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.

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A fuck shit stack of sweary songs

My last collection of sweary songs began with some vintage a cappella filth about cocksuckers. For balance, I’ll start this one with The Fourskins’ winning ditty ‘Her Vagina’ (most audio that follows is VNSFW):

Want ruder? Harry Roy and His Orchestra sang about ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ almost a century ago. Warning: this one has serious earworm potential:

(Comic artist R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders introduced me to the song.)

A lyric for our times: ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ by Martha Wainwright:

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Political blowjobs, or The power of expletive-filled number plates

This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on linguistics in social media and politics, and helped create the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He was last seen on Strong Language with an article on emoji swearing. He tweets at @philipseargeant.

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Blowjobs have played an occasional but important part in political history. The most notable recent example, of course, involved Bill Clinton. It was his equivocation over the nature of his relations with Monica Lewinsky that led to him being impeached on perjury charges. A century before Clinton, another president had an even more decisive oral-sex-related experience. Félix Faure, President of the French Republic between 1895 and 1899, was unlucky enough to die in office from a cerebral haemorrhage which he supposedly suffered while being fellated by his mistress.

The latest entry in the annals of political crises involving blowjobs doesn’t concern the act itself, however, but rather the word. Specifically, it concerns the use of the word as a political insult. And even more specifically, an insult expressed by means of car vanity plates.

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Do I got a Lee Kebum?

Below is a guest post by David Morris, a sub-editor and former English language teacher who holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics. David previously wrote for Strong Language about Gofukumachi and other English swears in Japanese words, and about an accidental ‘cunt face’ in The Sound of Music. He writes regularly about language at his blog Never Pure and Rarely Simple.

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Image of Moe, bartender in The Simpsons, picking up the phone in his barA running gag on the TV show The Simpsons has Bart ringing Moe’s tavern and asking for someone with a joke name which contains a double entendre. Moe asks his patrons if that person is present in a way which highlights the double entendre, before realising he’s been pranked again.

One very controversial example has Bart ‘looking for a friend, last name Kebum, first name Lee’. Moe says, ‘Hey guys, do I got a Lee Kebum? C’mon, look at the stools. Is there a Lee Kebum? Somebody check the rear. I know I got a Lee Kebum.’ Barney then quips, ‘Then you probably shouldn’t be handling food!’ Leaky bum, haha.

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Great moments in swearing: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.

For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:

I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.

The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.

Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)

Blue Velvet: Dennis Hopper, standing next to Dean Stockwell in a red-painted apartment, says, "Let's hit the fucking road!"

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