Dynamist Blog

More on Swearing

In response to Steve Pinker's comments below, my friend Cosmo Wenman sends this link to a terrific piece on the evolution of swearing by Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. Here's an excerpt:

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....

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.

Growing up in a nonswearing household, I heard plenty of words like "dadburned" and "dadgum." But it's true they'd sound weird on HBO. In my high school production of Ten Little Indians, the drama teacher substituted liberal use of the shocking Britishism "bloody," which wouldn't shock anybody in South Carolina, for the offensive "damn." Then there are the Shakespearian expletives like "swounds" and "sblood" (short for "God's wounds" and "God's blood), which actually require footnotes. The most ingenious use of dramatic swearwords is, not surprisingly, on Battlestar Galactica, where, in keeping with the idea of a recognizable but different human civilization, the crew uses the all-purpose words frack and fracking, which don't offend any TV censors.

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