The situation comedy How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM), created by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, aired for nine seasons (2005–2014) on CBS. The show focuses on the complicated friendships among five twenty-/thirty-somethings: Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor) is an architect from Cleveland, Ohio; Marshall Erikson (Jason Segel), a lawyer, hails from Minnesota; his girlfriend/fiancée/wife, Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) is a kindergarten teacher and New York native. Ted, Marshall, and Lily met while students at Wesleyan University. They are joined by Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), a Canadian trying to make a career as a news reporter/anchor. Their antics are framed by Ted’s voice-over explanation to his children (the voice belongs to Bob Saget), in 2030, about how he met their mother, Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti), whose face we first see in Season 9. It’s not television for the impatient.
HIMYM was a prime time fixture on Monday evenings, when characters can’t drop f-bombs or other words proscribed by Standards and Practices, according to Federal Communications Commission rules. But since people of an age — coincidentally, the same age as the main characters in HIMYM — swear regularly, how can writers achieve something like tonal accuracy in dialogue without any bad language? Bitch is the answer, permissible on television, but not always in polite conversation. HIMYM’s writers deploy some form of bitch something like 117 times during the series — that’s what I extracted, and don’t ask me to re-watch the series anytime soon — about half as many bitches as the series’ 208 episodes. It’s frequent but not obsessive, effective and not especially offensive — though someone somewhere will be offended, of course — though some of the characters do use bitch offensively, subjects for later installments of the bitch chronicles.
Bitch isn’t as versatile as fuck, nor are bitch spawn as easily derived as fuck spawn, so HIMYM has little enough profanity to go on. There’s plenty of the bitch ‘best friend’ appropriated from African American speech, as well as mean, aggressive bitch. Once, by my count, in “Ted Mosby: Architect” (9 October 2006), someone bitches ‘complains’; there’s also a bitch-slap in “Slutty Pumpkin” (October 2005); and there’s a playful bitchin’ ‘awesome’ in “Bedtime Stories,” as well (25 November 2013). But son of a bitch is the most frequent among these basic bitch forms — I had to search out a bigger binder clip for the son of a bitch citations — and within son of a bitch, we discover, there’s considerable variety and opportunities for humor, welcome news for a situation comedy.
Son of a bitch is elegantly double-edged profanity. It manages to insult both its target and the target’s mother. Motherfucking is all down to the motherfucker, and the profane force of the whole motherfucking repertoire depends on the concept’s unnaturalness, the way it evokes something truly taboo. Son of a bitch relies instead on a calculated surplus of mean, which is designed to infuriate the good son — who can’t bear hearing his mother defamed — as well as the bad son — the misogynistic one — who won’t allow someone to degrade him just because he was born of a woman, who won’t accept that woman is antecedent to man.
Son of a bitch is old, at least as old as the phrase biche sone recorded in the metrical romance Arthur and Merlin, circa 1330. Early on, profaners preferred son of a whore to son of a bitch, I suppose because bitch condemns all women for just being women, whereas whore condemns only women of ill-repute. There’s a logic to that, even if it’s a misogynistic logic. The first recorded instance of son of a bitch is, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, for sons of bitches, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Coxcomb (1613). Seventeenth-century drama overflows with obsolete slang and profanity, but that son of a bitch pushed its way into everyday vocabulary and stuck for centuries, until it eased into the scripts of HIMYM.
Some sons of bitches are angry, even appropriately so. One of the many women Barney screws — in at least two senses — shouts after him, in the “World’s Greatest Couple” (16 October 2006): “You son of a bitch! I can’t believe I let you enter my sacred temple!” She uses the term with a differently flawed logic: how could a man be such an asshole if his mother wasn’t a bitch? Understandably, though, who wants a dog in her sacred temple? Barney faces such opprobrium on a regular basis. His date in “The Naked Man” (24 November 2009), echoes the refrain: “Get outta here right now, get out, you son of a bitch!” Famously, Ted steals a blue plastic French horn wall ornament from the restaurant where he had his first date with Robin. When they dare to return to the restaurant, in “Something Blue” (14 May 2007), the waiter cries, “You’re the son of a bitch who stole our blue French horn,” and truer words were never spoken.
Other conventional uses of son of a bitch and related forms abound. Robin can let fly with a casual, “Wait a minute, you sons of bitches,” in “The Three Days Rule” (27 April 2009). Ted’s stepfather, Clint (played by Harry Groener), abandoned on the roadside during “The Lighthouse” (4 November 2013) by Marshall and his road trip companion, Daphne (played by Sherri Shepherd), comes out of a meditative trance, realizes his predicament, and shouts, “Son of a bitch!” surprised son of a bitch being another time-honored use of the phrase. In “Architect of Destruction” (18 October 2010), Ted’s nemesis and eventual girlfriend, Zoey (played by Jennifer Morrison), taunts him while protesting outside his apartment, because Ted wants to demolish a historic building to make room for one of his own design: “Hey, Mosby. You’re gonna have to come out here at some point, you son of a bitch” — and truer words were never spoken.
My favorite HIMYM son of a bitch occurs in the episode “Miracles” (which aired on 19 May 2008). Ted and Stella (played by Sarah Chalke) — his girlfriend of the season — have had a fight, during which Ted believes he’s broken up with her, but he’s so vague that Stella doesn’t realize that’s what he thinks he’s doing. Stella visits him in the hospital — a cab he’s taken gets into an accident — and she discovers the truth there, and asks, “Did he think that was a breakup? Son of a bitch.” It’s such a great son of a bitch because it means several things at once: It’s an epiphany of a son of a bitch, as well as a frustrated son of a bitch, and, of course Stella also thinks Ted is a son of a bitch. It’s an example of how some profanity is like poetry.
And, watching HIMYM, that surprises us. Ted often attempts to quote poetry, but the others are having none of it — they’re not poetry people, and most of the show’s audience probably isn’t, either. HIMYM is funny and sentimental. It’s a cozy comedy, partly because its central characters live more plausibly than those on Friends. Lessons are learned. Wisdom is imparted. The dialogue is witty. There are surprisingly successful musical numbers, but in some scenes, it’s the son of a bitch that sings.