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 2000 fucking is three times as frequent as goddamn. It’s possible that legal changes affected this trend. )

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 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.