Our last bitch chronicle ended by observing that son of a bitch is semantically poetic. The sounds of son of a bitch can be poetic, too. It takes stress at different points for different expressive purposes: son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch. So, there’s value in the full and precise articulation of the phrase, but also pragmatic value in truncating the phrase, or extending it, or playing with it euphemistically.
For some mouths and purposes, son of a bitch is just too hard to say. Twentieth-century writers attempted to improve it. Green’s Dictionary of Slang records Ezra Pound writing, in 1927, “I shd. like to protect Fenellosa from sonzofbitches like —. […] Naturally any sonvbitch who knows a little Nipponese can jump on it.” The /nv/ is begging to assimilate to /m/, and so, gradually, it does, tentatively in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) — “Whoo! That sonumbitch!” again from Green — and then with assurance and even swagger, in Robert Campbell’s Alice in La-La Land (1987) — “So Rialto delivered her to this Roger Twelvetrees. She recognized the sumbitch” — and Carl Hiassen’s Lucky You (1997) — “Goddamn lyin’ sumbitch Cuban!” — for which we once again gratefully acknowledge Mr. Slang. Thus, the ground was set for HIMYM and the twenty-first-century history of sumbitch.
Very early in the series, in “Come On” (which aired on 15 May 2006), Robin responds to harassment by her co-anchor, Sandy Rivers (Alexis Denisof), with “Well, I’d give you the ‘I Don’t Date Co-Workers’ speech again, but, God, you must have that sumbitch memorized by now.” Sumbitch is jocular and thus diminishes Sandy, or it would if he weren’t perversely impervious. Then, sumbitch disappears for years of the series, only to resurface in Season 7, in “Symphony of Illumination” (5 December 2011), when the soon-to-prove deviant neighbor teen, Scott, asks Marshall, “Hey, mister. Are you putting up all these Christmas lights?” Marshall responds, “Aw, kid. By the time I’m done, you’re gonna see this sumbitch from outer space.” Here, son of a bitch promotes intergenerational bonding, but in sumbitch — a semi-euphemism — also protects the youngster. Robin seems to associate it with a blatant disregard for grammar, which is part of its slanginess, in “Farhampton” (24 September 2012): “Ah, got it, man! That sumbitch have been in there since breakfast. Robin one, poppy seed zero.” Sumbitch sums up a victory that really isn’t.
Sumbitch ends up pivotally important to the series. Lily takes the train to Farhampton for Robin and Barney’s wedding, distraught because Marshall and their baby son are still en route. A stranger on the train who happens to be Tracy — The Mother we awaited for eight years —consoles her by offering her a cookie, joking that it might be poisoned, since Tracy is a total stranger. Lily bites into a cookie anyway and says, “You know what? I don’t care if these are poisoned. There’s chocolate, and peanut butter, and caramel in these sumbitches.” Tracy cries, “I call them sumbitches!” They befriend each other over those sumbitches. Tracy, we learn in her first encounters with all the main characters, is terrifically well attuned to others’ emotional needs. She may call those cookies sumbitches on the fly because that’s what Lily needs to hear.
Sumbitch may work euphemistically at times, and there are, of course, still other prevaricating forms, like son of a _____, first recorded in 1759, in James Townley’s farce, High Life Below Stairs. Marshall utters son of a _____ in “Benefits” (12 January 2009), Robin in “The Burning Beekeeper” (6 February 2012). The real euphemistic fun, though, begins after Lily and Marshall have their son, Marvin. When Marvin spits up on her in “Nannies” (8 Oct 2012), Lily says in her baby talk voice, “You son of a,” pauses while she looks at Marvin, and continues, in Pig Latin, “eetch-bay.” It should be itch-bay, though, shouldn’t it? As we’ll see, the eetch fits into another bitchy pattern of usage later in the series.
A few episodes after “Nannies,” in “Lobster Crawl” (3 December 2012), Lily is a more confident mother, a little edgier, and regaining her pre-partem sense of humor. Ted has been babysitting Marvin and witnesses all his firsts, including his first crawl. Lily wants to see some crawling, too, but Marvin will not oblige her: “If you ever want to see these boobs again,” Lily warns him, “crawl, you son-of-a-me.” In the final season, in “Rally” (24 February 2014), a future Lily watches as her future underage son enters a bar. “You son of a b____,” she says as the screen splits and we see Marvin simultaneously mouth “Son of a b____” when he sees his mom. Kids say the darndest things.
Season 4 sees a cluster of interesting developments in HIMYM’s son of a bitch. First, the “item” in question grows from a phrase to a sentence: You son of a bitch. Second, the sentence responds to a “threat” from a central character, a threat to expose a fact the sentence-utterer doesn’t want exposed. It all starts in “Happily Ever After” (3 November 2008):
Ted: Really. You wouldn’t hide from anyone.
Barney: Unh unh.
Ted: Not even, say, Rebecca DeLucci?
Barney: You son of a bitch.
Then, in “The Possimpible” (2 February 2009), we hear this exchange:
Ted: So, Marshall and I are the only people at the table with weak-ass crap on their resumes?
Lily: What are you implying?
Ted: Oh. Oh, wow. Does the date July 4, 1992 mean anything to you?
Lily: You son of a bitch.
And still later, in “Sorry, Bro” (9 March 2009):
Ted: OK, Lily, let’s be honest. We both know your real motivation here. You hate Karen because she lingered [in looking appreciatively at Marshall].
Lily: You son of a bitch.
Thus, You son of a bitch took on a specific pragmatic significance in the show, one maintained until the ninth and final season.
Lily Aldrin, the kindergarten teacher with a big grin and usually sweet disposition, has a dark side, actually several not necessarily compatible dark sides, some of which we’ll encounter in later bitch chronicles. It’s hard to see the goth teenager who terrorized her neighborhood in kindergarten teacher Lily. She’s wholesome but intensely sexual, inclined to the kinky. With Lily, you’re not sure quite what to expect, and that’s part of the comedy. At the same time, she’s the central character voted most likely to use a euphemism, and she does it in a vowel, just like the Irish, whose feck is politer than fuck. She’s on record with You son of a bitch, for instance in “The Playbook” (6 November 2009), but in the same episode we hear the first instance of her signature euphemism: “You son of a beetch.”
The euphemistic version serves the same pragmatic purpose as the straightforward one. For instance, in Season 6, in “A Change of Heart” (28 February 2011), we encounter a familiar conversational pattern:
Barney: Guys, this is real, and if you don’t make me look good in front of Nora, just remember, I’ve got dirt on each of you, and I am not afraid to spill it.
Lily: Barney, you can’t blackmail us into lying to Nora.
Barney: Really, Lily? Even if I were to mention, oh, I don’t know, your kindergarten class’s pet guinea pig?
Lily: Mr. Buttons? You son of a beetch.
The whole sentence is said in a strange accent, Spanish perhaps? It sounds a bit like Mandy Patinkin’s accent as Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride (1987). Recall that Inigo says “You son of a beetch” as he dispatches the villainous Count Rugen, he of the six-fingered right hand who had killed Inigo’s father twenty years prior to the dispatching.
The show’s writers and producers must have heard the echo, too, as it leads to the re-writing or amplification of a scene from Season 1’s “The Duel” (14 November 2005). In Season 9’s “Last Time in New York” (30 September 2013), we flash back to a duel between Ted and Marshall, with their Renaissance Faire swords — they’re fighting over who gets their apartment when Marshall and Lily are married. In the flashback, but not in the Season 1 version, they banter while locking swords:
Marshall: Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya …
Ted: … You kill my father …
Together: … Prepare to die.
Voilà! Reconstructed allusion to explain Lily’s euphemism. To drive the point home, later, in the Season 9-episode, Lily says “You son of a beetch,” Inigo Montoya style.
Because, in the end, it’s a matter of style, of individual and conversational style as the essence of character in a situation comedy, reflecting and focusing ways in which real people swear in everyday speech. Son of a bitch performs various functions, some of them angry and mean, others quirky but elevated. In “The Duel,” Lily enters the apartment in mid-duel and Marshall accidentally cuts her. In “Last Time in New York,” Ted and Marshall slash one of Lily’s dresses, just back from the cleaner’s. You son of a beetch is funny and poetic, but it resembles the swordplay; it’s a fetchingly clumsy flourish, a disarming verbal brandishment.