A year ago, we took note of the song “F2020” by the trio Avenue Beat, with the lyrics, “Lowkey fuck 2020 / I don’t know about everybody else / But I think that I am kinda done / Can we just get to 2021? (Please).” Well, be careful what you wish for. After another fucking exhausting year, it’s time once again for Strong Language to recognize the annual achievements in swearing. Hard to believe, but this is the seventh year that we’ve given out the Tucker Awards for sweary excellence. (No shit: here are the roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.) As we never tire of explaining, the awards are named in honor of the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the profane political spinmeister brought to life by Peter Capaldi in the BBC series The Thick of It and the movie spinoff In the Loop.
Even though The Thick of It has been off the air since 2012, Tucker’s spirit lives on. Last April, when the Scottish tabloid The Daily Record reported on a study by the marketing agency Reboot naming Glasgow the UK’s sweariest city, they proudly featured a photo of Glasgow’s own Capaldi-as-Tucker.
Who knows what kind of Glaswegian invective Tucker would have hurled at the terribleness of the past year, but let’s see who swore it best in 2021.
Best Fucking Swearing of 2021
We’ve run the numbers, and the pinnacle of profanity in this pandemic-weary year occurred in September when McSweeney’s published an instant classic by Wendy Molyneux entitled, “Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks.” Some choice excerpts:
Oh, you’re afraid of fucking side effects? Fuck you. You know what has fucking side effects? Fucking aspirin, fucking Tylenol. You could be fucking allergic to pineapple, you fucking fuckwit. Everything has side effects. You’re being a big fucking baby with a huge diaper full of fucking diarrhea, complaining about maybe feeling slightly tired for a day or two while your asymptomatic COVID case you get and pass to some innocent fucking kid could wind up killing them or someone else. Fuck you, you fucking selfish fucking shit-banana, you unredeemable ass-caterpillar, you fucking fuck-knob with two fucks for eyes and a literal poop where your heart should be. …
You think vaccines don’t fucking work? Oh, fuck off into the trash, you attention-seeking fuckworm-faced shitbutt. This isn’t even a point worth discussing, you fuck-o-rama fuck-stival of ignorance. …
For god’s sake, get your fucking ass out of your chair, go to the fucking pharmacy, and get a fucking vaccine, you absolute conscienceless fucking fuck fuck fuck. Get it. Get the fucking vaccine. Fuck you. Fuck fuck fuck. Fuck. Fuck you. Fuck!
What more is there to say, really?
The CDC refrained from taking such a blunt approach in its attempts to persuade people to get vaccinated and wear masks, despite some sweary posters that sprang up in New York over the summer.
It turns out that these posters were actually the handiwork of street artist Winston Tseng, as you can see from his website. Hats off to Tseng for going where the CDC wouldn’t. (As we noted last year, the slogan “Wear a Fucking Mask” was promoted early in the pandemic in a series of PSAs from West Hollywood, but “Get the Fucking Vaccine” is a particularly 2021 sentiment.)
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics
In October, Politico’s West Wing Playbook breathlessly reported that behind closed doors, President Biden has a “potty mouth”: “In meetings with aides, Biden’s vulgarities include but are not limited too: ‘Fuck them,’ ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ ‘Why the fuck isn’t this happening?’ ‘bullshit,’ ‘dammit,’ or just simply: ‘fuck,’ according to several current and former aides.” Jesse Sheidlower, Strong Language contributor and author of The F-Word, complained on Twitter, “Not florid enough. We need us some Malcolm Tucker.”
The favored profanity of Vice President Kamala Harris, according to Politico, has considerably more flair: it’s “‘motherfuck-ah,’ emphasis on the ahhhhh.” While that’s delightful, political swearing in our swear-worthy times could still be a lot more Tucker-esque. Perhaps our leaders can take a cue from the man on the street… or the man on the porch talking to the woman on the street.
On Jan. 6, 2021, as Trump supporters were leaving Washington, D.C. after the insurrection at the Capitol, Norwegian journalist Veronica Westhrin shot some footage of a man standing on his porch yelling about the situation to a woman in her car, and the video quickly went viral.
“Porch Guy,” later identified as Peter Tracey, pithily summed up the day’s events when he shouted his thoughts to Shawntia Humphries, who was stuck in traffic.
Get the fuck outta town, fucking treasonous pieces of shit! … They destroy the fucking city, and it’s like nobody gives a shit! If that was Black Lives Matter there would be tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue! But they let these fucking crackers take over the goddamn Capitol… What the fuck is that?
And in the annals of political euphemization, we should not forget that 2021 was the year that the “Fuck You, Biden” slogan got transmogrified into “Let’s Go, Brandon.” See Nancy Friedman’s November post for more on that.
Best Fucking Swearing on Television (Non-Fiction)
We might be a tad biased, but nothing on our televisions in 2021 could outdo the Netflix documentary series The History of Swear Words, the first season of which debuted in January. With Nicolas Cage hosting and Strong Language’s own Kory Stamper as one of the talking heads, how could you go wrong?
Hearing Kory decry bogus acronymic etymologies of fuck as “total horseshit” was certainly one of the highlights of the year. Along with fuck, the series tackled shit, dick, bitch, pussy, and damn in its six episodes. There was talk of a second season with even more sweary goodness, but those plans were waylaid by fucking Covid. Make it happen, Netflix!
Best Fucking Swearing on Television (Fiction)
The spiritual successor to Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It continues to be HBO’s Succession, which we’ve celebrated since the 2019 Tucker Awards. That’s not surprising, since, like Veep before it, Succession draws on Iannucci’s stable of writers — as Peter Capaldi noted in a recent Guardian interview.
Succession fans often come up to Brian Cox and ask him to tell them to fuck off. Were Thick of It fans similar?
It used to happen a lot. You could say “Fuck off and get a life”, which was quite enjoyable. Sometimes they’d get me to phone up their mates and give them a bollocking. It’s great to see Brian’s success. He’s an astonishing actor.
You can sometimes hear an echo of Malcolm Tucker in Succession’s dialogue.
Well, some of the writing team are Thick of It veterans. Armando Iannucci’s influence over two generations of writers and performers is immense. You can trace Succession back to him in a way.
One Succession screenwriter, Georgia Pritchett, who previously worked on The Thick of It and Veep, had this to say to Prospect Magazine:
I’ve written for a few sweary shows now—built a career on just uttering filth, really. But I think what we tried to do—if this isn’t too highfalutin’ a way of describing swearing—is be very creative and almost have Baroque swearing… using swear words creatively to describe things, not just insult each other.
Season 3 of Succession didn’t disappoint, with a raft of new sweary barbs exchanged by the Roy family.
“I’m going to grind his fucking bones to make my bread.” —Logan about Kendall
“That disingenuous little fuckdoll.” —Shiv about Kendall
“Logan is gonna fire a million poisonous spiders down your dickie.” —Tom to Greg
“You love showing your pee-pee to everyone but someday you’re actually going to have to fuck something.” —Shiv to Roman
“You’re a national fucking prick.” —Kendall to Connor
“The fucking demented piss-mad king of England.” —Roman about Logan
While Succession gets most of the media attention (“Thanks to Succession, profanity has never been bigger or more clever,” reports The Evening Standard), other shows have excelled at cursing it up too. On the third season of the Netflix series You, the character Love Quinn (played by Victoria Pedretti) rattled off such memorable lines as “I keep asking myself, why am I trying to win Sherry’s approval when she keeps stabbing me in the back like a fucking stealth cunt?”
Honorable mentions also go to Ted Lasso’s sweary trio of Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein), Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), and Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster).
Best Fucking Swearing in the Movies
(Beware, Matrix spoilers ahead!) The long-awaited sequel The Matrix Resurrections has some surprise appearances by characters from earlier in the franchise, like the Merovingian, aka the Frenchman (played by Lambert Wilson). In 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, the Merovingian explains why he chooses to speak French: “I have sampled every language, French is my favorite. Fantastic language. Especially to curse with. Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculé de ta mère. It’s like wiping your ass with silk. I love it.” (Google Translate renders the French line as “God damn fuck you motherfucker motherfucker shit,” which lacks some nuance.)
In The Matrix Resurrections, the Merovingian returns, and he launches into a wonderfully peculiar rant about the baleful effects of 21st-century technology (as transcribed by the closed captioning):
You ruined every suck-my-silky-ass thing! We had grace. We had style. We had conversation. Not this…[mimics text message sound]
Art, films, books were all better. Originality mattered! You gave us Face-Zucker-suck and Cock-me-climatey-Wiki-piss-and-shit!
Best Fucking Swearing in Literature
Richard Flanagan‘s novel The Living Sea of Waking Dreams was published in his native Australia in 2020, but it got an international release earlier this year to great critical acclaim. The New York Times Book Review published an excerpt in May, which surely must have marked the first time that the words “Winnefuckingbagos,” “Airbnfuckingbs,” and “whatfuckenever” appeared in the Times. Flanagan is clearly a master of expletive infixation.
Best Fucking Swearing in Book Promotion
This year, Hachette Books published Bad Motherfucker: The Life and Movies of Samuel L. Jackson, the Coolest Man in Hollywood by Gavin Edwards. To promote the book on social media, Hachette produced a series of infographics to capture just how bad a motherfucker Samuel L. Jackson is on screen.
Best Fucking Research on Swearing
We’d like to recognize Robbie Love, lecturer at Aston University, for his study published in the journal Text & Talk, “Swearing in Informal Spoken English: 1990s–2010s.” Based on an analysis of spoken corpus data for British English from the 1990s and 2010s, Love found that usage of swear words in the UK has been decreasing overall. There was a 27% drop in relative frequency of use for 16 swear words analyzed, with a precipitous drop in what was previously the most common British swear: bloody. Now fuck has taken its place as the #1 swear word, with shit, bloody, piss, and crap filling out the rest of the top 5. (While most terms saw a drop in overall usage, shit almost doubled in frequency over the two decades.)
Recognition should also go to Caroline Davis of The Guardian for reporting on Love’s research in an admirably non-sensational fashion. Too often media coverage of swearing studies is full of inaccuracies, stereotypes, and tut-tutting, so it’s refreshing to see some decent reporting on the topic.
Best Fucking Swearing in Music
Many of the songs ruling the pop charts these days are written in a confessional mode by performers who aren’t afraid to curse a bit to get their emotional point across. As chart analyst Chris Molanphy observed in his year-end round-up for Slate’s Music Club, that includes everything from Olivia Rodrigo’s brooding break-up ballad “Drivers License” (“Can’t drive past the places we used to go to, ’cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe”) to Lil Nas X’s plea for the boy of his dreams, “That’s What I Want” (“So I want someone to love, that’s what I fuckin’ want”).
But the most-discussed lyrical F-bomb of 2021 was the one dropped by Taylor Swift in “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version)” from the rerecorded reissue of her 2012 album Red. Swift sings, “And you were tossing me the car keys / ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ keychain on the ground.” That line attracted a great deal of commentary — including from me: I wrote a piece for Slate digging into the question of whether it’s plausible for Swift to have written “fuck the patriarchy” a decade ago, and I followed that up with further discussion on the Slate podcast Spectacular Vernacular with my co-host Nicole Holliday. Kudos to Swift for getting us all talking about the significance of this particular lyric, which she has cannily parlayed into a merchandising opportunity. If you go to her website, you can get your very own “F*ck the Patriarchy” keychain for $20. (For that price, you’d think she could leave the word fuck unexpurgated.)
This all might seem a bit tame compared to the 2020 Tucker Award winner in the musical category, the ultra-lascivious “WAP” by Cardi B. But the featured artist on “WAP,” Megan Thee Stallion, continued in that fine tradition in 2021 with her solo effort, “Thot Shit.” Thot, a term for a sexually provocative or promiscuous woman (generally held to be an acronym for “that ho over there” or “thirsty hoes over there”), has been in use for about a decade in hip-hop parlance. In a video breakdown of the song, Megan explains how she’s reclaiming the word from its negative connotations: “If y’all still using it as a negative word, y’all need to grow up because we all doing thot shit.”
Late update: We’d be remiss not to give an honorable mention to Gayle for her alphabetically sweary “abcdefu,” with its catchy fuck-you chorus.
A-B-C-D-E, F you
And your mom and your sister and your job
And your broke-ass car and that shit you call art
Fuck you and your friends that I’ll never see again
Everybody but your dog, you can all fuck off
Best Fucking Swearing in Sports
Long-suffering New York Mets fans could commiserate with first baseman Pete Alonso after the team got swept in a series with the Chicago Cubs back in April. As Alonso put it, “Getting swept feels like eating a shit sandwich, to be honest with you.” As The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham wryly noted on Twitter, this cutting observation was censored in a variety of ways by his fellow sports reporters.
But perhaps the greatest sweary moment in sports this year happened when the teams in Major League Baseball’s American League West division managed to arrange themselves in the standings so that the initials in their logos spelled out ASSHAT.
(Unfortunately by season’s end, the standings read as HSASAT.)
Best Fucking Swearing for Civil Liberties
It’s always cheering to see the right to swear upheld as a civil liberty in the courts, and it’s especially cheering when a cheerleader is at the center of the legal action. In a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, Brandi Levy prevailed against administrators at her public high school in Pennsylvania, who suspended her from cheerleading after she posted a photo on Snapchat with the message, “Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything.” But while it was rightly hailed as a free-speech victory, the case exposed how major U.S. media outlets continue to dance around profanity, even when it’s undeniably newsworthy.
Best Fucking Swearing for Social Good
Finally, we’d like recognize the efforts of the organizers behind The Gaali Project. Two women, Tamanna Mishra and Neha Thakur, were struck by how often swear words in India are rooted in misogyny, racism, and classism. So they set about compiling a lexicon of curses in Indian languages that avoid punching down. The project, which has attracted coverage from Atlas Obscura, The Hindustan Times, and Nikkei Asia, takes its name from the Hindi expression “Gaali, magar pyaar seh,” or “Curse, but with love.” We can’t think of a better sentiment for the world these days.
And that takes us to the end of another year of remarkable swearing. Happy fucking holidays, everyone — Malcolm, take us home.