Swears in the news

What a fucking week! In the U.S., Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement — but only after siding with the court majority in upholding President Trump’s travel ban and bestowing a judicial blessing on anti-abortion facilities. The Environment Protection Agency’s chief ethics officer recommended an investigation of his own boss. Immigrant children as young as 3 were being ordered to appear in court alone. A gunman with a festering grudge shot up the newsroom of a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five employees. And in the UK … well, we’ll get there in a minute.

It was, in short, a week guaranteed to elicit a lot of strong language, and on that score it did not disappoint. Here’s a brief round-up.


Ratfucking in the sense of “political sabotage” was made famous in Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men (1974), which ascribed the term to Nixon Administration staffers who’d honed their sneaky skills at the University of Southern California. (In The F Word, Jesse Sheidlower cites a 1965 issue of American Speech that attributes the term to Stanford University students.) Now there’s a new citation for ratfucking: a letter from a Democratic congressman, Raja Krishnamoorthi, to a Republican counterpart, Trey Gowdy, that quoted Daily Beast headline about the ethically challenged head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Ratf*cking, is not, of course, to be confused with “ratfcking.”


Justice Kennedy’s retirement announcement was a crushing setback for many progressively inclined Americans who saw Kennedy as a moderating influence on the Supreme Court. Or, as The New York Daily News put it:

The Huffington Post provided context.

Splinter News, published by the AV Club, didn’t bother with a subject or verb: It headlined its Kennedy story with seven unmodified fucks.


After the Annapolis newsroom massacre, one survivor gave full vent to her emotions on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” — and the network broke precedent by airing her unexpurgated remarks. “Thanks for your prayers,” Capital Gazette staff writer Selene San Felice said in an audibly anguished phone interview with Cooper, acknowledging a perfunctory tweet from President Trump, “but I couldn’t give a fuck about them if there’s nothing else.”

Possibly in response to CNN’s decision not to bleep, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, issued a pearl-clutching tweet of his own. Here are a few of our favorite responses.





On June 30, there were marches and rallies in 48 states to protest the forced separation of children from families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most of the signs were G-rated. But not all of them.

Oakland, California, June 30, 2018. (Photo credit: Nancy Friedman)


Meanwhile, what of Brexit? Glad you asked. On the Thursday edition of “Good Morning Britain,” the actor Danny Dyer “unleashed a tirade of abuse at the state of Brexit negotiations to an audience of millions,” as The Guardian put it. “Who knows about Brexit? No one has got a fucking clue what Brexit is,” Dyer said, adding another rhetorical question for good measure: “What’s happened to that twat [former Prime Minister David] Cameron who brought it on?”

Twat, a vulgarism for the female pudendum that falls somewhere on the disparagement scale between pussy and cunt, has been documented in English since the 1650s; the OED says its origin is unknown. In 2013 the BBC America website included it in a list of “10 British expressions Americans won’t understand.” We’ll see about that: Look for more about twat in a future Strong Language post.


Are you ready to close the book on the last week of June? Are you nostalgic for that far-away time, just a month ago, when we were debating the merits of feckless cunt as employed by late-night-show host Samantha Bee against Ivanka Trump? Perhaps a song by Randy Rainbow will help ease the way into the second half of 2018.

(Multiple hat tips to my Strong Language colleagues Ben Zimmer, John Kelly, James Harbeck, and Stan Carey.)

6 thoughts on “Swears in the news

  1. Patrick Collins July 1, 2018 / 11:04 am

    That twat Cameron is on the lecture circuit making a mint from having been a pig-fucking incompetent arsewipe. Like another mass-murdering former Prime Minister.

    Strangely the OED does not have the verb “twat” meaning to hit someone, though it does have it in a definition from 1998 for a phrase in “one”.


    • Patrick Collins July 1, 2018 / 11:06 am

      I did like this article but I would have to register with WordPress to click the “Like” button. I am afraid you will have to be satisfied with an old-fashioned appreciation.


  2. John Cowan July 1, 2018 / 6:28 pm

    As usual when it comes to matters linguistic, the BBC is the Bullshit-Broadcasting Corporation. Americans not only know twat (I myself have known it for fifty years), we still remember how to fucking pronounce it, unlike the fucking Brits. We give it the LOT vowel (which by normal sound change has merged with the PALM vowel in almost all of North America), unlike that lot, who use the TRAP vowel according to the spelling. This, along with Robert Browning’s belief that it meant ‘nun’s garment’, shows that the entire fucking lexeme had been forgotten over there in the 19C, at least among the “respectable classes”, but retained here.

    (It is true that the ‘fool’ senses of twat and cunt aren’t in use over here, and aren’t likely to become so: the words as applied to women carry too strong a charge of hatred.)

    Liked by 1 person

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