about how bitterly divided our politics have become, which is weird, because it seems like none of the parties involved are actually at odds. Someone like Trump delivers a tax cut to the rich, and someone like Simon calls him a pissmonger on Twitter, at which point the hashtag resistance celebrates itself while the refund checks go out. The swear-pyrrhic formula never produces a weapon. It’s always more like a display: the big, colorful tail that one peacock is impressive enough to unfurl while the other peacocks are being eaten by dogs.
The swear nerds are outraged enough to demand fresh profanity but still too comfortable to play for blood. In their precious outbursts, they seem to be playing the role of firebrands without actually getting out there with fire and trying to brand somebody. The liberal middle class is ready to call the president a douchecanoe, but it is not yet ready to call him a cunt-lipped maidfucker with peasant hips. Things are bad, in other words, but they are not serious yet.