With the calendar turning on another year (and another decade), it’s time once again for the annual Strong Language honors for excellence in swearing. For the past half-decade, Strong Language has been on the scene, tracking all the highlights in low language. (Check out our previous roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.) As always, the awards are named in honor of the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the endlessly quotable antihero played by Peter Capaldi in the BBC political satire The Thick of It and the film followup In the Loop.
Lately, Capaldi has reunited with Armando Iannucci, the creator of The Thick of It (as well as the equally sweary Veep) in the new film The Personal History of David Copperfield. Even though a different Dickensian adaptation, BBC One’s A Christmas Carol, managed to slip in some swearing, Capaldi’s Mr. Micawber is obscenity-free, so we’ll have to keep the spirit of Malcolm Tucker alive ourselves. As Malcolm would say, come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off.
Best Fucking Swearing of 2019
HBO has long been a haven for creative, over-the-top obscenity, and now that Veep has gone off the air, it’s up to John Oliver to carry the sweary mantle on his show Last Week Tonight. We’ve previously recognized Oliver’s excellence in televised swearing in 2015 and 2016, and this time around he and his staff outdid themselves with a supremely obscene musical spectacle that wins the top Tucker honors for 2019.
Oliver has had a long-running feud with coal company CEO Bob Murray, who sued Last Week Tonight and HBO for defamation after a critical segment back in 2017. Murray lost the case, and Oliver spoke out about it (and similarly frivolous “SLAPP” lawsuits) in a November episode. Since “loose, figurative language that cannot reasonably be understood to convey facts” has been ruled as protected speech, that gave Oliver license to roast Murray in a true tour de force, “Eat Shit, Bob: The Musical” (accompanied by the “Suck My Balls, Bob” Dancers).
The production is full of unexpected twists — as when HBO’s legal counsel rushes in, seemingly to stop the proceedings, but instead launches into an intricately obscene Gilbert & Sullivan-style interlude. There’s too much to quote, but you can savor the lyrics in full here.
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics (U.S. edition)
It’s hard to choose the winner for U.S. political swearing in a year that featured so much of it on both sides of the aisle. The year kicked off with a bang in anti-Trump obscenity, as new House member Rashida Tlaib of Michigan vowed in January that she and her fellow Democrats were “going to impeach the motherfucker.” Trump disingenuously responded that Tlaib had “dishonored herself and dishonored her family using language like that,” but of course Trump himself has definitively assumed the role of Swearer In Chief. The New York Times ran an article in May under the headline, “The Profanity President: Trump’s Four-Letter Vocabulary,” and in October, the Washington Post reported on “how Trump took swearing mainstream.” (In a sign of that mainstreaming, both the Times and Post articles published Trump’s notable obscenities, from “shithole countries” to “I’m fucked,” without expurgation.)
While Trump may have helped to license public political swearing in 2019, he’ll get no plaudits here for angrily calling the impeachment effort “bullshit” on Twitter and in rallies. A more potent form of swearing came from Beto O’Rourke on the campaign trail in August. After the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, O’Rourke lost his patience with reporters asking about Trump’s role in inciting violence, uttering the memorable line, “Members of the press, what the fuck?”
O’Rourke later told CNN that when it comes to mass shootings, “Yes, this is fucked up.” Asked by Christiane Amanpour about the swearing, O’Rourke said “it’s just honest,” adding, “we have to shock the conscience of this country.”
O’Rourke wasn’t the only one in the Democratic primary race to lose it over gun violence. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said on MSNBC, “The GOP needs to get their shit together and stop pandering to the NRA,” and after a shooting in his home state, he tweeted, “Toledo. Fck me.” While O’Rourke and Ryan were expressing righteous indignation with taboo language, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful political strategy, at least on the Democratic side. As Aaron Blake observed in the Washington Post, “If you’re swearing, you’re probably losing.” (The presidential campaigns of O’Rourke and Ryan didn’t make it to the end of the year.)
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics (UK edition)
With the endless wrangling over Brexit and general-election grief, there was plenty to swear about in British politics in 2019. It was often Boris Johnson who bore the brunt of the most heated and heartfelt swearing, such as this tweet from Hugh Grant:
But the winner here has to be the unnamed constituent of Boris Johnson from Uxbridge and South Ruislip who was interviewed by Sky News in October. When Sky’s Sophy Ridge started to ask about Johnson, the woman said, “Don’t you ever mention that name in front of me, that filthy piece of toerag,” before walking off.
Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green helpfully supplied the historical background for the toerag insult.
Johnson himself is reported to have said “fuck business” last year when asked about the concerns held by those in the business sector about a no-deal Brexit. That inspired Matt Hancock, who sought to challenge Johnson for the Conservative Party leadership in May, to come up with the counterargument: “Fuck ‘fuck business.’” (The Guardian confusingly reported this without the interior quotation marks as “Fuck fuck business.”)
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I am not sure that that answers the Question. I think that the House’s understanding of the Question will be enhanced by my explaining, at the risk of breaking conventions, that the badge worn by Mr Brinsmead-Stockham read: “Bollocks to Brexit”—like the one I have with me. It was a bit rude, certainly, but surely not a reason to be detained by Border Force. Meanwhile, a leave campaigner has put malicious devices on train tracks in a politically motivated attack on infrastructure, which is apparently not being treated by the police as terrorism. Should the authorities not get their priorities right?
Baroness Williams of Trafford: I say to my noble friend that the conventions and rules of this place and the other place have been upheld for hundreds of years and I agree that we should have the time to be able to consider such huge matters before us at this time.
Lord Tomlinson: If there was objection on the grounds of the language used, what was the offensive word? Was it bollocks or Brexit?
Baroness Williams of Trafford: Probably both.
In general, UK politics seems to be getting as sweary as the US under Trump, especially on social media. As Gizmodo reported in September, “MPs Have Been Getting a Shit-Tonne More Sweary on Twitter.” The Brexit drama is even inspiring obscenity from officials in other countries, as when Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth called Brexit “a big shitshow.” (That’s a twist on the term usually favored by German politicians: shitstorm, as used by Angela Merkel last year.)
It does seem that the Brexit era has been a “golden age of swearing innovation,” as political satirist James Rowland put it. Case in point: Ian Dunt of Politics.co.uk, live-tweeting an address by Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay in April, could only comment, “Fucking twatting shitchasm.”
Late update: On the “Bollocks to Brexit” front, kudos to the creator of the Guardian cryptic crossword who managed to sneak the slogan into a grid in September.
Best Fucking Climate-Related Swearing
Urgency over climate change has encouraged sweariness, as Grist reported in March after the global Youth Climate Strike:
Young people in Germany, Argentina, the United States, and basically everywhere walked out of school last Friday as part of the Youth Climate Strike, voicing their frustration and anger that older generations have failed to act on climate change. And their raised voices included f-bombs — lots and lots of f-bombs.
Several photos of swear-filled signs went viral on Twitter. Students in Massachusetts held up a poster that said “Kiss my activist ass.” In London, one handlettered sign said “Why the actual f*** are we studying for a future we won’t even have!”
Science communicator Bill Nye got extra-sweary about climate change in a piece for Last Week Tonight in May (“Safety glasses off, motherfuckers”).
In this hotly contested category, we’ll award the Tucker to the Australian satirists The Juice Media for their “Honest Government Ad” shared in September with the simple message, “We’re Fucked.”
Best Fucking Swearing in Music
Not much of a contest in this category. The winner is surely Lana Del Rey, for her album released in September, Norman Fucking Rockwell. As James Harbeck observed in a Strong Language post, “Lana does not swear like a sailor or a soldier or a rap or punk rock artist. She swears for effect: the vulgarity well placed.” See James’s post for a complete breakdown of Lana Del Fucking Rey’s effective swearing.
Best Fucking Swearing in the Movies
Uncut Gems, a film from the Safdie Brothers, is generating serious awards-season buzz, especially for its star Adam Sandler and his vivid portrayal of New York City jeweler Howard Ratner. The movie is also notable for its profanity-laden dialogue, as befits its rough-and-tumble Diamond District characters. In fact, Uncut Gems uses forms of the word fuck a whopping 408 times, or more than 3 times a minute over its 135-minute run time. As tabulated by Wikipedia, that F-bomb frequency places it in seventh place all time (or fifth place among major dramatic releases), behind Swearnet (2014), Fuck (2005), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Summer of Sam (1999), Nil by Mouth (1997), and Casino (1995).
Best Fucking Swearing on Television
While Last Week Tonight wins the overall Tucker prize for “Eat Shit, Bob: The Musical,” recognition should also be given to its dramatic HBO stablemate, Big Little Lies. Full of zingers like “You’re dead in this town, as is your fucking puppet show” and “You can go fuck yourself on the head,” the show, which aired its second season in 2019, is rich enough in profanity that Claire McNear of The Ringer bestowed her own version of The Tucker Awards in June: “The ‘Big Little Lies’ Awards for Best Cursing.”
Another HBO prestige drama, Succession, has its own sweary charms, particularly dialogue from Brian Cox’s character, family patriarch Logan Roy, and his penchant for telling people to “fuck off” in his delicious Scottish accent.
From a Los Angeles Times interview with Cox in October:
People are very obsessed with how you, as Logan, say “[Expletive] off.”
It’s so weird. People have been telling people to [expletive] off for years now. But it’s also very Scottish. Nobody swears better than the Scots. The Irish are pretty good. But the Scots really do it, especially if it’s mean. But it’s bizarre. It’s caught something with people. That’s the exciting thing about Logan, his language can be so basic. My favorite quote from Logan is when he says, “My favorite Shakespearean quote is ‘Take the [expletive] money.’”
Best Fucking Swearing in Sports
Hockey may be the sweariest of major North American sports, which becomes an issue whenever television broadcasts air celebrations by players and fans of Stanley Cup-winning teams. The St. Louis Blues won the Cup in June, and while there may not have been anything as delightfully odd as last year’s Tucker winner (the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, who said in the team’s championship parade, “We’re not going to be fucking suck this year”), the Blues made up for it in sheer volume of televised F-bombs, as documented by Deadspin. (We fucking miss you, Deadspin.)
Deadspin followed up in July, with the help of a FOIA request, by sharing all of the complaints that the FCC received about NBC airing the fuck-heavy celebration.
Honorable mention goes to the Women’s World Cup fans in a sports bar in Lyon, France, who, after the U.S. defeated the Netherlands, could be heard on Fox News chanting “Fuck Trump” (again via Deadspin).
And speaking of the Women’s World Cup, let’s hear it for US star Megan Rapinoe, who is never afraid to speak her mind.
Best Fucking Swearing in Academia
In October, Bryant Ashley Hudson of IÉSEG School of Management published an article in the journal M@n@gement with the excellent title, “Fuck, fuck, fuck: Reflexivity and fidelity in reporting swearwords in management research.”
Hudson’s abstract makes an argument that Strong Language can totally get behind:
In this essay, I confront a problem I encountered at a recent academic conference wherein the words and sentiments of research respondents were unfortunately and unnecessarily silenced and edited – perhaps due to presenters’ unfortunate and needless regard for the supposed impropriety of the respondents’ language. I argue that such silencing and editing is not only unfaithful to our respondents; it is also unfaithful to our project as social scientists.
Also of note on the academic front: In June, Algonquin Books published A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea by the anthropologist Don Kulick. Reviews of the book could only allude to the “inventive swearing” in a dying language used in a village in Papua New Guinea as studied by Kulick. Stan Carey previously discussed Kulick’s research in unexpurgated fashion in a 2017 Strong Language post, “‘Pigs knock you down and fucking fuck you’: the obscene language of the kros.”
Best Fucking Feminist Swearing
Last but not least, special Tucker recognition must go to Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American social commentator who has elevated swearing into a patriarchy-smashing tool of feminist empowerment. As she introduces herself in a piece published by LitHub in November, “My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy. Whenever I stand at a podium to give a lecture, I begin with that declaration of faith.” And this is from a recent Vice profile, “Mona Eltahawy Would Like You to Fuck Right Off With Your Civility Politics”:
Over time, she’s developed a reputation for telling the patriarchy and its footsoldiers—as she calls the white women who believe in polite feminism—to fuck off, literally. Cursing is a very important aspect of Eltahawy’s feminism; the third chapter in her latest book is titled “profanity.” On Twitter, where Eltahawy is known for telling people to “fuck off, kitten,” she’s amassed a following of over 300,000.
Honorable mention goes to Amanda Montell, author of the book Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, published by Harper in May. The chapter titles from Wordslut give a taste of Montell’s hilarious, no-holds-barred attitude toward issues of language and gender:
- Slutty Skanks and Nasty Dykes: A Comprehensive List of Gendered Insults
- How to Embarrass the Shit Out of People Who Try to Correct Your Grammar
- Fuck it: An Ode to Cursing While Female
- Cyclops, Panty Puppet, Bald Headed Bastard and 100+ Other Things to Call Your Genitalia
(See Nancy Friedman’s Strong Language post from May for more on the reclamation of the word slut.)
And that brings the 2019 installment of the Tucker Awards to a close. Here’s hoping that 2020 isn’t a total shitshow.