Excellence in Swearing in 2023.

Ben Zimmer has made his annual Tucker Award post: “We’ve logged yet another fucking year here at Strong Language, so that can mean only one thing: It’s time for our annual awards recognizing excellence in swearing.” He opens with someone going by “Malcolm Tucker” on TikTok, who has created Tucker’s Law: “If some cunt can fuck something up, that cunt will pick the worst fucking time to fuck it up, ’cause that cunt’s a cunt.” Then he gets to the categories; the top Best Fucking Swearing of 2023 award goes to Cory Doctorow for coining “the highly appropriate term enshittification in a blog post on Jan. 21”:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

I thoroughly approve; it’s a great word and has deservedly caught on. The television award goes once again to HBO’s Succession (“sweary insults were always grounded specifically in situational context, appropriate for the character doing the insulting and the one being insulted”); the film award goes to a movie I very much want to see, American Fiction, directed by Cord Jefferson (warning: spoilers in description):

In the movie, adapted by Jefferson from Percival Everett’s novel Erasure, the protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a frustrated novelist who is told his work isn’t “black” enough. Monk writes a book satirizing the tired tropes portraying African Americans in fiction called My Pafology and submits it to his publisher using the pen name Stagg R. Leigh. His novel ends up being an unexpected success, even after he petulantly decides to retitle it Fuck. In an interview with podcaster Pablo Torre, Jefferson said he actually wanted to call the movie Fuck, but he changed his mind. That was probably for the best — and anyway, there already is a movie called Fuck, a 2005 documentary about the word. (It has 857 F-bombs, for those keeping track.)

He also mentions the “Lui, c’est juste Ken” kerfluffle we discussed here. The award for books went to For F*ck’s Sake: Why Swearing is Shocking, Rude, and Fun by Rebecca Roache, Words from Hell: Unearthing the Darkest Secrets of English Etymology by Jess Zafarris, and On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down by James Fell, and that for music to Olivia Rodrigo and Andre 3000, with a special recognition of The Offspring “for their excellent response to accidentally releasing a clean version of a vinyl reissue”:

Any fan of The Offspring knows that we enjoy cussing on occasion, because sometimes there’s just no substitute for a properly placed curse word. So you must understand how we were completely fucking horrified to find out that the 15th anniversary re-issue vinyl release of ‘Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace’ had the ‘clean’ versions of ‘You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid,’ ‘Nothingtown’ and ‘Stuff Is Messed Up’ on it. We have no idea how this shit happened, we didn’t even know there was a clean version! We and Roundhill are working to fix this bullshit ASAP. We will let you all know how and when this will be remedied but rest assured, goddamnit., that it will be fuckin’ fixed! Thank you all for your patience, and please accept our deepest fucking apologies.

He discusses swearing in politics (my favorite: Chileans protesting the conservative proposal for a new constitution responded to the right-wingers’ “que se jodan” [‘fuck them’] with the slogan “¡Que no te jodan!” [‘Don’t let them fuck you!’]), and concludes with this touching tribute:

Finally, as we say good-bye to 2023, let’s take a moment to remember the great Richard Belzer, an actor who never shied away from colorful language. When Belzer died in February at his home in France, his friend Bill Scheft told The Hollywood Reporter, “His last words were, ‘Fuck you, motherfucker.’” Rest in fucking peace, Belz.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    When Ben wrote: “I can totally see Malcolm having this on a tea towel,” it’s not clear to me whether he was aware that such tea towels apparently are actually available for purchase (assuming no crackdown on the possible IP-infringement issues that may be present). https://butisitart.co.uk/products/malcolm-tucker-tea-towel

  2. (Richard Belzer’s home in France was known as Chez Hogan, as it was paid for by these two minutes of classic 80s TV and the resulting lawsuit.)

  3. I had no idea!

  4. David Marjanović says

    …The greatest shock is that his hair is real. It looks faker than Trump’s! I thought that’s what wearing a toupet looks like!

    (I’m well aware that Trump’s hair is real, just its length, color and arrangement are not.)

  5. jack morava says

    American Fiction is quite good but it only covers about a third of Everett’s novel; one problem, I’m told, is that white ppl find it too funny. I think it, together with `Get Out’, would make an excellent old-fashioned double feature, though.

    Also, best wishes on La Befana!

  6. American Fiction is quite good but it only covers about a third of Everett’s novel

    So? It’s probably better because of that; too many adaptations are ruined by trying to cram everything in.

    one problem, I’m told, is that white ppl find it too funny.

    This is the kind of criticism that makes me roll my eyes and back slowly away from the “progressive” left.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    white ppl find it too funny

    This is too funny. Are white ppl now expected to be demure, in order to gain hands-on experience of what it was like for black ppl forced to dial back their proverbial merriment ? These weirdo demands on propriety spread under peer pressure, I suppose, but who supplies the pig slurry to the pumps ? Is it Chomsky ? Jerry Springer ? Mae West ? From Germany I can’t figure out WTF is going down over there.

  8. I think the idea is that if white ppl find it funny then it must be watered down and “not black enough” (as the writer in the book and movie gets told) — if it were truly Black and expressed proper Black Rage™, then white ppl would scream and faint.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Homo sum: humani nil non joculare puto.

  10. Stu Clayton says

    What does that mean: “The way people are is, according to my lights, nothing to joke about” ?

  11. It’s a riff on this.

  12. John Cowan says

    just its length, color and arrangement are not

    Trump’s hair is not really orange. But all hair is cut to a certain length, so it seems meaningless to say the one length is realer than another. (You can make your hair longer by adding unreal hair to it.) The same is true of arrangement: all hair is arranged.

    This is the kind of criticism that makes me roll my eyes and back slowly away from the “progressive” left.

    I forget who said that a Roman audience watching the Crucifixion on TV with appropriate commentary would probably be reduced to hysterical laughter.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    I know what the riff riffs. What I don’t know is what the riff means, if anything.

  14. jack morava says

    Apologies to all, but I (a Texas anglo kid) found the audience reaction at a film festival kind of embarassing. I know this is a tender topic, but I didn’t mean to bruise any sensibilities. The TV series


    seems to me to be pretty witty about such things.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    “Raised in Texas’ lower Rio Grande valley”. How mysterious ! The closest I ever got was Laredo one Saturday night at the age of 16, where to my surprise I found myself crawling on a street, wasted on orange-flavored tequila. I myself was raised in El Paso up the river, but not raised very high, as you see.

  16. Apologies to all, but I (a Texas anglo kid) found the audience reaction at a film festival kind of embarassing.

    You found it embarrassing that people laughed at a comedy?

  17. If it’s not intended as a comedy, the preview I saw was wildly misleading.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Did they fail to dial back their merriment at sensitive scenes ? What a fucking minefield. [no offense to amputees intended]

    I started watching The Other Black Girl. So far, all the white manager women at the publishing house are uptight about race/poverty/addiction. They smile, talk and issue orders in an excruciatingly brittle, chirpy, phoney way. I guess I should laugh, but … Hey, maybe I already have the hypersensitivity necessary not to laugh at the wrong places !! But if this means I’m going to become brittle and chirpy, I think I’ll just hang up.

  19. David Marjanović says

    Trump’s hair is not really orange.

    Of course not; it’s dyed yellow, with a short exception in early 2021 when it showed its natural white. What’s orange is the spray-tan on Trump’s face.

    But all hair is cut to a certain length, so it seems meaningless to say the one length is realer than another.

    It’s much longer than it’s made to look like by the way it’s arranged. That’s what I mean.

    all hair is arranged

    Mine isn’t; it just comes straight down. I like to say I don’t have a haircut, only a hair length. (…Doesn’t work well in English; coiffure, Frisur.) And of course lots of people get their hair cut so short it can’t be arranged.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Some years ago, the quite successful (black, American) comedian Dave Chappelle created a sudden crisis/hiatus in his career by abandoning his successful tv show while its third season was in the middle of filming and relocating to a foreign country to take time out to reflect and get his head straight, thereby causing financial and logistical chaos that probably cost him a few million dollars personally as well as screwing up the paychecks and immediate career plans of a bunch of other people. He was subject to a number of serious stressors at the time, but at least in one version of the story as he told it, the immediate precipitating event came when he was rehearsing or filming a bit (which trafficked heavily if ironically in negative historical stereotypes about black people) and suddenly felt that a white guy on set was laughing “the wrong way.” I.e., he rightly or wrongly perceived that the white guy was laughing at him rather than laughing with him, made a snap decision that he didn’t want or need to keep performing under those circumstances, and just walked away.

    I don’t think the psychology involved is particularly hard to understand – you, like a lot of comedians, derive much of your material from the foibles and ridiculousnesses of members of your own specific (ethnic/racial/whatever) community. Audience members from that community laugh uproariously, but that’s also tempered with the knowledge of a certain human recognition – the social types you’re mocking resemble their weird uncle or the ne’er-do-well fellow who lived down the street when they were growing up etc. Outsiders to the community who didn’t grow up with the same degree of social connection to the social types being mocked turn up and they laugh uproariously too. That’s fine, at first. Money is money and you’re happy to have more of it (and a larger audience rather than a smaller one), and you’d like to think that hey, if it’s funny it’s funny and you shouldn’t have to meet some sort of qualifying group-membership test to be allowed to laugh. But there’s always an underlying risk that that dynamic can turn weird and suddenly feel off-putting, perhaps suddenly and unpredictably. Some Chapelle scholars have noted that Richard Pryor worked with similar material and social dynamics decades earlier and was not overtly put off by white people laughing uproariously (and certainly had no objection to taking their money). Some of the same scholars have hypothesized that perhaps Pryor avoided consciously feeling weird about the situation by using the white folks’ money to self-medicate with cocaine to the extent that he accidentally set himself on fire.

  21. I have absolutely no problem with Dave Chappelle, or any other comedian, making such a decision about their own work. What I have a problem with is hair-trigger progressives who look for any excuse to declare something problematic and cancel it, or at least wag their finger at it. Similarly, privilege is a great thing to take note of in yourself and a shitty thing to use as a club to attack others with.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    He can of course speak for himself, but it was not my impression that Jack Morava was getting up in the theater with a megaphone and instructing his fellow white people to laugh less versus just personally internally feeling weirded out by the dynamic he sensed. (I generally yield to no one in my disdain for the sort of folks hat is generically disdaining, so I unilaterally declare that there is something non-Euclidean going on here and I have not inadvertently positioned myself to hat’s left.)

    OTOH, the basic conceit of the Everett novel sounds like such that those who are more sensitive than average to certain potentially “problematic” social dynamics should probably decide in advance that a movie based on it is unlikely to be their cup of tea and see something else instead. Or stay home with a good book about Proto-Austronesian and a cup of tea.

  23. Oh, none of my bile was aimed at Jack Morava — I don’t believe in attacking the messenger!

  24. He reports, I decide.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Or stay home with a good book about Proto-Austronesian and a cup of tea

    Books about proto-Niger-Congo are much funnier.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    But books about proto-Niger-Congo (if they review the earlier literature) may require one to take a lighthearted and insouciant attitude toward Nazis, innit? Which is easier for some than for others.

  27. jack morava says

    @ Stu,

    As Lightnin’ Hopkins says, I feels yo sympafy and knows just what you means: for me it was Reynosa at about the same age and a probably very similar story.

    The novel is apparently well-known as a story of Black middle-class life (I haven’t read it) and the part about fame is entangled with other serious family drama. I saw the film in Virginia among nice mostly elderly folks who got increasingly excited as the story developed, enough to make me uncomfortable but not enough to do anything like leave, it’s a well-made film IMO.

    There’s an argument that TOBG is secret propaganda for the CBD oil industry, it takes a while for this to show up…

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    may require one to take a lighthearted and insouciant attitude toward Nazis, innit?

    Nah. When it comes to Niger-Congo, Those Wacky Nazis© are basically the Bad Guys.
    Proto-Niger-Congo is the Raiders of the Lost Ark of comparative linguistics.

    Harrison Ford would make a great Joseph Greenberg. I’m surprised that Spielberg never seems to have thought of it, frankly. And the action scenes across Africa practically write themselves.

  29. J.W. Brewer says

    Shurely one can take a lighthearted and insouciant attitude toward the Bad Guys when they’re Wacky?

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely. But they have to be scary in-universe. Peter Stormare would be a shoo-in for Meinhof, the Big Bad.

    I see myself in a minor role as a comically obstructive colonial bureaucrat, playing to my strengths. Probably French. “I’m shocked – shocked – to see that incorrect segmentation has been taking place here.”

    Indy would effortlessly circumvent my pettifogging objections with the power of his trademark accessory, the Mass Comparison.

    Not sure about the love interest. We could have Scarlett Johansson as Selma Berkowitz, perhaps.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    Shurely one can take a lighthearted and insouciant attitude toward the Bad Guys when they’re Wacky?

    Also when they’re Cute. Faint heart ne’er won fair laddie.

    But these guys are intellectuals. Too much effort involved, they’re always thinking about something else.

  32. How about a secret cave with a secret stone with a secret map of Guthrie’s Bantu zones?

    In any case, Blench needs to be worked into the plot.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    Blench needs to be worked into the plot

    Absolutely. I’m not sure that the scriptwriters would find it easy to do him justice, though … and there would be a danger of him upstaging the protagonist.

    Perhaps as a sort of irregular Resistance fighter, occasionally swooping in from his bases in the high desert to discomfort the forces of Splittism …

    He could ride in to save the day when Meinhof and his evil henchmen had Indy G prisoner, saving his life to repay an old favour (the nature of this just hinted at in the screenplay, with oblique references to Tibet) and then ride off again into the desert romantically with his band of picturesque ruffians (who would be shown to speak a unique language, known only to themselves and to Roger Blench.)

  34. Maybe as the mercenary whose heart is basically in the right place, but who’ll take anyone’s money, leaving behind him a trail of isolates and superphyla.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, that works.

    Played by Bruce Willis, maybe?
    “Yippee-ki-yay” may well be a pan-Africanism.

  36. jack morava says

    Thinking again, it occurs to me that my qualms were not about the film but rather the audience. The reviews are very favorable.

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I am idly curious as to what percentage of movie goers (of whatever race) will at this late date “get” the Thelonious/”Monk” name of the character or the “Stagg R. Leigh” nom de plume. They seem blindingly obvious to me but I am no longer young and perhaps not representative of my generational cohort in any event.

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, speaking of obscene titles, the less mainstream side of the music business was of course way ahead of the curve. Somewhere on my shelves I have a contemporaneously-purchased copy of this 1987 release, although I don’t think I’ve gone back and listened to it in the last decade or two. https://www.discogs.com/release/1102997-The-Leaving-Trains-Fuck

  39. John Cowan says

    Stubbornly I insist that allowing your hair to fall straight down your neck, or bulge out into an Afro, or whatever, is an arrangement.

    As for the Indy G movie, how would we all feel if it did a ferocious business among the, umm, Hebrew (or Tamil or whatever) monogenists as exposing how stupid historical linguists are? If “You are missing the point” is a fair critique of the reader/viewer response to non-comedy, why not of comedy also? Not of course that it’s reasonable to suppress things because the wrong people laugh, though Pryor did stop using the N-word after his trip to Kenya.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    is an arrangement

    Obviously so. The Null Arrangement.

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