That Canadian fucker Alex Trebek: What is a salty dog?

Louis Menand recently reminisced at length in The New Yorker (23 November 2020) about the late Alex Trebek, longtime host of the television quiz show Jeopardy!, with this aside: “By his own account, offered in his brief and cheery memoir, The Answer Is[…] Reflections on My Life (Simon & Schuster, [2020]), and confirmed by other reports, including McNear’s [Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive Guide to Jeopardy! and Its History (Grand Central, 2020)], when Trebek was off the air he was more laid-back and salty, less like your eighth-grade math teacher.” And that sounds about right. I’m pretty sure Mr. Fuller didn’t swear, though my eighth-grade algebra class gave him plenty of reason to do so — there’s plenty of swearing at algebra, even among eighth graders, but no swearing in it, and Mr. Fuller’s life was a veritable story problem.

I don’t do social media, and here’s why: just the other day, I watched my first TikTok. It rocked my world. Miami news anchor Frances Wang (@franceswangtv) posted a montage of Alex Trebek swearing like a salty seadog fishing herring in the Bay of Fundy. My wife thought I needed to see it, damn the psychological consequences.

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Sweary not sweary: Joe Pesci in Home Alone

With Joe Pesci back in the spotlight thanks to The Irishman, and Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been remembering one of his finest performances – as hapless burglar Harry Lyme in Home Alone. It’s easy to forget how against-type this role was for Pesci, best known for playing menacing, foul-mouthed criminals in gangster films like Casino:

(Don’t miss the TV version, with its fancy hecking swear-avoidance.)

When Pesci was sent the script for Home Alone, he ‘saw he could do something with it’, according to executive producer Mark Levinson. But the filmmakers knew that Harry Lyme would be a challenge for Pesci. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, director of photography Julio Macat says:

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Sweary semantics in The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums features a short exchange that’s interesting for its taboo-linguistic detail. It takes place between Royal himself, played by Gene Hackman, and Henry, played by Danny Glover.

If you haven’t seen the film, but you might sometime (do, dammit), don’t worry about spoilers – the images below don’t give much away. And you don’t need to know the characters’ backstory, so let’s jump right in:

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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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