Contemporary Blasphemy

I kinda forgot to post about this but since I finished watching Deadwood Season 3 tonight, and the same night saw an old Daily Show interview with Bernie Goldberg, I thought I’d amend this, it’s from one of Geoffrey Nunberg’s columns (I’ve quoted him here and there on the blog already I think). Direct link here, excerpt here:

That’s the approach taken by the HBO series “Deadwood,” set in a South Dakota mining camp in the 1870’s. As a lot of people have noted, the show is positively swilling in obscenity — the characters use “fuck” and “fucking” with a frequency that would make Tony Soprano blush.1

But “fuck” wasn’t actually a swear-word back then. It was indecent, of course, but people only used it for the sexual act itself. Whereas swear-words are the ones that become detached from their literal meanings and float free as mere intensifiers. Swearing isn’t using “fucking” when you’re referring to sex, it’s using it when you’re talking about the weather. (…)

The words those “Deadwood” characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than sexual or scatalogical ones. They would have peppered their speech with “goddamn,” “Jesus,” and particularly “hell,” a word that 19th-century Americans were famous for using with a dazzling virtuosity — “a hell of a drink,” “What in hell did that mean?,” “hell to pay,” “The hell you will,” “hell-bent,” “Hell, yes,” “like a bat out of hell,” “hell’s bells,” and countless others. (…)

The new rituals of swearing have altered the hypocrisy that surrounds the practice, too. Time was that swear words were completely absent from public discourse, and genteel people could go through their lives pretending they didn’t exist. Nowadays, it’s more a question of maintaining an official sanctimony in designated public forums.