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.
There had been backstage musicals before A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975. But as far as I can tell, there had never been a backstage musical—or, really, any Broadway musical—that merrily sprinkled fucks and shits throughout the dialogue, which is spoken by auditioning singers and dancers as they bare their souls to an unseen director.* And there had never been a song in a Broadway musical with a title like “Tits and Ass.” In fact, less than a dozen years before A Chorus Line opened, uttering the phrase “tits and ass” in a public forum had gotten the comedian Lenny Bruce hauled off to jail.
Previous bitch chronicles considered the stylistic opportunities that bitch and its derivates (son of a bitch) and euphemisms (son of a me) provide situation comedies like How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM — for basic facts about the show, see part 1), especially in the pace and punch of dialogue and in characterization. Some bitchy items support pop-cultural references bound to resonate with viewers as well as characterize the show’s protagonists. You son of a beech, for example, coordinates with cross-season references to The Princess Bride that characterize Ted Mosby and Marshall Erikson’s inner-childishness, yet it also allows Lily Aldrin a slightly euphemized signature swear consistent with her paradoxical personality. Some bitches in the series may misappropriate African American speech, and sometimes the characters use bitch as a weapon rather than a means of building in-group solidarity, so bitch has its dark side in the series, as it does in life. Thus, HIMYM is a rich, complex, and accurate description of bitch, its uses and abuses. Continue reading
Earlier bitch chronicles have celebrated highly evolved bitches, but How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) acknowledges bitch’s baser uses, too. For instance, you can deploy weaponized bitch against people you hate or despise. You can use it glibly to abuse anyone outside your own group, exactly the opposite of using bitch to build solidarity within the group. But you cannot use basic bitch against a woman friend, neither to her face nor indirectly in a way that gets back to her. HIMYM demonstrates over and over just how rhetorically and stylistically impressive a bitch can be, but some bitches confront a stone face and stop time. Continue reading
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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A 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.