Charlie Munger and the Art of Swearing

5 Min read

EXPLICIT language, Ages 13 to 103

True Story, investing

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Essay and book rec, Ursula Le Guin

Patton’s Speech

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*

Charlie Munger was making the rounds with investors. A living icon in the investing world, he was some 90 years old at the time. As a director of the Costco board, he was accompanied by the Chief Financial Officer and the Investor Relations manager for the wholesale chain.

Charlie met with my husband Mark and a few colleagues at his investment firm. The conference room was located in mid-town Manhattan, ten or so folks at the table. It was an ordinary gathering, the team pro-active on meeting with shareholders. Charlie had lost his eye in a botched cataract surgery in his fifties and had it removed because of the pain. He wears glasses and has a noticeably lazy eye, which I imagine was the result. He wore his trademark suit.

The company has a policy that it will not mark up product more than 15 percent. I had purchased a Tumi suitcase from Costco at a deep discount and Mark asked Charlie, “We bought the suitcase for $350 and it retails for $700. We would have been thrilled to pay $450 or $500. Why not, when you get such a good purchase, take a little more margin?”*

The nonagenarian has a closed-lip smile and round face, wisps of white hair across his head. His pink cheeks bunch up near his glasses when he speaks, his chin slightly raised. His face has an intelligence and charm, and there’s an irreverence about him. Maybe that comes with age and success.

He answered Mark. “You know. That’s like walking into a fancy dinner party and taking a shit in the fireplace.”

Guffaw, choke, gasp. The suits at the conference table nearly fell out, trying to maintain their composure. This response, Charlie’s comparison and use of a four letter word in a Wall Street board room has endeared him to me on different levels. As a customer, as a shareholder, as a human. And, for the purposes of this letter, as a writer.

Charlie’s reply drove home his point. The company is an ethical business in its pact with its customers: pass on savings. Period. And, I don’t believe he’s sold a share of stock in 25 years. When I shop there, this story is in the back of my mind. The product I’m buying has a fixed margin and in these economic times, that’s the deal. In his one line answer, Charlie established a moral ethos and customer loyalty.

*

There are only two swear words left, according to the late great Ursula Le Guin. They used to come out of religion but those lost their shock value in the sixties and seventies. God, Jesus Christ, damn, Hell, damn it to hell, God damn, Jesus Christ Almighty. She lists them in her book, No Time to Spare, published when she was 88–nearly the same age as Charlie when he dropped the shit bomb.

So, shit is one and the other? You guessed it, fuck. The chapter is titled, Would You Please Fucking Stop? It’s laugh-and-choke-out-loud funny, necessary, a spot-on account of profanity today.

It’s the best fucking four pages I’ve read on the subject. Here’s Le Guin’s opening paragraphs, but prepare yourself for EXPLICIT language.

I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking .And shit is what they say when they’re fucked. When shit happens, they say shit, or oh shit, or oh shit we’re fucked. The imagination involved is staggering. I mean, literally.

*

There was one novel I read where the novelist didn’t only make all the fucking characters say fuck and shit all the time but she got into the fucking act herself, for shit sake. So it was full of deep moving shit like “The sunset was just too fucking beautiful to fucking believe.” *

*

Colorful language, especially in dialogue gives writing a raw, authentic feel. Curses, swears, obscenities, and vulgarities may vary, but I agree with Le Guin, when everything is profane, then nothing is. It loses its edge. She mentions her two brothers came back from WWII, never once swearing in front of us homebodies; a remarkable achievement. Later when they were cleaning out a dead skunk from the spring, her brother ripped seven or eight cusswords in one magnificent, unforgettable lesson. Soldiers and sailors have always cursed–what else can they do?

The nature of the task brought on a strong reaction–hard to beat the stink of a skunk. Equally so for Charlie, who felt visceral disgust at the idea of a higher margin. The contrast of taking a public dump at a fancy party intensifies the sparing and surprising use of vulgar language, especially in a formal setting.

George Patton was known for his masterful use of profanity. It’s the stuff of legend. His speeches, so rousing and stirring as to be recaptured afterwards by those who were there, were scrubbed of profanity. Maybe not all, but most.

It’s a skill, the effective and judicious use of color in language to resonate and connect with the audience. That may be one thing for a young adult identifying with a tough teen character. It’s another thing altogether when men are facing imminent death. For Patton, swearing was an art form.

“When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity, and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.” (Excerpt from a recounting in the Film, Patton)

“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Infamous opening line to one of his rousing and historic U.S. Third Army Speeches.*

Perhaps not rising to the eloquence and rhetorical skill of Patton, Charlie Munger’s one line analogy has had lasting effect in this quarter.

*

FOOTNOTES

*The suitcase prices are rough, based on memory. I still have the slate international travel Tumi, by the way. It’s in fine condition and fits in the overhead of the small regional jets, in an age when check baggage carries additional fee. If you’re like me, I have the added pleasure of knowing I got it for a song.

*Would you Please Fucking Stop? appeared on Le Guin’s blog–you read that right–which she started at 81. This is one of the posts included in her book. For writers, it’s the best thing I’ve read on profanity. You can read it in full on her site at this link. In this day, it may be as much a skill to exercise verbal discipline with crass language everywhere, a remarkable achievement for Le Guin’s brothers back from the war, and no less remarkable for today’s youth.

*No Time to Spare, by Ursula Le Guin. With sections on Going Over Eighty, cats, literature, and the candid, quirky writerly life.

*How to Use Profanity and Other Raw Talk in Your Fiction, by Elizabeth Sims (DEC 2013). Writers would be well rewarded to read this article. It’s dated but short and helpful. Here are Sims’s examples of profanity (words that are considered profane):

  • Curse – calls upon a deity. Mild: Damn this zipper. Strong: Goddam her!
  • Swear – literally means to take an oath, or proclaim an oath. Ex: By God, I’ll show you. I swear, you’re the best cook in Memphis!
  • Obscene means something disgusting or morally abhorrent, often connoting sex. The f-word is considered the most objectionable of these. (Adding “mother” as a prefix ups the ante.) Sims includes euphemisms such as fecking, freakin, friggin, and screw.
  • Vulgarism is a great word that covers a lot of bases. If it’s crude and objectionable and falls outside the aforementioned categories, you’ve got yourself a vulgarism. Bitch. Son-of-a-bitch. Bastard. Ass. Shit and its milder cousin, crap. Or poop.

*AP Style, Obscenities, Profanities, Vulgarities. Recommends confining offending language to direct quotation marks and make sure there is a compelling reason for including. Of course, avoid in formal writing.

*Patton’s Speech to the U.S. Third Army in 1944, prior to the Allied Invasion of France. It is constructed in full (from a number of soldiers who recounted in their memoirs) by historian Terry Brighton.

Patton speaking before a division of the U.S. Army on 1 April 1944 in Northern Ireland

Be seated.

Men, all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Battle is the most significant competition in which a man can indulge. It brings out all that is best and it removes all that is base.

You are not all going to die. Only two percent of you right here today would be killed in a major battle. Every man is scared in his first action. If he says he’s not, he’s a goddamn liar. But the real hero is the man who fights even though he’s scared. Some men will get over their fright in a minute under fire, some take an hour, and for some it takes days. But the real man never lets his fear of death overpower his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood.

All through your army career you men have bitched about what you call ‘this chicken-shit drilling.’ That is all for a purpose—to ensure instant obedience to orders and to create constant alertness. This must be bred into every soldier. I don’t give a fuck for a man who is not always on his toes. But the drilling has made veterans of all you men. You are ready! A man has to be alert all the time if he expects to keep on breathing. If not, some German son-of-a-bitch will sneak up behind him and beat him to death with a sock full of shit. There are four hundred neatly marked graves in Sicily, all because one man went to sleep on the job—but they are German graves, because we caught the bastard asleep before his officer did.

An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, and fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is bullshit. The bilious bastards who write that stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real battle than they do about fucking. And we have the best team—we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity these poor bastards we’re going up against.

All the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters. Every single man in the army plays a vital role. So don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. What if every truck driver decided that he didn’t like the whine of the shells and turned yellow and jumped headlong into a ditch? That cowardly bastard could say to himself, ‘Hell, they won’t miss me, just one man in thousands.’ What if every man said that? Where in the hell would we be then? No, thank God, Americans don’t say that. Every man does his job. Every man is important. The ordnance men are needed to supply the guns, the quartermaster is needed to bring up the food and clothes for us because where we are going there isn’t a hell of a lot to steal. Every last damn man in the mess hall, even the one who boils the water to keep us from getting the GI shits, has a job to do.

Each man must think not only of himself, but think of his buddy fighting alongside him. We don’t want yellow cowards in the army. They should be killed off like flies. If not, they will go back home after the war, goddamn cowards, and breed more cowards. The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the goddamn cowards and we’ll have a nation of brave men.

One of the bravest men I saw in the African campaign was on a telegraph pole in the midst of furious fire while we were moving toward Tunis. I stopped and asked him what the hell he was doing up there. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, sir.’ ‘Isn’t it a little unhealthy up there right now?’ I asked. ‘Yes sir, but this goddamn wire has got to be fixed.’ I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No sir, but you sure as hell do.’ Now, there was a real soldier. A real man. A man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how great the odds, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty appeared at the time.

And you should have seen the trucks on the road to Gabès. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they crawled along those son-of-a-bitch roads, never stopping, never deviating from their course with shells bursting all around them. Many of the men drove over 40 consecutive hours. We got through on good old American guts. These were not combat men. But they were soldiers with a job to do. They were part of a team. Without them the fight would have been lost.

Sure, we all want to go home. We want to get this war over with. But you can’t win a war lying down. The quickest way to get it over with is to get the bastards who started it. We want to get the hell over there and clean the goddamn thing up, and then get at those purple-pissing Japs. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we go home. The shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. So keep moving. And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper-hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler.

When a man is lying in a shell hole, if he just stays there all day, a Boche will get him eventually. The hell with that. My men don’t dig foxholes. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving. We’ll win this war, but we’ll win it only by fighting and showing the Germans that we’ve got more guts than they have or ever will have. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to rip out their living goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket.

Some of you men are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you’ll all do your duty. War is a bloody business, a killing business. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them, spill their blood or they will spill yours. Shoot them in the guts. Rip open their belly. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt from your face and you realize that it’s not dirt, it’s the blood and gut of what was once your best friend, you’ll know what to do.

I don’t want any messages saying ‘I’m holding my position.’ We’re not holding a goddamned thing. We’re advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except the enemy’s balls. We’re going to hold him by his balls and we’re going to kick him in the ass; twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all the time. Our plan of operation is to advance and keep on advancing. We’re going to go through the enemy like shit through a tinhorn.

There will be some complaints that we’re pushing our people too hard. I don’t give a damn about such complaints. I believe that an ounce of sweat will save a gallon of blood. The harder we push, the more Germans we kill. The more Germans we kill, the fewer of our men will be killed. Pushing harder means fewer casualties. I want you all to remember that. My men don’t surrender. I don’t want to hear of any soldier under my command being captured unless he is hit. Even if you are hit, you can still fight. That’s not just bullshit either. I want men like the lieutenant in Libya who, with a Luger against his chest, swept aside the gun with his hand, jerked his helmet off with the other and busted the hell out of the Boche with the helmet. Then he picked up the gun and he killed another German. All this time the man had a bullet through his lung. That’s a man for you!

Don’t forget, you don’t know I’m here at all. No word of that fact is to be mentioned in any letters. The world is not supposed to know what the hell they did with me. I’m not supposed to be commanding this army. I’m not even supposed to be in England. Let the first bastards to find out be the goddamned Germans. Some day, I want them to rise up on their piss-soaked hind legs and howl ‘Ach! It’s the goddamned Third Army and that son-of-a-bitch Patton again!’

Then there’s one thing you men will be able to say when this war is over and you get back home. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, ‘What did you do in the great World War Two?’ You won’t have to cough and say, ‘Well, your granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.’ No sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say ‘Son, your granddaddy rode with the great Third Army and a son-of-a-goddamned-bitch named George Patton!’

All right, you sons of bitches. You know how I feel. I’ll be proud to lead you wonderful guys in battle anytime, anywhere. That’s all.

Aug 19, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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