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Cussing and Fighting

Would 1870s cowboys really use such bad words? A verbal shoot-out over Deadwood.

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David Milch, creator of the new HBO Western, Deadwood, is peeved that TV critics keep carping about his potty-mouthed pioneers. “After a while, it gets a little discouraging,” he growls, calling right back from L.A. to answer the question once and for all: Did 1870s Americans really use such colloquially foul language with the Tourettic frequency of a Hollywood producer?

Jesse Sheidlower, the American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and the scholar of cussing who wrote The F-Word, says probably not. Not that frontiersmen were genteel. “There were cursing contests when cowboys would get together and insult each other,” he says. But “the evidence that we have is that they were using more religious blasphemy than the sexual insults which are popular today.” And on the show.

As with his earlier boundaries-of-taste-pushing series, NYPD Blue, Milch’s dialogue is designed to let viewers know they’ve entered a world with different standards. So fuck or fucking is used 43 times in the first episode of Deadwood. Sheidlower agrees that the F-word was in use back then. But he says most of the nonsexual uses of it—as an intensifier, for example—didn’t come about until around World War I.

Motherfucker, as far as anyone knows, was not in use at the time,” he adds. “There are examples of ‘mother fucking’ from court cases in Texas in the late 1880s.” (It was used as an insult.) However, “the word itself doesn’t show up until late nineteen-teens.”

In most dictionaries, cocksucker, which is said eight times in the first episode, dates to around 1890. Sheidlower has found it in court-martial testimony from the Civil War, too, but says that all evidence indicates “it was not as common as it is in the show.”

Milch counters that he spent a year researching the real town of Deadwood, South Dakota, including reading letters and diaries. He cites a bibliography he put together in his research. “It’s called ‘Profanity in Deadwood,’ and it has like 50 sources.” The two main ones he says he used are Richard A. Spears’s Slang and Euphemism (1981) and Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing (1967).

Take cocksucker. “Spears guesses that it began to appear early in the century,” says Milch. But Sheidlower dismisses Spears’s scholarship. “The dates which appear in Spears’s book are not based on solid evidence,” he says. “It’s his supposition.”

Milch, for his part, dismisses the OED for basing its citations on “the first appearance in literature.” After all, he says, “it might take fifteen years for a verbal expression to make it into print.” So Deadwood could cuss like this and the OED wouldn’t know.

Sheidlower, however, won’t back down: “I have absolutely no doubt the language is inauthentic,” he says. And Milch is equally determined to win this shoot-out. A lot of this, he thinks, is that people have been brainwashed by old Westerns—they’re used to the taciturn, deeds-not-words stereotype, not cowboys as sailors. “It’s a resistance to the existence of the imaginative world I’m portraying,” he says. Besides, he adds, “I’m not publishing a dictionary.”


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