Mrs. Maisel — Expletives Then and Now

January 13, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the words that usually catch my attention are the anachornisms (see earlier posts here and here).  On Episode 7, which I watched last night, handsy, skill set, poster boy, and a few others sounded jarringly modern. But I also noticed a word that people in 1959 really would have used – goddam. The word stood out because on the show, it’s so rare.

The writers on “Mrs. Maisel” far prefer the word fucking. In fact, in the above scene, Susie’s brother-in-law has just said, “Give me the fucking chips.” The episode has just one other goddamn, but characters say fucking a total of sixteen times. That’s not unusual. Here are the totals for series.

In 1959, when educated, middle-class people wanted an expletive, fucking was not their go-to negative intensifier — especially among women and especially in mixed company. Think of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, stories set and written in the mid-1950s. (The Glass family lives just across Central Park from the Weissman apartment we see so much of in TMMM.) I found an extensive collection of excerpts from the Salinger stories (here ) – thirty goddamns and not a single fuck. Google nGrams searches all books and finds something similar.

In 1959, goddamn and variants appear ten times as often fucking. (The fucking boom that begins in 1965 continues. The lines cross in 1970, and by 1990 fucking is three times as frequent as goddamn

(The above graph goes only through 1990. In 2019 fuck was more than ten times as frequent. In a graph from 1920 to 2019, the dominance of fuck would be so great as to make the differences in earlier years practically invisible.)

Apparently, goddamn, like damn and hell, is an intensifier that has lost its intensity. Two years ago, I speculated (here) that these words derive their power from the power of the religion they blaspheme. As religion fades as a dominant force in American life, so do religion-based swear words. As I say, I am just guessing. What the heck to I know about it?


Guest said...

Apparently the show just wants to lure in younger viewers....hardly anyone used the f word back then! Even the term f word didn't exist! Like you say, all the adults used goddamn, never fuck, except maybe in pool halls and places like that. It's very annoying and takes away from what is otherwise a well crafted show. The producers should watch BoJack Horseman, which perfectly captures the languuage of the 60s and early 70s in the flashback episodes, when Bojack's mean and nasty mother says goddamn constantly. Now, that's realistic!

SuperNova said...

Thanks for this post. I am watching season one, and with the first ten min, I grabbed my phone b/c the language felt so off. I am by far, not a student of linguistics, but it felt so anachronistic it threw me. Great to get some research to validate my hunch.

SuperNova said...

Excuse the above typos. I am typing while holding a dog.

MB said...

its a tragedy that such a good show is made classless by the absurd amount of the f word which even in 1979 and working in NYC i never heard women or men say ..maybe in a lousy bar or porn house...the writers are just appealing to the 2021 audience. pathetic.

Guest said...

So true. It drives me nuts. Thanks for Bojack reference. Best show ever!

Jay Livingston said...

MB: Thanks for confirming my impressions about the f-word. I did a follow-up post – “Mrs. Maisel — Expletives Then and Now” here because I started wondering: OK, people in 1960 didn’t say fucking. But what did they say?

In another post (here), I reconsidered the problem of linguistic inaccuracy because it occurred to me that when you want your characters sound hip and cool, historical accuracy might not be your friend. They wouldn’t sound cool, they’d sound dated.

Hank Hoffman said...

Another show with serious language anachronisms in the expletives was "Deadwood," the HBO series set in the 1870s. Again, prodigious use of "fucking" and "cocksucking" when it was highly unlikely that they would have been used in such profusion, particularly the latter. I looked that one up in the same way I searched out info on the anachronisms in TMMM. What I found was that while there was lots of profanity in the Old West, as you noted for TMMM, most of it would have been literally "profane"—"Goddamn," etc.

Unknown said...

Beyond the mere prolific use of the word “fuck” in a show set c. 1960, there is also inappropriate placement of its use. Can’t remember the exact episode, but there is one scene in which Joel Maisel is in the middle of the street, having a shouting conversation with Midge who is on the sidewalk, and they used variations on the word “fuck” several times, in front of dozens of passersby all acting as though nothing unusual is happening with this two nutjobs cussing in public at the top of their lungs.

I live in the year 2022 and I don’t see that happening much today, but when it does, people stop and pay attention.