With another year in the books, it’s time once again here on Strong Language for our annual salute to excellent swearing. As time marches on, we’ve had the opportunity to anoint sweary winners for eight years running now. (Check out our past roundups from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.) As always, we pay homage with these awards to the patron saint of Strong Language: Malcolm Tucker, the ultra-foulmouthed political operative portrayed with panache by Peter Capaldi on the BBC series The Thick of It and its cinematic spinoff In the Loop.
It’s now been a full decade since The Thick of It went off the air, but given the clusterfuck that was British politics in 2022, it’s as relevant as ever. As Boris Johnson gave way to Liz Truss, who famously couldn’t outlast a lettuce before giving way to Rishi Sunak, the spirit of Malcolm Tucker has been invoked again and again. (See such headlines as “How Malcolm Tucker nailed today’s Tories in The Thick of It” and “Malcolm Tucker was a warning, not a training manual.”) And while series creator Armando Iannucci still doesn’t have plans to revive The Thick of It, that hasn’t stopped fans from repurposing clips of Tucker swearing it up, now reacting to the absurdity of the Liz Truss era. (Even Iannucci himself posted a relevant Tucker clip when Truss resigned.)
So let’s dive right into the omni-fucking-shambles of 2022 and decide who swore it best.
Best Fucking Swearing of 2022
It’s not every year that a sweary moment has such momentous geopolitical implications that it merits its own Wikipedia page. But that’s what happened on February 24, 2022, when a Russian cruiser launched an assault on Snake Island in the territorial waters of Ukraine. When the Russians ordered the Ukrainian border guards stationed on the island to surrender, one of the guards, Roman Hrybov, responded with a swear for the ages: “Русский военный корабль, иди на хуй,” translated as “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The recording of Hrybov’s audacious utterance immediately went viral around the world.
While some scholars pointed out that “иди на хуй” (“idi na khuy”) would be more literally translated as “go to a dick” or “go sit on a dick,” “go fuck yourself” was the version that caught hold, appearing on protest signs in cities like Helsinki in support of Ukraine.
We Stand with Ukraine 2022, Helsinki, Finland (rajatonvimma on Flickr)
With Hrybov and his fellow border guards hailed as national heroes, the Ukrainian postal service held a stamp design contest with “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” as the theme. The winning design (as unveiled by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Instagram) didn’t reproduce the swear itself but instead featured an illustration of a soldier bravely hoisting a middle finger at a Russian cruiser.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s road agency Ukravtodor posted a digitally altered image on social media showing a road sign with three messages for Russian invaders: “Go fuck yourself,” “Go fuck yourself again,” and “Go fuck yourself back to Russia.” While the image started off as a joke, eventually actual road signs in Ukraine were altered to display the swears (albeit with “на хуй” in some cases asterisked as “на х*й,” the equivalent of “f*ck you”).
If nothing else, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has revealed “how swearing became a weapon of resistance for Ukrainians,” as University of Glasgow’s Jamie Rann wrote in The Guardian in April. Oliver Carroll, foreign correspondent for The Economist, highlighted a piquant obscenity that Ukrainians have been using to describe their fucked-up situation: “пиздец” (“pizdets”).
Ukrainians are world-class swearers in any language, it seems, as when parliament member Oleksiy Goncharenko had a simple message for Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
Sometimes it’s a challenge to pick an overall Tucker Award winner, but it’s an easy choice to recognize Roman Hrybov and his plucky compatriots as the 2022 champions.
Best Fucking Swearing in Politics
Away from Ukraine, sweary speech made a political impact in many countries this year. Special recognition should go to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern for turning a regrettable hot-mic moment into a show of public comity. During parliamentary question time in December, Ardern was heard off-camera calling David Seymour, leader of an opposition party, “an arrogant prick.” Ardern then teamed up with Seymour to auction off an official signed copy of the transcript of her “arrogant prick” remark to raise money for prostate cancer research. The auction, which raised $100,000, was titled “Ardern, Seymour join forces for pricks everywhere.” Only in New Zealand!
Last year, we noted a Politico report about Joe Biden dropping F-bombs and other obscenities when speaking to White House aides. But that’s all behind closed doors — what do we need to hear some Bidenesque swearing out in public? Turns out it just took a trip to Florida after the state was ravaged by Hurricane Ian. At one stop, the president was overheard telling Fort Myers Beach mayor Ray Murphy, “No one fucks with a Biden.”
Up in Canada, Diane Therrien, mayor of Peterborough, Ontario, had to deal with some 2022-style bullshit. As the CBC reported, “A few dozen people had gathered outside the city’s police station after a call from a QAnon conspiracy theorist, who purports to be the ‘Queen of Canada,’ for citizen’s arrests of local officers.” She took to Twitter to make a pithy comment on the situation.
Here’s how Therrien explained the tweet on the CBC Radio show “As It Happens.”
Why did you think that was the best reaction to what’s going on in your city?
It’s a reaction that’s been building up for multiple years now. Peterborough has been experiencing protests, occupation, people disturbing the peace in our downtown, in our community, for close to two years now. And, you know, you can’t reason with unreasonable people, and sometimes you just have to call it like you see it.
But why the profanities?
Well, because I’m a fan of profanities.
Why is that? I’m trying to understand what it is, why those words appeal to you and why you think they’re effective?
I’m a millennial, so maybe that’s part of it. You know, I grew up learning the value of talking scholarly when I have to. I mean, I have a master’s degree, so I can talk to you in a scholarly language when I need to. But I can also talk to people on the level that they deserve to be talked to. And these people have treated the city — not just Peterborough, we’ve seen it in Ottawa, across the country — they treat communities and people with disrespect constantly. And yet they get outraged when we respond with that kind of disrespect.
Therrien’s rationale is similar to what we’ve heard from former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, as when he swore in anger over gun violence in 2019 when he was on the campaign trail running for the Democratic presidential nomination. This year, O’Rourke was moved to profanity again when campaigning against Texas Governor Greg Abbott. While giving an impassioned speech about the Uvalde school shooting, he confronted a pro-Abbott heckler by saying, “It may be funny to you, motherfucker, but it is not funny to me.”
Best Fucking Swearing in the Media
In the waning days of Liz Truss’s blink-and-you-missed-it tenure as UK prime minister, a German news report on the chaos at Parliament proved to be an unexpected delight. ARD news correspondent Annette Dittert candidly reported what happened in the House of Commons when a vote on fracking turned into mayhem, quoting Truss’s deputy whip Craig Whittaker as he vented his frustration about the situation.
The Local provides a translation of Dittert’s commentary:
“Fisticuffs broke out in the lobby, where the votes are cast. Government members are said to have physically pulled other Tory MPs into the right box. Then suddenly it was said that there was no parliamentary group coercion, although this had been announced beforehand, whereupon the deputy leader of the parliamentary group left parliament with the words ‘I’m fucking furious and I don’t fucking care anymore.’ I’m not translating that now (into German), but this is a party where really every discipline has broken down.”
The video clip of Dittert’s deadpan recital of Whittaker’s outburst was widely shared on Twitter and elsewhere, and even made it on to HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Dittert seemed bemused by the whole thing.
Another media moment to remember from the Truss era happened when Financial Times editor Gillian Tett went on Channel 4 News and was asked about business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg’s attempt to bat away criticism of chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. Tett pulled no punches: “To use a non-technical term, that is pretty much bollocks.”
Channel 4 anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy seemed like he was going to apologize for Tett’s use of the word bollocks at the end of the show, but instead he consulted his smartphone to read from the website of the communications regulator Ofcom, which describes the word as follows: “Medium language, potentially unacceptable pre-watershed. Not generally offensive but somewhat vulgar when used to refer to testicles. Less problematic when used to mean ‘nonsense’.” But he did apologize to those who were reading the subtitles, where the word erroneously appeared as bullocks.
In the U.S., let’s recognize a surprising lack of skittishness from The New York Times when reporting on the January 6th committee hearings. In videotaped testimony, Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s chief of staff, was asked about what Ivanka had said happened when Donald Trump tried to convince his vice-president to sign on to the plan of refusing to certify the 2020 election results. According to Radford, Ivanka said her father called Mike Pence “the P-word.” Rather than simply going along with this euphemism, the Times story, based on previous reporting, spelled it out as pussy.
The Independent, on the other hand, gets no laurels from Strong Language for its peculiar asterisking in an October headline: “Revealed: Three of the biggest arse***** in history.” Pretty sure they didn’t mean arsenates, arsenides, or Arsenal fans.
Best Fucking Swearing on Television (Non-Fiction)
In May, HBO aired the two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. The show deservedly won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, and at the Emmys’ Creative Arts Ceremony, George’s daughter Kelly Carlin (who both starred and served as an executive producer) channeled her father’s perspicacity with profanity. “A couple of things my dad would want to say to you tonight — one of which is remember to take care of each other, and go fuck yourself,” she said.
I caught up with the documentary after it won the Emmy, and I was particularly enchanted with the nice long section devoted to the controversy over Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine, which led to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling on whether the federal government had the power to regulate broadcasts of “obscene or indecent” language. Thanks to all the attention, Carlin kept expanding his initial dirty-words list based on suggestions that people sent him, until he had managed to collect a whopping 2,443 “filthy words and phrases.” Some of Carlin’s notes for the list are tantalizingly shown in the documentary.
Around 1990, Carlin’s mega-list became merchandise at his shows in the form of a poster and T-shirt. And in the late ’90s, he put the whole list on his website GeorgeCarlin.com, broken down into explicit categories. That part of the website is still available via the Wayback Machine, and it begins with a note of gratitude: “To those who sent me their suggestions, you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my farting clapper.” (Carlin also self-published a manuscript version of the list. A signed copy from the collection of Maledicta editor Reinhold Aman was recently sold for a whopping $750.)
After I tweeted about the documentary and tagged both Kelly Carlin and Strong Language, Kelly delved into some past Carlin-related posts featured on the blog, like James Harbeck’s “Phonology of cusswords: some initial observations.” Kelly also runs the official Twitter account dedicated to her father, @TheGeorgeCarlin, where she shared some kind words about Strong Language!
Honorable mention goes to an Australian documentary series from ABC Indigenous called No Offence. Here’s ABC’s description of the series: “Gabriel Willie, best known as Bush Tucker Bunjie, loves his swears and insults – but he can’t only swear in English when there are hundreds of local First Nations’ languages in Australia! Join him as he travels the country to find the best and only truly local ‘bad’ words.” Unfortunately the series is only available on ABC Iview for those in Australia, but the promos on social media (both on the ABC Indigenous Twitter account and Bush Tucker Bunjie’s TikTok) are a lot of fun.
Best Fucking Swearing on Television (Fiction)
Television shows previously honored in this category like Veep and Succession (HBO comedies that carry the DNA of The Thick of It thanks to Armando Iannucci’s stable of writers) often overwhelm the viewer with florid litanies of creative obscenity. But even a single swear word can enliven a TV show if deployed well. On the critically acclaimed FX series Reservation Dogs, which follows the exploits of four Native American teenagers in rural Oklahoma, that word is shit-ass.
In an interview with showrunner Sterlin Harjo about the second season of Reservation Dogs, Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall explored the show’s penchant for using the word shit-ass.
Am I correct in feeling that characters are saying “shitass” a lot more in this season than they did in the first?
Most definitely. We’ve bumped the shitass factor up by 20 percent in Season Two.
I think you’ve gotta raise the stakes.
Is there possibly a point where there is too much “shitass”? Do you ever find yourself saying, “All right, they’re saying too much in this scene, and we need to dial it back”?
Oh, we’ve cut out a lot of shitasses. There are conversations where we’ll ask, “Is there too many shitasses here? Let’s take this out.” So there will be episodes without shitasses in this season. Never fret.
The response to that word has seemed very strong to me, people going, “Oh, this is a new curse word. I can use this.”
[…] Any time you can change culture and bring a word back? I think it’s fantastic. At least we’re doing something right.
While Reservation Dogs gets mileage out of shit-ass, the Star Wars series Andor made news for a single, solitary use of the word shit — evidently the first time the word has been heard in the Star Wars universe (and on Disney+, no less). The S-bomb was dropped by Sergeant Linus Mosk, played by the Scottish actor Alex Ferns, in a tense scene in the third episode. Screenrant notes that the line of dialogue generated an “odd backlash” — even though Star Wars fans are used to hearing fanciful cursing like dank farrik in The Mandalorian, the use of a “real-world” swear like shit can seem startling.
Best Fecking Swearing in the Movies
The Banshees of Inisherin, set on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, goes all in on that most Irish of swears, feck(ing). As Strong Language’s Irish correspondent Stan Carey explains in a 2012 post on his blog, “Feck is a popular minced oath in Ireland, occupying ground between the ultra-mild expletive flip and the often taboo (but also popular) fuck.” Stan also notes that “feck and fuck do not overlap entirely. Feck is family-friendly, even according to advertising standards authorities (though not always).” Searchlight Pictures has taken advantage of the perceived innocuousness of feck(ing) in promoting the film.
In an online script for The Banshees of Inisherin, I count 51 instances of feck, fecker, and of course fecking, which gets used in such epithets as fecking knob and fecking nutbag. In a distant second place is shite/gobshite, appearing 11 times. (For more on that, check out Stan’s 2015 Strong Language post, “Shite-talk and gobshites in Irish English.”)
Best Fucking Swearing in Academia
Swearing got a lot of scholarly attention in 2022, with one paper in particular attracting media coverage: “The sound of swearing: Are there universal patterns in profanity?” by Shiri Lev-Ari & Ryan McKay in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. As Scientific American reported, Lev-Ari and McKay’s findings “support the idea that speakers may euphemize swear words, or ‘mince oaths’—think using ‘darn’ for ‘damn’—by substituting harder consonant sounds with softer ones known as approximants. The pattern was detectable among speakers of several different languages, hinting at a possible universality to softening swears by swapping in more subtle sounds.” While it may be foolhardy to try to extrapolate some sort of “universal” method of swearing or swear-softening, the results are nonetheless intriguing for the languages in the study.
Among the other sweary studies published in the past year is “The power of swearing: What we know and what we don’t” by Karyn Stapleton et al. in Lingua. This one also got some media attention for its explorations of how swearing can affect both the mind and body, and how people may experience “increased physical strength” after swearing.
But these are just academic papers about swearing. What about actual swearing in academia? There was one rather controversial standout this year: Barry Mehler, a (now-retired) professor of humanities at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. In January, he posted a video welcoming students to a course he was teaching. In the video (still on YouTube), Mehler said, “I want to introduce myself before we actually meet F2F as we say these days, which everybody knows means ‘fuck to fuck,’ which really means that we’re all fucked.”
Mehler then launched into a Covid-themed rant, riffing off a particularly profanity-laden stretch of dialogue from the HBO show Deadwood:
“I may have fucked up my life flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker, and working a paying fucking union job. And no limber-dick cocksucker of an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes, because I’m a fucking tenured professor. So if you want to go complain to your dean, fuck you, go ahead. I’m retiring at the end of this year and I couldn’t give a flying fuck any longer. You people are just vectors of disease to me, and I don’t want to be anywhere near you, so keep your fucking distance. If you want to talk to me, come to my Zoom.”
Mehler went on to explain this was his own adaptation of a soliloquy from the Deadwood character Whitney Ellsworth, and that the whole thing was an exercise to get students to think about what counts as plagiarism. But college administrators were not amused. Mehler was suspended pending an investigation, and he then filed a lawsuit against the university for violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. After a federal judge denied his request for reinstatement, he settled out of court with the university and announced his retirement in March after over 30 years of teaching at Ferris.
Best Fucking Data Analysis
In June, Colin Morris treated us to an analysis of “insulting compound words” that have appeared in Reddit comments. He wrote up his findings in a blog post titled, “Compound pejoratives on Reddit – from buttface to wankpuffin.” The post includes wonderful data visualizations, like his “matrix of pejoration” showing the frequency of different combinations of pejorative components.
This is a welcome contribution to the study of what Gretchen McCulloch dubbed “shitgibbon compounds,” inspired by a 2017 Strong Language post of mine on the rise of shitgibbon as an epithet. I followed up that post with a Slate piece where I tracked down the origins of shitgibbon in the comedic writings of David Quantick and Steven Wells in the pages of the New Musical Express more than three decades ago. (Quantick went on to write for the show Veep, where he was able to popularize shitgibbon further.) At the time, the earliest example of shitgibbon I could find was in the Jan. 13, 1990 issue of the NME. But earlier this year, I managed to antedate that to Nov. 4, 1989, a discovery that I shared in a Twitter thread.
Best Fucking Swearing in Publishing
British doctor-turned-comedian Adam Kay has followed up his 2017 best-selling account of life as a junior doctor, This is Going to Hurt, with a new much-praised memoir, Undoctored. We were sold as soon as Kay posted a concordance of fuck-related terms in the book, including fuckatorium, fucknuts, fuckometer, and fuckpuppet.
Best Fucking Use of Technology
Product designer Matty Benedetto is the evil genius behind Unnecessary Inventions, a weekly YouTube series where he concocts products to “solve problems that don’t exist.” In April, he devised a hilarious take-off on the traditional swear jar: a jar that prints out a random swear word when you feed it a coin. Ladies and gentlemen, the Swear Jar Generator.
We were also deeply entertained by a video in November from Alec Watson for his Technology Connections series, where he explored some remarkable anti-swearing technology dating back to the 1980s: a gadget known as the TV Guardian that censors profanity by decoding closed-captioning data. The censorship mechanism is actually pretty clever, even if some of its automated text substitutions are unintentionally comical. (“Go wow yourself!” “Go go away your mother!”)
Best Fucking Swearing in Music
We’ve been remiss in not previously recognizing the oeuvre of the British punk comic known simply as Kunt, who leads the subversive musical act Kunt and the Gang. In recent years, Kunt has headed up a spinoff band, The Kunts, created for the sole purpose of competing for the #1 UK Christmas single. After releasing “Boris Johnson is a Fucking Cunt” in 2020 and “Boris Johnson is Still a Fucking Cunt” in 2021, the Kunts were back this Christmas with “Fuck the Tories.”
As with their previous efforts, The Kunts failed to dislodge the inexplicable LadBaby from the top slot for the week of Christmas, this time managing to reach #7 on the charts. But they’re #1 in our hearts for their sweary singalong that manages to lob 69 F-bombs in its savage excoriation of the Conservative Party and its 2022 follies. As Clash Music notes, that makes the song “perhaps the swear-iest Christmas hit since Rage Against The Machine’s unlikely journey to No. 1 with ‘Killing In The Name’.” (“Killing in the Name,” with its “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” refrain, hit #1 for Christmas 2009.) An excerpt:
They fucked up the economy
They fucked the NHS
They fucked up the environment
We’re in a fucking mess
They fucked up public services
They fucked us through and through
It’s time to stand up for ourselves
And say ‘FUCK YOU!’
It has also been entertaining to see how mainstream media outlets have attempted to report on the Kunts’ chart success, like this description from BBC News: “A political protest song about the Conservative government, the title of which is unprintable here, was a new entry at seven. It was the fourth such song to make the Christmas charts for Essex comedian Andrew Liles, whose stage name is also unprintable on the BBC News site.”
As part of the Christmas #1 effort, Cassetteboy promoted the single with a video further spoofing Tory leaders by putting (profane) words in their mouths.
Props also go to the dating and lifestyle app BLK for teaming up with Trina and Saucy Santana to create “No Voting, No Vucking,” a song and video encouraging young voters to get to the ballot box for the US midterm elections. (This follows up BLK’s 2021 effort to get people vaccinated, “Vax That Thang Up,” featuring Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, and Mia X.)
And last but not certainly least, from the multitalented duo of Whitney Avalon and Thomas Lennon, here’s “WTF 2020s?!,” subtitled “An Awful Song for an Awful Decade” — a sequel of sorts to Avalon’s song from two years ago, “WTF 2020?!”
Best Fucking Swearing on Twitter
Late update! How could we forget Greta Thunberg‘s epic “smalldickenergy” clapback tweet at Andrew Tate? As of this writing, it has about 3.85 million likes, putting it at #4 on the all-time list of most-liked tweets.
Whew. We fucking made it. Here’s hoping 2023 isn’t so much of a shitshow.