I’ve just watched the latest season, Season 7, of Game of Thrones. Apart from all the excitement, courtly intrigues, the coming together of multiple storylines, the soaring flame-and-fire dispensing dragons, and the impending threat of the Army of the Dead, I noticed a higher incidence of what most people consider the two worst swear words in the world—the f-word and the c-word. The use of these two words, and the additional dreaded n-word (of which, I’ll say more later), in movies and television shows is not new but the incidence of the words has risen considerably over the last seventeen years. I watch a lot of action movies and in the low-budget slugfest movies, it’s de rigueur and, I guess, goes with the image of the tough he-man who long ago stopped smoking Marlboro cigarettes and took up swearing instead. But, in popular television series aimed at post-9PM family viewing, it’s become more and more common.
Consider first the f-word in movies. Apparently, the record for the highest number of f-words, called the f-count, occurs in a film called Swearnet: The Movie (2014). I’ve not watched this movie but it reputedly contains 935 instances of the word. Given the film’s viewing time of 112 minutes, this equates to 8.35 instances/minute or, one instance every 7 seconds. Jeez; there’s not a lot of room between every instance to inject different words. I won’t be seeking out this movie.
But, other more mainstream movies, Hollywood and indies, contain their fair share. Here are some further examples of popular movies with a high f-count: Wolf of Wall Street (2013)—569; End of Watch (2012)—326; Casino (1995)—422; Pulp Fiction (1994)—154; Reservoir Dogs (1992)—269; Platoon (1986)—159.
The BBC has followed suit. In November 2016, BBC4 broadcast a Peter Cook/Dudley Moore “Derek and Clive” comedy sketch recorded in 1978 that contained 15 f-words and 12 c-words. The BBC does have editorial guidelines about the use of swear words but, “The BBC does not ban words or the phrases.” The Peter Cook/Dudley Moore sketch was only 70 seconds long but approval to broadcast went right to the top of the BBC to the Director of Content, Charlotte Moore (no relation to Dudley Moore, I understand).
Okay; so far so good but how about the final taboo, the c-word, long held to be the ultimate swear word whether used in a sexual or a non-sexual way? Has that barrier finally fallen? Unfortunately, the answer is “yes”. The c-word is now quite common in movies and television series, especially those originating from the USA. I didn’t count the number of times it was used in Season 7 of Game of Thrones but it was enough to make me notice. And, it wasn’t spoken just by the beer-swilling roughnecks guarding the gates of Winterfell. It was also used by the knights and their ladies. As with the f-word, this is not new. Jack Nicholson’s character used the c-word in the movie Carnal Knowledge (1971), and again in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The c-word was edited out of the original version of Saturday Night Fever (1977) to allow the rating to be reduced from R (Restricted) to PG (Parental Guidance). Agent Starling (Jodie Foster) had the word thrown at her the first time she met Hannibal Lecter in the R-rated Silence of the Lambs (1991) and—gasp, shock, horror—the 11-year-old actress Chloë Grace Moretz, was heard to say the word in the film Kick Ass (2010) but that film was rated 15, not R. (They are getting younger. I recently watched The Last Word (2017) and heard 10-year-old actress AnnJewel Lee Dixon say the f-word several times.)
What about the n-word? The etymology of this word is not rooted in sexual origins. It is rooted in race and ethnic sources and is widely regarded as extremely offensive and yet coloured/black people use it frequently amongst themselves, especially in the so-called blaxploitation movies of the ’70s. You’ll also hear it, for example, in the revisionist Western Django Unchained (2012), the war movie Full Metal Jacket (1987), and the satirical Western comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).
So, where do we go from here? If the f-word, c-word, and even the n-word are becoming more and more the norm in mainstream movies and television series, what words can we use to shock, to offend, to add adjectival depth? We are plumb out of euphemisms (“shoot” for “shit”, for example) and homophonic substitutes (Cockney rhyming slang’s “Jimmy Riddle” for “piddle”, “Gypsy’s Kiss” for “piss”). We can invent some new words, such as those suggested by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry: prunt, shote, cucking, skank, fusk, and worst of all, pempslider! Or we could turn to swear words in other languages (French: merde, putain, fils de pute… or German: fick dich, küss meinen arsch, miststück…), or even adopt swear words used in made-up languages such as Klingon, the language used by Captain Kirk’s antagonists in the television series Star Trek: for example, denlb qatlh (Denebian slime devil), p’tok (spineless human child), sa’hut (buttocks), or baktag (shit). If you are unable to pronounce the Klingon words, there’s always the more recent language of the Dothraki from Game Of Thrones; for example, dracarys (dragonfire) but that’s the only Dothrakian swear word I can find.
Or, we could all just stop swearing but how then would we express our anger, our surprise, our disgust, our disrespect, our astonishment, and our delight? There’s nothing quite like the classic Eff Off retort to express surprise or suggest someone leaves your presence. Maybe we should return to Shakespeare for inspiration: “Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!” ( Henry IV Part I – Act II, Scene iv), or the shorter but possibly more insulting, “Away, you three-inch fool!” (The Taming of the Shrew – Act III, Scene iii.)
Where will future swear words come from? As the man with a contraceptive on the end of his nose replied when asked his name, “F**k knows!”