It is once again my solemn duty to present the annual Strong Language honors for excellence in swearing, named for our patron saint Malcolm Tucker, Peter Capaldi’s paragon of sweariness as seen on BBC’s The Thick of It, the cinematic offshoot In the Loop, and countless YouTube montages ever since.
This is the fourth time the Tucker Awards have been bestowed on worthy recipients — feel free to take a stroll back in time and peruse the winners of 2015, 2016, and 2017. But as the calendar turns on 2018, let’s get down to fucking business.
Best Fucking Swearing of 2018
David Simon has already earned his place in the pantheon of swearing for creating the crime drama The Wire, which ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. In one classic scene from the first season (as previously discussed here), Simon had two police detectives, McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce), communicate at a crime scene with variations of the word fuck — and nothing else. Truly a bravura performance: watch it now if you’ve somehow missed it. And we also have Simon to thank for giving Isiah Whitlock Jr., as The Wire‘s Senator Clay Davis, the opportunity to turn “Sheeeeeeeee-it!” into a timeless catchphrase. (Whitlock was honored with a Tucker Award in 2016 for applying his signature expression to that shitty year. He’s still at it: he just tweeted a New Year’s “Sheeeeeeeee-it!” from Tokyo.)
But in 2018, Simon went on a remarkable run of creative obscenity, and for this he is without question the overall champion of this year’s Tucker Awards. Simon used his Twitter account as a testing ground for a seemingly endless stream of epithets, directing his ire at a wide variety of targets, notably the powers-that-be at Twitter itself. The first such tweet that caught my attention came on June 22, when he anointed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and his colleagues fuckmooks:
At the time, Simon had recently come off a temporary suspension from Twitter for telling someone to “die of boils.” Then, after hurling the same insult at Dorsey, he was suspended again. Simon would later dub Dorsey “a fuckbonnet for our time” on his blog. “You gutless, cheese-eating, back-dooring fuckbonnet,” he added for good measure. Fuckbonnet is a lovely example of a “shitgibbon compound” (see last year’s Tuckers for more on that linguistic phenomenon). And Simon made frequent use of fuckbonnet all the way until year’s end.
But fuckmook and fuckbonnet are just the tip of the iceberg. Here is an incomplete list of Simon’s arsenal of swears from 2018 (shitgibbon-style and otherwise).
- go fuck a tree mulcher
- you open fuck-lesion
And to those who object to his neologistic profanity, Simon has a special message.
Truly, the spirit of Malcolm Tucker is alive and well.
Best Fucking Swearing in the Media (U.S. edition)
It goes without saying that Donald Trump earns no laurels from Strong Language for his reported comments back in January, in a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy, when he referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and the African continent in one fell swoop as “shithole countries.” (Or was it “shithouse countries”? Either way, the comments gave me an excuse to explore the history of both shithole and shithouse for The Atlantic. See also the Strong Language coverage from Kory Stamper and James Harbeck.)
Notably, a number of prominent media outlets featured Trump’s vile language unexpurgated, and a Tucker Award for Bravery in Swearing goes out to all of the newsroom editors around the country (and the world) who decided not to pull any punches. On cable news, it was possible to watch these decisions emerge in real time by following the chyrons.
In American print media, The New York Times and The Washington Post both deserve special recognition for unapologetically quoting Trump in their articles. The Post even ran a follow-up article (quoting Kory Stamper and me) that examined how editors dealt with Trump’s shithole comment, a challenging moment for obscenity-averse outlets like The New York Times. As confirmed by the Twitter bot @NYT_first_said, this was the first time that shithole appeared in The Times.
But the Gray Lady was up to her old ways later in the year. For some reason, when Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman reported on Trump’s growing isolation in the White House in December, his complaint about being surrounded by “fucking idiots” was decorously changed to “freaking idiots” (with fucking coyly alluded to as “a more pungent word”).
(Perhaps The Times deserves a Cowardice in Swearing award for that one.)
CNN also merits recognition for a decision made in June against bowdlerization, as reported on Strong Language in Nancy Friedman’s sweary news roundup:
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.”
CNN’s decision against bleeping also yielded an unexpected bonus: Sen. Marco Rubio’s prudish reaction on Twitter, to which our favorite sweary lexicographers quickly responded.
Best Fucking Swearing in the Media (overseas edition)
It may take presidential swearing for American media outlets to reconsider their policies against airing or printing obscenities, but in the U.K., the situation is far less prim. Even in a more latitudinarian media environment, though, sweary language can be bracingly effective. BBC Two’s satirical news show The Mash Report earns plaudits for a segment they ran in March, “A Message from Women Everywhere.” (That message is “fuck off.”)
Danny Dyer, one of the stars of Eastenders, also spiced up the British airwaves in 2018 when he went on a tirade against Brexit on ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Who knows about Brexit? No one has got a fucking clue what Brexit is… What’s happened to that twat [David] Cameron who brought it on? Let’s be fair. How come he can scuttle off? He called all this on. Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice with his trotters up. Where is the geezer? I think he should be held accountable for it. Twat.
On the print side, let’s hear it for Financial Times reader Judith Martin, who responded to a query about whether obscenities should be printed in the newspaper. And kudos to the FT editors for printing her delightfully sweary letter.
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics (U.S. edition)
Again, no awards go to Trump for his shitty use of language, even when he thinks he’s being clever — as when he called Rep. Adam Schiff “Adam Schitt” on Twitter. Instead, let’s hear from frequent Trump critic George Conway, who just happens to be married to White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. In a Yahoo News podcast, Conway reflects on the moment when he decided that (unlike his wife) he had no interest in joining the Trump administration.
I’m filling out the financial forms and it’s like — I forget what time of year it was, it was like late April — man, I’m thinking. I’m watching this thing, and it’s like the administration is like a shitshow in a dumpster fire. And I’m like, I don’t want to do that. I don’t know.
Now, shitshow and dumpster fire are hardly novel expressions. (Dumpster fire was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2016, and Nancy Friedman wrote here about the popularity of shitshow last year.) But combining the two into “a shitshow in a dumpster fire” certainly creates an evocative image.
(Honorable mention in this category goes to Steve Bannon and all the other Trump allies who made profane comments about the shitshow that is the Trump White House, as reported by Michael Wolff in his book Fire and Fury, published in January. See John Kelly’s Strong Language post for more.)
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics (overseas edition)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised a lot of eyebrows when she used the English loanword shitstorm in a speech at a technology conference in early December. She recalled calling the internet “uncharted territory,” which “generated quite a shitstorm” (das brachte mir einen großen Shitstorm ein).
Merkel’s use of shitstorm even led to a New York Times analysis — which, thankfully, didn’t expurgate the word in question. As it turns out, Merkel has been quoted using shitstorm since 2012, and she’s hardly alone among speakers of German. It was recognized as the 2011 Anglicism of the Year by German linguists acknowledging the usefulness of the English borrowing, and in 2013 the word entered Duden, the authoritative German dictionary. Still, in 2018, it’s kind of remarkable that a head of state can drop an S-bomb with such casual aplomb.
Best Fucking Swearing in Sports
When the NHL’s Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in June, the celebrations in Washington, D.C. were immense and joyous. The Capitals captain, Moscow-born Alexander Ovechkin, uttered a memorable soundbite at the team’s championship parade, in his inimitable Russian-tinged English: “We’re not going to be fucking suck this year.”
As Deadspin recently noted, Ovechkin has indeed not been fucking suck this year.
Best Fucking Swearing in the Movies
The Hate U Give, a movie about a black high school student who learns to speak out after witnessing the police shooting of a friend, marked something of a milestone. The director, George Tillman Jr., was able to get a PG-13 rating for the film from the Motion Picture Association of America, despite the fact that the word fuck is heard twice. Typically, more than one fuck earns an automatic R rating. The Martian, winner of a 2015 Tucker, is the only other movie I know of that has managed to bend this rule. In the case of The Hate U Give, the MPAA was convinced that both instances of fuck were necessary for dramatic purposes, and the PG-13 rating means that a movie about high school actually gets to be seen by high schoolers without adult accompaniment. You can read all about it in this New York Times article, which (deep sigh) does not use the word fuck.
Deserving of an honorable mention is Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s. Set in Los Angeles in the 1990s, it tells the story of Stevie, a 13-year-old who befriends a group of skaters named Ruben, Ray, Fourth Grade, and Fuckshit. As you can guess from “Fuckshit,” this is an extremely sweary movie (check out the red-band trailer, in which Fuckshit is called “you fuckin’ Sheryl Crow-lookin’ motherfucker” by Jerrod Carmichael as a security guard). A total of 171 F-bombs are dropped in the film — which, according to the list maintained by Wikipedia, is the most for any major release in 2018, edging out Sorry to Bother You with 160 (though it’s tame compared to 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street with 569). Lagging far behind is A Star is Born, though the fucks given in that film are quite prominent, thanks to Bradley Cooper’s performance. It even generated a Vulture article titled, “Exactly How Many Times Does Bradley Cooper Say ‘Fuck’ in A Star Is Born?” (Answer: 54.)
Elsewhere on the sweary-movie-stars beat, Vulture’s Hunter Harris reported on this exchange between Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow on Paltrow’s Goop podcast:
Julia Roberts: 42’s my lucky numbaaaaaah.
Gwyneth Paltrow: [whispers] That’s my lucky number!
Julia Roberts: Shut your fucking face!
Best Fucking Swearing in Marketing
Commercials have long made use of strategic bleeping to get some attention: see Nancy Friedman’s 2015 post, “Those bleeping commercials!” The marketing folks at the fried chicken chain Popeyes deserve some props for applying that same strategy to print by using the swearing characters that I like to call “obscenicons” (though they’re often called “grawlix”). In September, Popeyes unveiled a spicy dipping sauce that they dubbed %@$# Sauce — presumably because the extreme spiciness would lead to profanity. (At a Popeyes in Austin, Texas, they even set up a %@$# Sauce Booth for people to react appropriately.) I learned about this marketing ploy from Bill Oakley, a comedy writer for The Simpsons and many other shows, who has become the premiere fast-food critic thanks to his terrific minute-long reviews on Instagram. Here’s his review of the Popeyes “profanity sauce,” as he calls it.
Best Fucking Swearing in Publishing
Nancy Friedman alerted us to a new book by Dan Lyons, Lab Rats: How Silicon Valley Made Work Miserable for the Rest of Us, which may be the Sweariest Business Book of 2018. Nancy counts 10 instances of shit, including: “Like [Frederick] Taylor, these [management consultants] are mostly full of shit.” One chapter title is “The No-Shit-Sherlock School of Management.” There are also 10 examples of bullshit, e.g. (speaking of Silicon Valley): “When you dig through the bullshit you discover, as Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, that ‘there is no there there.'” And there are a handful of instances of fuck and variants, including “Good. Fucking. Grief.” There’s also hellspawn, which is how Lyons characterizes an organizational fad called Scaled Agile Framework.
Props also to the anthropologist David Graeber, who published the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, based on an essay he wrote in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” As Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review notes, Graeber makes a fine distinction between “shit jobs” and “bullshit jobs.” Such careful use of taboo terms is much appreciated at a time when, as Slate’s Ruth Graham has observed, profanity is all over publishing, especially in book titles where swears are deployed as a kind of easy gimmick to grab the attention of online book shoppers. Let’s hope 2019 brings us even more thoughtful sweariness.