Book review: ‘Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America’, by Rob Chirico

Swearing and the public have an intimate but uneasy relationship. Eric Partridge bowdlerised fuck with an asterisk in his landmark Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, but the book was still censured fiercely for the word’s inclusion. The explosive power of the F-bomb is encoded in that very term, which along with other euphemisms allows it to be discussed in public without tainting one’s hands or mouth.

Rob Chirico - Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America - Pitchstone Publishing book coverRob Chirico’s new book Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America casts a wry and probing eye on the colourful status of off-colour language in American culture over the last century or so, with a few forays further back and further afield. The US, he writes, is undergoing ‘a linguistic, and therefore cultural, shift that is passively opening up to an amplified inclusion of profanity’. This provides the backdrop for a lively examination of the terrain and our divergent attitudes towards swearing.

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Retarded progress

TropicThunder

Shit hit the fan for Coca-Cola in September 2013 when a woman in Alberta, Canada, opened a bottle of VitaminWater to see “YOU RETARD” printed on the cap. That cap was part of a promotional game in which English words were randomly paired with French ones, and in French retard simply (and innocuously) means late. The company apologized and pulled the promotion after the woman’s father complained, but the fierce reaction to this unfortunate juxtaposition invites a closer look at how retard and retarded developed the connotations they have today. Continue reading

Great moments in swearing: You gotta be fuckin’ kidding

It’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.

Mention swearing in films and the focus tends to fall on quantity: which film is the sweariest, how many fucks are there, what’s that per minute, and so on. But this is ultimately trivial; I find the quality of curses more interesting. One cult classic that’s less sweary than you’d expect but puts its strong language to memorable effect is The Thing.

John W. Campbell’s story ‘Who Goes There?’ was first adapted for film in 1951 as The Thing From Another World, a quirky B-movie with a flavour of Cold War distrust. Though this adaptation offers wit and melodrama, it feels inescapably quaint to modern audiences, and suffers from that era’s technical constraints. The more obviously a monster is just a person in a suit, the harder it is to suspend disbelief – that goes for the actors too.

By the 1980s this had all changed. John Carpenter, a fan of Campbell’s story (The Thing From Another World is seen playing on a television in Halloween) was going through a purple patch when he was hired to direct a lean new script of The Thing written by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt. Spoilers follow below.

The Thing - S.O.B.

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