Shiiiiiit: The how and why of swearing in TV series

This is a guest post by Monika Bednarek, a linguist who has extensively analyzed US TV series. She is the author of Language and Television Series and the editor of Creating Dialogue for TV, a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. She has created a companion website at www.syd-tv.com and tweets at @corpusling.

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The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?

Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.

Using another language

Instead of swearing in English, TV characters can swear in a different language. The sci-fi series Firefly is famous for un-subtitled Mandarin Chinese swearing, with examples discussed online.

Inventing swear words

TV series can invent new swear words which don’t yet exist in English. Again, sci-fi series are well known for doing this. Battlestar Galactica has frak (fraked, fraking), while Firefly features swears like gorram, rutting, and humped.

The flipside of inventing new words is to revive old expressions like Oh, zounds, which can be used in fantasy or historical drama. But this is not a general practice. In Deadwood, fuck and cocksucker are used frequently. In Game of Thrones, characters do use specific expressions like seven hells and sons of whores, but they also use fuck and many other swear words.

There are also other creative and innovative practices. In The Good Place, swear words are replaced with similar-sounding words (e.g. fork for fuck; shirt for shit), because characters are unable to swear in the afterlife. There are lots of replacements or inventions, which we can also find in the movies. Stan Carey has written about what happens when movies are dubbed for TV, with family-friendly substitutes like mothercrusher.

Using euphemisms

English has many well-known euphemisms for swear words, such as gosh, darned, heck, freaking, frigging, fudge, jeez, shoot, shucks, bull, and so on. But TV series don’t really go about replacing every swear word with its euphemism. Many episodes that feature a euphemism also feature the relevant swear word in the same episode. Often, these euphemisms are used because they tell us something about the TV character, instead of just using them to avoid swearing altogether.

Using milder swear words

TV series that don’t use strong swearing (for example, because it’s prohibited on network TV) often use mild or borderline swear words. Expressions with god (like oh my god, oh god, god) are especially frequent and occur in many series. Other swear words with religious origin are also quite common (damn, damnit; expressions with hell). TV characters like to say what the hell a fair bit. Interestingly, other swear words with religious origin are not so frequent, like non-literal Jesus, Christ or Lord.

Bleeping swear words

The bleeping of swearing can be used creatively in TV series, and can even become a characteristic of a series. Arrested Development (originally on network television) is famous for bleeping ‘forbidden’ words, allowing viewers to fill in the words, and using the bleeping to create humour.

Even when the show was rebooted on Netflix, the bleeping was retained.

TV characters evaluating swearing negatively

One of the things I noticed in quite a few US series is that TV characters directly comment on other characters’ swearing. Often these comments are negative, for example:

  • Why are you cursing? (Mad Men)
  • No need to curse (Parks and Recreation)
  • I’ll spare the court the language that Annalise used (How to Get Away with Murder)

These don’t seem to be messages from the TV creators to the audience. Just like euphemisms, these examples tell us something about the character who makes such comments or about other aspects of the narrative.

Using strong swear words

Because federal regulations don’t apply to subscription-based television, TV series on cable or streaming services have the option of letting TV characters use strong swear words. Words like fuck, shit, cunt, motherfucker and cocksucker usually rate high in tabooness or offensiveness. Of these strong words, only expressions with fuck and shit are highly frequent in some US TV series. And with fuck-expressions, almost 40% are cases of intensifying uses of fucking (adjective- or adverb-like, for example you fucking idiot or I fucking hate you). It’s therefore not the case that uncensored TV series use all strong swear words indiscriminately, without variation.

What’s more, uncensored TV series don’t all behave the same way as far as swearing is concerned. In general, there’s quite a bit of variation when we look at how frequent particular word forms are across both uncensored and censored TV series – I’ve tried to visualise this here. Because of this variation, it can be really interesting to look at a particular show and how it uses swearing, like son of a bitch in How I Met Your Mother.

So there are lots of different ways in which TV characters use swearing in US TV series. I’ve only given a few examples here – no doubt avid TV viewers have their own interesting examples to add! But what I haven’t yet discussed is whether swearing in TV series is gratuitous. You may already guess that my answer is no. When we look at swear words more closely, we can see that they fulfil different functions for the story, often several at the same time. Swearing expresses a character’s emotions and personality – sometimes a swear word is even used almost like a catchphrase. Think of Jesse’s bitch in Breaking Bad or Clay Davis’s shiiiiiit in The Wire.

Swearing can tell us about how characters feel about others or how they relate to them. When characters swear, this can create realism, because it is what people in the ‘real’ world would be expected to do in a similar situation. In some cases, swearing informs us about the fictional world, as in the examples from Firefly, Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones that I mentioned above. And swearing can be funny, for example when used in word play or when we encounter characters’ unexpected or unsuccessful swearing. This scene from Lilyhammer is funny, because of the unexpected pride of the father in his young son’s swearing.

Swearing in TV series is interesting to look at because it’s so noticeable, people react to it in different ways, and it’s subject to regulations. At the same time, swearing has important functions for TV series, and there’s a lot of creativity in the different ways that particular swear words are used or avoided.

Further reading:

You can read more about the different ways that swear words are used in TV series in my open-access academic journal article “‘Don’t say crap. Don’t use swear words.’ – Negotiating the use of swear/taboo words in the narrative mass media.” And you can read more about the functions of swearing in TV series in this book chapter.

8 thoughts on “Shiiiiiit: The how and why of swearing in TV series

  1. partiallycreative March 29, 2019 / 9:37 pm

    I believe “gorram” is a very old euphemism, not a new creation.

    The comic book series Alien Legion — which was written for adults, but would obviously attract a lot of children — used “shag” as its go-to swear word. Blunt enough for members of what was essentially the French Foreign Legion in space, but not likely to raise complaints from parents.

    Like

  2. Laura D March 31, 2019 / 5:14 am

    I first watched the Amazon series The Collection on PBS. In the first or second episode, a character says “What am I going to do? Call the French navy and ask them for a list of sailors who like to kiss boys?” I rewatched it later on Amazon Prime expecting the same line, but it came out somewhat different: “What am I going to do? Call the French navy and ask them for a list of sailors who like to suck cock?”

    The difference made me laugh.

    Like

  3. jaap April 2, 2019 / 3:12 pm

    To add to the list of invented sci-fi swear words, there is “smeg” used in the UK series Red Dwarf.

    I agree with partiallycreative that Firefly’s “gorram” is probably more a revival of an archaic swear, as some characters (Mal and Kaylee) sometimes used amusing archaic expressions in the series. For example, Kaylee saying “We’re on a year now, I ain’t had nothing ‘twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.”, or Mal saying “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.”. It helps establish the Western feel of the series.

    Like

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