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Obscenity Rap

Geoffrey Nunberg

A version of this commentary was broadcast on "Fresh Air," June 20, 2004

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 their Oaths
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 "Deadwood" favorites.

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 from within.

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 air.

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 dial.



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


Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.