Every age swears differently from the last one --
it's as if we have to up the ante every generation or so. As Jonathan
Swift wrote :
…now-a-days Men change
As often as they change their Cloaths.
That leads to problems for
the writers of historical fictions. If you have your characters use
historically accurate swear words, they're apt to sound no more
offensive than your grandmother in a mild snit. The only way to convey
the potency of their oaths is to have them use modern swear-words, even
if they're anachronistic.
That's the approach taken by
the HBO series "Deadwood," set in a South Dakota mining camp in the
1870's. As a lot of people have noted, the show is positively swilling
in obscenity -- the characters use "fuck" and "fucking" with a
frequency that would make Tony Soprano blush.1
But "fuck" wasn't actually a
swear-word back then. It was indecent, of course, but people only used
it for the sexual act itself. Whereas swear-words are the ones that
become detached from their literal meanings and float free as mere
intensifiers. Swearing isn't using "fucking" when you're referring to
sex, it's using it when you're talking about the weather.
In fact when you look up the
word in Jonathan Lighter's magisterial Dictionary of American
Slang, you discover that the all-purpose insult "fuck you" was a
turn-of-the twentieth-century creation, and "go fuck yourself" isn't
attested until 1920. "Fucked up" and "Don't fuck with me" didn't show
up till around the time of the Second World War. And while people may
have been emphasizing nouns with "fucking" from the 1890's, it wasn't
until well into the century that you heard things things like "She
fucking well better tell me" or "Get the fuck out of here," both
The same holds for most of
the other obscene words that you hear on "Deadwood." Back in the 19th
century, people used "asshole" to refer to a bodily orifice and
"cocksucker" to refer to someone who performs fellatio. But it was only
in the 1920's that anybody thought to use them for a despicable
person. And it was around the same time that the new word
"motherfucker" was coined with roughly the same meaning.
Of course it isn't always
easy to tell exactly when these uses of obscene words came into general
use -- they're not the sorts of items you run into in Henry James. But
actually there are plenty of 19th-century examples of the
F-word being used in a literal way in letters, pornographic novels, and
slang dictionaries, and other swear words show up pretty frequently as
well. And if "fuck" and the rest had been used in an extended way, it's
a safe bet those uses would have showed up in the same kinds of sources.
The words those "Deadwood"
characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than
sexual or scatalogical ones. They would have peppered their speech with
"goddamn," "Jesus," and particularly "hell," a word that 19th-century
Americans were famous for using with a dazzling virtuosity -- "a hell
of a drink," "What in hell did that mean?," "hell to pay," "The hell
you will," "hell-bent," "Hell, yes," "like a bat out of hell," "hell's
bells," and countless others.
Back then, those oaths were
strong enough to spawn a whole vocabulary of the substitutes that H. L.
Mencken called "denaturized profanities" -- "darn," "doggone,"
"dadburned," "tarnation,' "goldarn," "gee-whiz," "all-fired," and the
like. (It's only in the 1920's that you start running into substitutes
for "fucking" like "freaking" or "effing" -- another sign that it
wasn't used as a swear word before then.) But if you put words like
"goldarn" into the mouths of the characters on "Deadwood," they'd all
wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.
One reason for the shift is
that old-fashioned blasphemy didn't have the same illicit thrill for a
secular age. When I was a kid I was always a little puzzled about the
commandment about taking the Lord's name in vain. Not that I didn't
know better than to say "goddamn" at the dinner table. But when people
list the Ten Commandments, it's hard to see why the profanity rap
should get a higher billing than murder, theft, or perjury.
That change in attitudes is
what drove the soldiers in World War I into the bedroom and bathroom
looking for new boundaries to trespass. That shift was more than a
simple change of fashion. The old profanity was a matter of irreverance
-- using respectable words in disrespectful contexts. The new obscenity
is the opposite of that. It's a kind of linguistic slumming, where we
bring unclean words into the rooms at the front of the house. The taboo
against profanity comes from on high; the taboo against obscenity comes
That shift had a lot to do
with the great leveling of swearing over the past century. The
Victorians liked to think of swearing as a vice endemic to men of the
lower orders -- one swore " like a trooper," or "like a sailor."
Nowadays swearing isn't a mark of any particular class or gender --
those words are dirty little secrets we can all draw on when we find
ourselves in an angry or aggressive mood. You don't find many people
nowadays who will tell you that they never swear -- or if they do,
they're most likely bragging about their even temper, not their
gentility or their piety.
The new rituals of swearing
have altered the hypocrisy that surrounds the practice, too. Time was
that swear words were completely absent from public discourse, and
genteel people could go through their lives pretending they didn't
exist. Nowadays, it's more a question of maintaining an official
sanctimony in designated public forums.
You can use "fuck" in The
New Yorker but not in The New York Times. Bill Maher can
swear on HBO but not on ABC, and the words have to be excised from "Sex
and the City" when it moves to broadcast TV. And Steven Sondheim
can use "shit" in a song when "Sweeney Todd" plays in theaters, but
public radio shows are apt to have qualms about playing it over the
Of course we have to draw a
line somewhere, if swearing is going to have any transgressive force at
all. The wonder that people can still defend distinctions like those
with a keen moral fervor, even in an age when more than 90
percent of Americans pay for some form of subscription TV. The
Victorians would have had a hard time understanding how our sense of
outrage about swearing could fluctuate according to where we are on the
1. In the broadcast version
of this piece, I used expressions like "the F-word" and "effing" for
these. I suppose we could have bleeped them, but that would have
implied a third-party action. return