History of Swear Words (2021) s01e06 Episode Script


Rhett! Rhett!
[sobbing] Rhett…
If you go, where shall I go?
What shall I do?
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a whoop.
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a hoot.
Frankly, my dear, I don't give a straw.
Frankly, my dear,
I don't give a continental. [laughs]
"I I don't give a continental"?
Ha has anyone ever actually said that?
Can you imagine you get to the end
of the most famous movie of all time,
and you're waiting to hear Clark Gable
say the most famous line of all time,
and instead, you get…
"Frankly, my dear, it has become
of no concern to me."
Horrible. However, it almost happened.
See, back in 1939,
there was something known as
the Motion Picture Production Code,
or the Hays Code.
A set of moral guidelines
that determined what the studios
could put in their movies.
And at that time,
the word "damn" was strictly prohibited.
As were the words "Lord," "God," "Jesus,"
"Jesus Christ," "Christ,"
"son of a bitch" and "hell."
So the filmmakers had to come up with
a whole page full of alternate lines
like the ones I just read.
I know what you're thinking.
"Damn" is barely a swear word anymore.
We see it so much,
we don't even notice it.
[both] Daaaaaamn!
- [hits table]
- Damn!
Goddamn it!
[Nicolas] It might be the mildest word
in our vulgarian,
but it's the only swear word
specifically mentioned in the Bible.
And it still has the ability
to offend millions.
So, before we can finish the story
of how they got "damn"
to stay in Gone With the Wind,
first, we have to tell you
the story of the word itself.
"Frankly, my dear, the whole thing's
a stench in my nostrils."
Ah, damn! I mean, come on,
that's the worst one yet.
[cat meows]
"Damn" shouldn't even be on this list.
"Damn" isn't it's not offensive,
it's not a swear word.
It's a actual word,
and beavers build 'em.
Damn, girl.
Yeah… kind of a lame swear.
Just damn, or…
[high-pitched] …daaaaamn?
Neck and neck with "damn" could be "crap."
"Damn" feels pretty, like, um… mild.
I don't think "damn" is a curse word,
but also, my kid cannot say it.
So I am a hypocrite.
"Damn" is an interesting swear word
because it's a curse.
It's not like "shit" or "fuck."
And it means to send to hell,
like damnation.
So, in the Middle Ages,
"damnation" was a real fear for people.
It's an actual curse word. When you damn
someone, you are cursing them.
[Nicolas] So how did "damn" go
from being the most sacred curse
to being so benign
that most people no longer
even consider it a swear word?
We believed,
and some people still do believe,
that using religious terms outside
of their appropriate context
is blasphemous.
This is the source of our profanity.
In fact, it's the source
of the word "profanity."
"Profanus" means "outside of the temple,"
and "damn" is an example of this.
If you're saying,
"May God damn so and so,"
you're asking God to…
to, you know, do something to someone.
And so this is not something
you would do lightly.
So, in those times
when people really believed in that stuff
and essentially,
your religion was your horror film,
at the exact same time,
I can get why "damn" was scary.
I guess "damn you to hell" has power…
if you believe in hell, I guess.
If there's hell…
may God strike me dead right now.
My grandma is, like,
the most churchiest churchy person.
And she says "damn."
Or does she?
"Damn" shows us the complete life cycle
of a profane word.
It starts off as just a word
that describes the act of damning.
It becomes profanity.
And then over time, because
society changes, it starts to peter out.
It's where "shit" will probably be
in a few decades.
And where "fuck" will certainly be
by the end of the century.
You know,
this is, excuse me,
a damn fine cup of coffee.
[Nicolas] What are the earliest meanings
of "damn"?
So the earliest meaning of "damn"
in English is twofold.
There's both a religious meaning,
to condemn to hell,
and this legal meaning, which means
to condemn someone as guilty.
And those both come ultimately
from this Latin verb "damnare"
which means to judge as guilty.
And it's related to
the Latin noun that means "damage."
"Damn" compares to other swears
like your little brother that wants
to hang out with you
and you don't want him to go.
Like, Shit was
the dangerous one in school,
and Damn, he did all his work,
but he was a bit of a rebel.
Damn and Fuck sit next to each other,
and you're like, "They know each other?"
You go over and you're like,
"Can I talk to you?"
Fuck is like, "Get the fuck away from me!"
And Damn is like, "Damn."
If you survey young adults,
they generally find it
as inoffensive as words like "condom"
or "bupkis." [chuckles]
Someone's like, "Fuck!"
You, like, "Shit, what's goin' on? We
We might not be able to help him."
But, "Damn"? "What can we do to help?"
"Damn," it also is used
as an emphasizer, an intensifier.
It's pretty varied.
You wanna either go high
or you wanna go low with it.
[deep voice] You go, "Damn."
Or you can go…
[upbeat] "Damn!"
With the extra syllable, "Daaaaaamn!"
That's when somethin' really big happen.
Usually that involves somebody
gettin' slapped with with a thing.
I used to call a girl a "damn, damn girl."
Like, she's turned around,
her body looks amazing, her butt
looks amazing.
I'm like, "Daaaaamn."
And she turn around, I see her face,
I'm like, "Damn." So, yeah.
Remember, growing up, you didn't know how
to spell "damn"? Most people did not know.
Most Black people did not know
"damn" had an N on the end.
We were like, "dam,"
like at the river, the dam.
Then when I see it had the N, I'm like,
"What does that mean? Dam-nuh."
I love that there's
an M and N next to each other.
Um… for some reason, you only say one.
It's like a silent N, which is what
my nickname was in high school.
That's why they added the N.
"Damn" from "damnation," 'cause of the N.
And they somebody left the… the N on.
[laughs] And when they did that,
the person was like, "Damn!"
Over the past half-century,
church attendance in the U.S.
steadily declined.
But religion comes baked into our society.
It's on our money,
in our sports and on our cars.
So "damn" still holds sway.
And it's the only one of our swear words
that has only ever had one meaning.
To condemn someone.
Damn you!
God damn you all to hell!
In ancient Rome,
the taboos in the swear words were
kind of like they are today
in terms of sexual and excremental,
a Latin equivalent of
"fuck," "shit," things like that.
Then, in the Middle Ages, in English,
they became religious, invoking God.
The worst thing you could say
in the Middle Ages
was something like "By God's bones."
God's bones?
It's hard for contemporary people to
understand or imagine how this would work.
So, in the Catholic tradition,
Christ has a body,
and if you say, "By God's bones,"
your words kind of reach up
to his body and pull out his bone.
Daaaamn, that's hardcore.
Wait. God don't even have bones, does he?
And you know that whoever said that
never just said it, like, "God's bones."
Whoever said that dropped to their knees.
God's bones.
Religious swearing ultimately
gets its power from the Old Testament.
And God, in the Bible,
spends a lot of time explaining
how he wants people to swear by him.
But not vainly.
Of course,
the supercharged version of "damn,"
the one that we still don't see
on network TV, or even basic cable…
We don't hear it on the radio and
we rarely, if ever, read it in the news.
The big one.
[echoing] Goddamn it!
The "God" is an intensifier to the "damn"
and also brings
the religious context back.
I think the difference between
"damn" and "goddamn" is like…
uh, "goddamn," like, supersizes it.
"Damn" is…
It can be like, uh…
you got a paper cut. "Ah, damn."
I think "goddamn" carries more gravity
that takes you right into church.
I don't say "goddamn" because
I am not a Black man from the South.
Before the 1600s,
there was some speculation
that, uh, the English were known
as "Les Goddamns" to the French
uh, because they had a habit of swearing
so much by God and damn.
I like this idea of referring to entire
cultures by their most unique swear words.
It's like they say,
"You swear about what you care about."
So, what do they care about
in other parts of the world?
One of Russia's most used swear words is…
[woman] перхоть подзалупная.
[Isiah] That means "pee hole dandruff."
I feel like
if this one is comin' up a lot,
Putin is actually
the least of they problems.
The fine people in Germany like to say…
[man] Arschgeige.
[Isiah] A swear that means "butt violin."
That makes sense.
Even their swear words are classy.
This one's outrageous.
In South Africa,
there's an Afrikaans swear.
[man 2] Ek wens jou vingers verander
in vishoeke, en jou balle begin te jeuk.
[Isiah] It means
"I hope your fingers turn to fish hooks
and your balls start to itch."
That one's a whole story line.
[Melissa] In the 16th century,
"damn" is becoming a swear word,
but it still appears in the Bible.
The King James Bible prints "damn"
or a variation of "damn" 15 times.
But then, when the King James Bible
is revised in the 19th century,
they cut the "damns."
In 1781, you get the first appearance
of "darn" in Pennsylvania Magazine.
This is just one of the many minced oaths,
you know, that that "damn" spawns.
[Nicolas] And what is a "minced oath"?
A minced oath is a way to…
say a profane word
without actually saying it.
Instead of saying "goddamn it,"
you could say "gosh darn it."
Or "doggone it," or "dang."
Or "consarn it."
"Minced oaths." Yeah, that sounds like
a horrible cereal that your mom got
that is nowhere near
as good as the real shit.
I mean, you got your Gosh Darn-O's,
uh, Raisin Drats, Corn Sorn Its,
Honey Nut Tarnations.
Those are actually pretty good.
Um, you can really taste the hell.
It's a substitute for a word
to mean that word.
It's a it's a, um…
[giggles] But if that's what gets you
through the day,
fucking go for it.
You get more and more uses
of the word "damn."
You get Southerners calling
Northerners "Damn Yankees."
You get, you know,
things "not worth a damn."
And, in fact, until
the kind of turn of the 20th century,
when someone talks about
"profane swearing,"
that is what they're talking about.
Which brings us back
to the story of Gone With the Wind.
It was a big deal to use the word "damn"
in a Hollywood film in 1939.
The rest of the public
may not have cared as much at all.
But the people behind the code
cared a lot.
[Nicolas] The Hays Code
was strictly enforced.
It not only barred swear words,
it also banned any mention of drug use,
as well as sympathy for criminals
and excessive or lustful kissing.
However, along came David O. Selznick,
a film producer wanting to turn the
best-selling novel Gone With the Wind
into a blockbuster movie.
He argued they had to use the word "damn"
because that's how
it was written in the book.
And who was he to stray from
author Margaret Mitchell's
artistic mission?
However, the censors wouldn't budge,
so Selznick appealed to the main man,
Hays himself.
What happened next is
somewhere between fact and urban myth.
Selznick won his appeal either
on the merits of his argument,
or because he paid
a 5,000 dollar, quote, "fee."
The board made allowances. They had a
They appended the code,
and said that the words
"hell" and "damn" could be used
as long as they were used
for historical accuracy
or the artistic integrity
of the work on which they're based.
[Nicolas] So in December 1939,
Gone With the Wind
comes out and the rest is history.
- Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
- [sobbing]
From there, the dam broke wide open
and the word pops up everywhere.
Village of the Damned.
Children of the Damned.
To my personal favorite, Aaliyah
in Queen of the Damned.
The hit musical Damn Yankees
lights up Broadway in 1955.
And the super band Damn Yankees lights up
the Allentown Fairgrounds in 1990.
I think I might have been
at that show, actually.
In 1986, the makers
of Transformers: The Movie
added a "damn" and a "shit"
to avoid the dreaded G rating.
One of the biggest moments for "damn"
in Black culture
was at the end of a episode of Good Times
when, uh, Florida Evans,
I think she had just lost her husband,
and she just, like,
lost her shit in the kitchen.
Damn! Damn! Damn! [sobs]
It was so powerful because
the Evans family, we were dialed into.
"Damn" in that context is specifically
a word that, like, old Black women use.
So her usin' that word is the word that
we've heard our grandmother use.
We felt that, as viewers.
We've felt a lot of that same sort
of grief and loss in our families.
So in terms of, you know,
people who really have led the charge
on the word "damn,"
I'm gonna go with Kendrick Lamar,
who has a brilliant album called DAMN.
"Damn" is not a swear word.
DAMN. is a great Kendrick Lamar album,
is what "damn" is.
For him to be able to…
top the charts and win a Pulitzer
with a rap album…
It changed everything. It's mind-blowing.
You've gone from havin' to fight
to say "damn" in Gone With the Wind,
to Kendrick Lamar, a great rapper,
naming his album DAMN.
and then the album winnin' a Pulitzer,
which means "damn" is
actually really clever.
"Damn" has gone a long way.
It's gone a long goddamn way.
"Damn" has also taken
center stage in politics in recent years.
Like the impeccably bearded
Jimmy McMillan,
who founded
the Rent Is Too Damn High Party in 2005.
I represent
the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.
You need the "damn"
to give it that emphasis and that push.
And you're not offending anybody.
You're just sayin' rent's too damn high.
But the "damn" is, uh,
doin' what you want it to do there.
And it can still stir up controversy.
Barack Obama faced backlash when
a pastor at his church, Jeremiah Wright,
delivered a sermon called
"God damn America."
This was a church
that Obama went to in Chicago,
and this video
of Jeremiah Wright preaching
in which he says "goddamn" a lot,
went viral.
I understand a pastor saying,
"God damn America."
Because of especially the way that,
you know, Black people have been treated
in this country for a long time,
I understand.
I do feel like putting it in those terms
might be taking it a little too far.
Because now you're like,
cursin' in church, which is weird.
Once you put God on there,
it does become very, very powerful.
And if you're not using it in
the right way, which, usually, you're not…
uh… I can see people getting pissed off.
So what does the future hold for "damn"?
Does it have any hope of surviving
in this vulgar fast-paced world
of fuck shit?
How can it compete
against "pussy" and "dick"?
"Damn…" It's going to succumb
to the law of diminishing returns.
Its efficacy will continue to be reduced
until it just becomes,
perhaps, a normal adjective.
I mean, there is a future for "damn"
because people continue to use it.
But at this point, uh…
there's really no sense of "damn"
that's so strongly offensive
that I think you could ever reclaim.
Well, right now, if you ask young people,
the most offensive words are slurs.
And remember that an 18-year-old today
is a 40-year-old in 2042.
So those are the people
who are going to be making the laws
and teaching children the words relating
to sex and bodily functions and religion.
Those are… on their way out.
Today, I think
it's okay for a four-year-old to say it.
Um, so my question is, "Is there gonna be
a day a four-year-old says 'fuck'
and no one blinks an eye?"
The people who object to that word
are the people who are still the loudest.
The people who make the most noise.
The people who go out and vote.
If they can be counted on
to show up for church,
they can definitely be counted on
to show up for the polls.
And because of that,
they are a… a force to be reckoned with.
I think it's very rigid, borin' people
that are uptight,
that are offended by swearing.
I don't trust people who don't swear.
I'm not offended by you using
a swear word in front of me.
I kind of like it. It means
you're comfortable in front of me.
So let your mouth loose.
I think swearing is essential
for communication.
Swearing is just one of the tools
in your toolbox, you know?
I think it can relieve
some of the emotions.
You know, if you're feeling negative
emotions, it can relieve them.
If you're feeling positive emotions,
it broadcasts them and shares them.
You know, it relieves pain. I think
Uh, I think, for many people,
it makes them feel good.
The history of "damn"
is the history of all swear words.
And, therefore,
it's the history of our culture as well.
How our beliefs and our fears change
even as they stay the same.
Swear words tell us what we value,
where our morals lie
and how we navigate the tension between
public speech and our private lives.
There's something
innately human about swearing.
Right at the beautiful-ugly intersection
between our conscious brains
and our animal bodies.
In short,
swear words will only be useful
for as long as
we have hearts, minds,
and assholes.
I'm Nicolas Cage.
Have a great fucking night.
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