If you’ve been seeing or hearing enshittify or enshittification in the last week or so, you have one man to thank: Cory Doctorow, the journalist, sci-fi writer, and co-author of the new book Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back.
With another year in the books, it’s time once again here on Strong Language for our annual salute to excellent swearing. As time marches on, we’ve had the opportunity to anoint sweary winners for eight years running now. (Check out our past roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.) As always, we pay homage with these awards to the patron saint of Strong Language: Malcolm Tucker, the ultra-foulmouthed political operative portrayed with panache by Peter Capaldi on the BBC series The Thick of It and its cinematic spinoff In the Loop.
It’s now been a full decade since The Thick of It went off the air, but given the clusterfuck that was British politics in 2022, it’s as relevant as ever. As Boris Johnson gave way to Liz Truss, who famously couldn’t outlast a lettuce before giving way to Rishi Sunak, the spirit of Malcolm Tucker has been invoked again and again. (See such headlines as “How Malcolm Tucker nailed today’s Tories in The Thick of It” and “Malcolm Tucker was a warning, not a training manual.”) And while series creator Armando Iannucci still doesn’t have plans to revive The Thick of It, that hasn’t stopped fans from repurposing clips of Tucker swearing it up, now reacting to the absurdity of the Liz Truss era. (Even Iannucci himself posted a relevant Tucker clip when Truss resigned.)
So let’s dive right into the omni-fucking-shambles of 2022 and decide who swore it best.Continue reading
One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.
Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.
The expressions swear like a trooper and swear like a sailor are so common as to be cliché. But why do we swear ‘like a trooper’ or ‘like a sailor’? And what else do we swear like, idiomatically, in English and other languages?
Troopers and sailors
Swearing has long been identified with the military, source of so much slang, ribald chants, tribal insults, and other forms of strong language. Profanity would come into its own in war, aiding both bonding and catharsis: ‘an easement to the much besieged spirit’, as Ashley Montagu put it.
So routine was swearing in WWI that to omit it carried real force. In his 1930 book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918, John Brophy writes, ‘If a sergeant said, “Get your ––––ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’
We can assume that fucking is the censored word. The spread of fuck through war is described in Ruth Wajnryb’s Expletive Deleted (2005):
Around 100 FUCK-formative trademarks are registered at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). That’s not including a bunch of sanitized-ish FOX, FVCKs, and similar close calls. In addition to TOM FORD FUCKING FABULOUS — the derivation of which was explored fabulously by my fellow Strong Language contributor Nancy Friedman — other registered fucking marks include:
- FUCK IT! for “noodle-based prepared meals”
- GOOD FUCKING for wine and other alcoholic beverages
- GET THE FUCK OUT OF BED for coffee beans
- FUCK PROOF for mascara
The following design mark is registered for podcast productions, which the producers intriguingly describe as “a true crime comedy podcast about cults, murder and other generally fucked up stuff”: