Behind the Swearing

The year was 1952. America was in the throes of a post-war boom, with all that entailed: a surging economy, the rosy afterglow of a massive communal effort and the subsequent decline in political unrest, and a still-tangible sense of national unity. But this warmth and prosperity came with a cost: the culture of dissent was marginalized by an increasingly conformist social milieu. And nowhere was this chilling effect more notable than in the arena of swearing.

Gerry Tibbetts, maledictionist: The 1950s were, quite frankly, a vast wasteland for the amateur cursologist and professional maledictorian alike. The colorful, gritty hard-boiled dialogue of the 1930s and 1940s was long gone; the creativity borne of desperation that gave us so many great swears during the war simply vanished in the safety of peacetime. All you have to do is look at the popular culture of the day to see what a mess we were in: there’s “jeepers” and “whillikers” everywhere. That’s what made Harry Talbot’s discovery so incredibly groundbreaking.

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Harry Talbot was an unlikely figure to start a linguistic revolution. A pharmacist from Parma, Ohio, he didn’t fit the profile of a paradigm-shifting maledictorian: athsma had kept him out of the war, he was middle-class and fairly well-educated, and he was a white Anglo-Saxon protestant who didn’t like jazz music. But he was a man who enjoyed his leisure, and his hobby of backyard carpentry was the springboard for a leap of faith that made him perhaps the most impressive imprecationist in American history.

Mary-Louise Talbot, wife: Well, how it happened was, Harry was out on the deck, by the bird pond, you see, and he was working on a doghouse for our Airedale, Kiki. And he had left a nail askew, protruding somewhat, as it happens, and he skinned his hand on it something awful. I was sitting on the patio having a lemonade when I heard him shout. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word — of course, it was the first time anyone had ever heard it. I came running, and just as soon as we got him all patched up, I said to him, Harry, what was that you said when you scraped yourself? And he said oh, nothing, just some crazy word I hollered, some gibberish, you know how it is when you bang your thumb or whatnot. Harry, I said to him, that was not just any silly nonsense word. I told him, you’re onto something there. And sure enough, six months later, I’ll be darned if he’s not on the cover of Time Magazine.

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America had been waiting for a “silly nonsense word” like Harry Talbot’s. After only a few small ads in trade publications and a tour of the Midwest and East Coast, “fuck” was the most popular cuss the world had seen since Shakespeare muttered “goddamn it” on his deathbed. And once he signed on with the powerful William Morris agency, it truly became a global phenomenon. People loved the smooth hissing sound, opening airily into the guttural, throaty ‘K’ sound at the end. Talbot became an instant superstar; the talent agency created an appealing backstory for the word, gave their leading man some lessons at a charm school, and in less than a year, “fuck” had shattered all existing records for a swear. But the newly-wealthy Ohio pharmacist wasn’t content to rest on his laurels.

Johnny “Redjack” Hollis, friend: “Fuck” made him so much money he would have never had to work again. But Harry had pride, and more than that, he had drive. Once he decided to become a full-time maledictorian, he went at it full blast. He was like Joe DiMaggio when he had that hitting streak: it seemed like every day he’d wake up and come up with something that was pure gold. In the first two months of 1954 alone, he came up with “dumb fuck”, “fuckhead”, “fuck you”, “fuck it”, and “fucked up”. He came up with “fuckin'” around Christmas of that year, which is when he moved the family to New York. But even then he didn’t let up. I took him to this blues club in St. Louis in October of 1956, and the very next day, even though it didn’t seem possible, Harry actually topped himself.

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“Motherfucker” instantly became the single most popular imprecation of all time. Harry Talbot had swung for the fences and hit a vulgarity home run that rivaled Babe Ruth’s called shot at the very first baseball All-Star game. To understand how incredibly successful the word was, consider that it has been uttered more times than “bitch”, “beeyotch” and “biznitch” combined, in the 1990s alone. It seemed like Harry Talbot had the magic touch, weaving curse words the way Rumplestiltskin or possibly Midas weaved straw into gold. But sadly, the good times couldn’t last forever. Five solid years of unqualified fucking success finally took their toll on Harry Talbot.

Maria Huell, agent: The pressure to produce, even after — or maybe especially after — such a huge string of hits, well, it eventually caught up to Harry with a vengeance. He started hitting the blueberry schnapps really hard, and he was spending huge amounts of money on hairpieces and carpentry lessons, not realizing that it was his bad craftsmanship that had sparked his discovery in the first place. He also was obsessed with the idea of flying ovens, and invested a lot of money in that. But in the end, his desperation and addiction to fame — an addiction I’m afraid I’m guilty of enabling — caused his work to suffer. He started coming up with these terribly sad, ineffectual variants on his big hits, like “fuckaloo”, “fuck-needles”, “fucktard” and “peppermint fuck shingles” that appealed to only the most diehard vulgarians. I remember the day he shot out the TV when he heard a news report about the show where Lenny Bruce invented the word “twat”.

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When Behind the Swearing returns, we’ll take a look at Harry Talbot’s heartbreaking final years — and the chance meeting that ultimately redeemed him. With special guest star Eddie Murphy.

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