Riding Shotgun: Watch Your Language

Warning: After reading this, you may need to wash your brain out with soap.

Note from the eds: The language in this piece is filthy, even by Steve’s standards. In most states, it’s probably illegal to read this piece out loud to children, cute little puppies, or anyone with a pacemaker.



My fiancée, with whom I share a living space and (more importantly) a television set, cannot stand my new favorite show, and it’s all because of language. Which is ironic, since Deadwood is probably the best-written television program, well, ever. At least as far as dialogue is concerned. Calling it Shakespearean would not be overstating its lush complexity.

Disregarding the dialogue, it’s basically a soap opera set in a gold-rush town filled with the usual array of Western stereotypes, though in this case they’re all fleshed out in minute detail. Dress the characters in L.L. Bean, stick them in New England, and it’s As The World Turns.

Still, she can’t stand it. It doesn’t help that, because we don’t have HBO, I watch the show on DVD in season-long bursts. It’s the language, you see, and she’s not alone.

While you might need a thesaurus dating from 1750 to follow half of what’s being said, there are some words (really, one in particular, I think) that cut through the miasma. Yes, it contains more “fucks”, “fucking”, “fucked”, and “fuckers” per paragraph than any show in the history of the medium. And there is the usual array of lesser profanity, vulgarity, and obscenity. But the absolute, deal-breaking kicker is that in one 50-minute episode of Deadwood you will likely hear the word “cunt” more times than in all the television shows you’ve seen up to that point combined.

So, I ask you this: When did “cunt” become the new “fuck”?

You know what I’m talking about. “Cunt” is now the nuclear option of swear words, notwithstanding the usual array of racial slurs that are not so much swears as verbal proof of emotional retardation. Nope, if you wanna put a pause on a conversation, you just drop the C-bomb. Yeah, I’ve heard it referred to as that: “the C-bomb.” No more worrying about the dreaded “F-bomb” — those are everywhere, dropping from the sky like leaves in October. Everyone says “fuck,” now. Fuck this. Fuck that. Fuckityfuckfuckfuck. For anyone under 50, it’s common vocabulary. It’s moved out of our lexicon’s taboo territory and into daily, semi-acceptable usage, thus making space for another word to move in and take its place — “Cunt.”

So, how did this happen? I have no fucking idea. But I’m guessing it’s because of the sheer versatility of “fuck” — it’s a one-stop shop for swearing. It’s a noun (“I need a good fuck”), a verb (“I fucked him by the watercooler”), an adjective (“That fucking gerbil”), an interjection (“Fuck!”), an adverb (“I fucking waited for you”), or an infix (“absofuckinglutely”). There are parts of Brooklyn where they even use “fuck” as punctuation.

Is it any wonder that the culture has so warmly embraced “fuck”?

Now, “cunt” is an entirely different matter. Will it ever move up to the semi-acceptable status that “fuck” has achieved? Maybe after “fuck” has become something grandparents say when they lose their dentures, replacing “consarnit” and “dagnabbit”?

Presently, “cunt” has several factors working against it. It’s not nearly as flexible as “fuck,” for one thing. It sole current use is as a noun (“Her cunt.” “You cunt”). It also doesn’t help that it’s considered a gender-specific swear word used either to describe a woman’s sexual anatomy or to describe her negatively using the terms for her sexual anatomy. This sort of thing isn’t unknown in the realm of profanity. “Prick,” “cock” and “dickhead” have all come before it, with the first two now barely considered “naughty” and use of the latter relegated to recess. Still, it might be a while before you can use “cunt” as simple anatomical slang without getting some sharp looks (if you’re a woman) or punched in the head (if you’re a man). Which is too bad, since there are precious few common terms for the female sexual anatomy (“vagina” and “pussy” are about it), while there are so many for the male that it’s become a cultural running gag.

What’s the future of “cunt”? I can’t say. We might be comfortable leaving it where it is for a while. There’s always a linguistic need for a conversation-stopping word like “cunt.” What’s the point of swearing if it doesn’t allow some little bit of emotional or psychic release? The more pissed off you are, the “worse” the word you feel compelled to use.

So, in its current status “cunt” serves a purpose. I don’t know if a single show on HBO (one that’s going to be cancelled following the next season, the fuckers!) is going to have the cultural oomph to change that status. Besides, I can’t even begin to predict what would replace “cunt” once it’s moved on.

Although, in my opinion, “consarnit” is rarin’ for a comeback. As in, “Consarnit, that cunt fucked me over!”

Article © 2006 by Steve Spotswood