What’s a nice interjection like nuts! doing in a place like Strong Language, home of brazen epithets and unexpurgated swears? Nuts: such a mild word, so fusty and old-fashioned, so suitable for children’s tender ears.
Well, it wasn’t always that way. For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, nuts and its facetious cousin nerts were deemed so inappropriate that they were forbidden—along with, but not limited to, whore, SOB, damn, hell, fanny, and slut—in the scripts of Hollywood movies. (Needless to say, fuck and shit were too scandalous to merit mention.) It took a famous World War II battle, and the gradual loosening of the censorious rules known as the Motion Picture Production Code, to bring nuts, nerts, and nuts to you into semi-respectability and finally to quaintness.
It’s a hard-knock life for advertisers looking to titillate buyers into paying attention. Back in the day—say, 2018—you were guaranteed to provoke when you used assholeto sell your bidet or dropped a barely acceptable AF onto a package to give your wipes a boost. Now, though, commercial swears are so common that you can name your candles Pretend to Give a Shit and get away with it—even at the US Patent and Trademark Office.
When the old swears no longer shock, what’s an advertiser to do? One answer: swear-ify inoffensive words by inserting asterisks into them.
Oh, 2020, you’re finally over. And that can mean only one thing: it’s time to award the annual Strong Language honors for excellence in swearing. This is the sixth year that we’ve bestowed the highly prestigious Tucker Awards. (You can take a walk down memory lane by checking out our previous roundups, from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.) Regular readers will know that the awards are named in honor of the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the super-sweary political spin doctor played by Peter Capaldi in the BBC series The Thick of It and the film In the Loop.
Even though series creator Armando Iannucci continues to maintain that The Thick of It won’t be making a comeback, Tucker’s spirit was alive and well in 2020. In fact, a clip from the show, with Tucker declaring “a fucking lockdown” in the office, was used as a public-service announcement by the BBC back in March soon after the U.K. government announced the first stay-at-home order of the pandemic.
We’re pleased AF to let you know that “History of Swear Words,” will launch on Netflix January 5, 2021. The series—six 20-minute episodes—will consider the etymologies, false etymologies, and usage of six classic swears: fuck, shit, dick, bitch, pussy, and damn.
We’re especially pleased that one of our Strong Language co-fuckers, lexicographer Kory Stamper, was one of the consultants for the show. The other experts include cognitive scientist and author of What the FBenjamin Bergen; linguist Anne Charity Hudley; professor of feminist studies Mireille Miller-Young; film critic Elvis Mitchell; and author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing Melissa Mohr.
Nicolas Cage will host.
More details here. And let’s hope for a second season so we can delve into asshole, cunt, cocksucker, and other sweary faves.
Sentimentally, we like to think that ladies of an earlier time — mostly our grandmothers and great-grandmothers — lived virtuous lives, without swearing. When Joseph Mitchell profiled A. S. Colborne, who spent much of his life trying to exterminate profanity, for The New Yorker in 1941, he captured the paradoxical view of women’s swearing, partly as a function of class, at that time. When Mitchell visited one day, Colborne explained, “I’m sort of sleepy … Sat up late last night studying over bar and grill profanity. Why, the women are worse than the men. And you can’t talk to them! Why, they’ll spit in your eye!” But then, he remembered that when he first started admonishing swearers on the street, he would insist, “‘Your dear old mother never taught you to talk like that. Think it over!” But maybe some mothers did, and some classy women of the mid-twentieth century apparently swore a lot, whatever our mythology.
I was reminded of this while reading Janet Somerville’s new selection of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, Yours, for probably always (Firefly Books, 2019) and then Caroline Morehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Gellhorn is a remarkable writer, perhaps most famous for her war reporting. The final edition of The Face of War (1988), collects dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Finland and China, Word War II, wars in Java and Vietnam, the Six Day War, and Central American wars. She wrote fiction, too, perhaps most importantly The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), four stories about the Great Depression. To my mind, Gellhorn is one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.