“In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.” Mark Twain, A Biography
Did they really cuss like that back in the 1860s and 1870s? To find the answer I moseyed on down to my primary sources, particularly the letters of Mark Twain who was notorious in his day for his ability to swear. His own newspaper, The Daily Territorial Enterprise affectionately dubbed him “Profaner of Divinity” and his friend Steve Gillis once jokingly urged Twain not to shoot at a howling dog who was disturbing their sleep. “Just swear at him. You can easily kill him at any range within your room.”A friend later wrote of his swearing while playing billiards, “…occasionally made a very bad stroke, and then the varied, picturesque, and unorthodox vocabulary, acquired in his more youthful years, was the only thing that gave him comfort. Gently, slowly, with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of unholy adjectives and choice expletives.”
So was Twain a literary Al Swearengen? At first I came across charming and chuckleworthy examples of Twain-cussing:
“Dang my buttons!”
“By the humping, jumping Jesus!”
In a great essay on the language of Deadwood, professor Geoffrey Nunberg observes: “The taboo against profanity comes from on high; the taboo against obscenity comes from within.” Obscenity RapI thought I had found my answer: Twain blasphemed – defying the taboo from on high – but Swearengen obscened, prodding the taboo that comes from within. His expletives all had to do with crude bodily and sexual functions and his liberal use of the F- and C-words. Twain’s cursing was blasphemous, using sacrilegious words like damn, hell and Jesus Christ.
Twain himself cheerfully admits to “blasphemy”. Before he went west he promised his ma he would not swear and is always teasing her about this. In one of his letters home he tells of a particularly slow and stupid horse named Bunker who “required all the black-snaking and shoving and profanity at our disposal to keep him on the move five minutes at a time. But we did shove, and whip and blaspheme all day and all night, without stopping to rest or eat, scarcely.”
It is hard for us today to imagine the shock value of words like damn and hell a century ago. Many contemporaries of Twain censored themselves thus: d—n, dang, dam, dadburn, blank, even text-messagey acronyms like D.O.G. (danged old galoot).
In an illuminating essay entitled Deadwood and the English Language, Brad Benz quotes Nunberg (again) who writes that if the characters in Deadwood had sworn in a manner authentic to the period, they’d sound like Yosemite Sam. This is surely why Milch took the decision to sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of dramatic license in this one aspect, in order to give us a sense of the barely subdued violence and rebelliousness of the people of Deadwood. I reckoned this meant that today’s F-word was equivalent to olden days’ D-word.
But then I found evidence that Twain could be obscene (i.e. use sexual and bodily function words) as well as profane.
In an after-dinner speech exclusively to men at the Stomach Club in Paris in 1879, Twain’s topic was ‘Some Thoughts on the Science of Onansism’ This very witty short piece includes repeated uses of the word “masturbation” – the subject of the talk – and not the sort of topic we are used to Twain expounding on. He employs some hiliarious and unique metaphors for the male member: “os frontis“, “Major Maxillary” and “Vendome Column” (this latter a monument which Twain looked out upon during his stay at the Hotel de Vendome in Paris.)
Much more elegant that Al Swearengen, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it definitely comes under the definition of bodily functions rather than religious insolence. And why not? The 27-year-old Mark Twain I’ve been getting to know was a hard-drinking, pistol-packing, ex-prospector turned newspaper reporter who lived in Virginia City, a mining town just as wild and woolly as Deadwood would be a decade later. In fact, Twain was generally considered crude. One reviewer remarked that Huckleberry Finn was “no coarser than Mark Twain’s books usually are…”
Then I came across the real eye-opener. In 1876, the summer than Tom Sawyer was published, Twain wrote what was once called “the most famous piece of pornography in American literature”. First written as a whim for his best friend the Rev. Twichell, this top secret, privately published tract is set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Written in faux-Shakespearean, it is called 1601, (a deliberately obscure and even boring title referring to the year the fictional conversation is supposed to have taken place).
Calling it “pornography” is hyperbole, but this is Twain at his most risqué.It might be more accurately called Ode to a Fart and begins thus: Ye Queene.—Verily in mine eight and sixty yeres have I not heard the fellow to this fart. Meseemeth, by ye grete sound and clamour of it, it was male… (You can read the whole piece HERE.)
Twain confessed that 1601 was one of the few examples of his own writing that made him laugh. He obviously had great fun using real Elizabethan words such as tup and coition; pseudo-Elizabethan spellings like pricke, maidenhedde, capulate (i.e. copulate); charming pseudo-Elizabethan double-entendres as in a little birde nestling in a downy neste; and less Elizabethan euphemisms like tool, roger and member. With bollocks, piss and shit we become a little more edgy and finally a C-bomb or two (c–t not c——–r) that would have caused Al Swearengen to nod his approval. But nary an F-word in sight.
And why not? Was that word not around then?
In the foreword of his book The F-Word, Jesse Sheidlower writes that the word f–k wasn’t even printed in the United States until 1926 in a WWI diary. Even then, it was not used as an expletive but rather in its verbal sense, for the act of intercourse.
The only instances of the F-word I have found from the 1860’s are in the Journals of Alfred Doten, where he uses the word in the verbal sense written in a code of his own devising. (The word appears as vcuk, not very opaque.) Doten and Twain were colleagues moving in exactly the same circles, so Twain must have known it. But Doten’s usage confirms that the F-word was NOT used as a swear word back then.
At least not in print.