Friday, October 13, 2017

Swearing by Swearengen: Is The Cursing In "Deadwood" Historically Accurate?

October 13, 2017
  Once and for all, did the miners and gamblers in Deadwood talk as profanely as David Milch has portrayed them in his fictional HBO series, "Deadwood"? 

Dan The Man Harshberger's humorous, done in jest, cover concept

This is a popular opinion:

"I’re read that foul language was prevalent in Deadwood, the town, but came in the form of 'tarnation' and 'gol-darn',” Milch thought these would be laughable to a modern audience, and so the f-bombs (which I also read, didn’t come into fashion until the 1920’s) were used.
—Clint Johnson, on Facebook

  I personally don't buy the "gol-darn-it" school of thought regarding "Deadwood." I believe all those soft swear words were put into use by mothers and church going people, perhaps in that time, but certainly in the time I grew up (1950s). My grandmother—Minnie Hauan Bell—liked to say, "What in the Sam Hill!" and there are a ton of these replacement swear words. I don't think any self-respecting miner, gambler or gunfighter in the Old West ever walked into a saloon and said, "What in tarnation is goin' on in here?"

   I also don't buy the notion that the so-called F-bomb was not "in fashion" until the 1920s. I read a memoir of a young, newlywed farmer's wife from the late 1880s who was supposed to go to town, but the trip got cancelled and so she decided to eat her sack lunch she had prepared for the trip, out in the shade of the barn where her husband and hired hands were working. She didn't announce her arrival, but she was soon shocked and stunned by her new husband's language which she had never heard from him before. Now, this doesn't prove he was using the F-bomb, but it does illustrate that there was a profane vocabulary used by men when there are no women present. And, by one estimate, the local museum in Deadwood touts, the men to women ratio in Deadwood at that time was 100 to one. So I have a strong hunch it was pretty profane, even by Victorian standards.

   And, by the way, the term "F-bomb" is a new phrase, coming into vogue in the last decade, or so, underscoring how fluid language is.

   At any rate, I put the question out to our contributing editors and staff and here are their thoughts on the subject:

Historians Weigh In On Swearing By Swearengen
"Did miners and soldiers curse, especially in saloons--of course they did. Did they cuss in front of women and children--never, unless they wanted to get shot by an outraged husband, brother or bystander. Is the cursing in Deadwood overdone--of course it is. Language changes over time--recall the language we regularly heard in the 1950s as opposed to the language today (a total reversal on the commonality of the F-word and the N-word). The language in Deadwood was used for shock value because it was pay-cable TV and they wanted to see what they could get away with and distance themselves from broadcast TV. Its TV, not history."
—Paul Hutton, A Distinguished Professor of History at The University of New Mexico

"I truly believe that many miners and other resident of Deadwood did, but the Deadwood series went too far. This was, after all, the Victorian era and the words damn and hell were considered offensive! So, no, the whole damned town didn’t drop the f-bomb in every sentence.
—Sherry Monahan, Contributing Editor, True West magazine

"Have no emperical data, but if I had to live in such an nasty, cutthroat, dirty town as Deadwood was then, I'd swear all the tine, too,"
—Jana Bommersbach, columnist, and contributing editor, True West magazine

Deadwood got it right--profanity was part and parcel of normal, everyday talk in the mining camps and frontier towns.  The words most often associated with the show--the long ones dealing with carnage knowledge?  I don't think those were used, for the most part (although the "f" word was).  And even rough-hewn miners and cowboys held their tongues a tad around a lady.  Folks wanted to retain some veneer of sophistication and class."
—Mark Boardman, True West columnist and editor of The Tombstone Epitaph

And finally, for all you who think the potty mouths on "Deadwood" are innaccurate, there's this:

Youthful Depravity
The fact must come home to every observer that Deadwood's rising generation is very depraved. Go where we will our ears are greeted with profanity and obscenity from al
most baby lips, while our vision is assailed by sights of the most lamentable character. These urchins are not all of that peculiar class known as "hoodlums" for whom ignorance is some excuse, as many of them receive the kindest and best instruction at home, but from too lenient parents who allow their children to wander through the city, visiting haunts of iniquity where are exerted those pernicious influences which sooner or later deaden the most acute sensibility, destroy all sense of right and morality and inspire to an emulation of the worst characters of the town.
--Black Hills Daily Pioneer-January 26, 1881

   Every generation thinks it's smarter than the last and wiser than the next. And, by extension, I think every generation thinks they more or less invented swearing. Why is this? Because nobody can remember their grandparents swearing. My grandkids have never heard me swear and if I do my job right, they never will. So these babies get to grade school and hear the inevitable swear words and they are excited and appalled ("My grandparents don't talk like this!") So they assume it's new. I think it's safe to say, this has been going on for about three to ten thousand years, and as long as there are grandparents, kids will grow up believing that swearing is a flippin' new thing.

"I am not young enough to know everything."
—Olscar Wilde


  1. The first time I saw "Mad Dog Morgan" with Dennis Hopper (I didn't see the movie with Dennis, he was the star of the film. I was alone at the time. But I digress), I was surprised to hear him say, "I'm gonna blow your fucking head off." I didn't think the word existed back then. But then again, I KNOW my mom did not engage in carnality, so where did I and my brothers and sisters come from?

    I also remember Kurt Vonnegut writing in (I think) "Slaughterhouse Five" that Billy Pilgrim first heard the expression "motherfucker" from the black soldiers who drove the trucks in the Red Ball Express. So that term probably would not have been used in Deadwood in the 19th Century. But Swearingen was quite the trendsetter.

  2. I was a cast member of "Deadwood." For those historians who say the profanity in the show was overdone or anachronistic, I submit these two remarks. In my research on an unrelated project about the old West of the exact same time period (1877), I found the transcript of a U.S. Army court-martial in which civilians testified. The transcript of their testimony contains practically every swear word ever used in "Deadwood." Secondly, as the show accurately points out, Deadwood was at first a town with no laws at all. By the end of the first year of the town's existence, in 1877, the historical record shows that the town was experiencing, on average, a murder every day. Yet the very first law the town passed, the first in its entire existence, was a law against profanity -- because THAT had gotten out of hand. It appears to me that historians who claim "Deadwood's" profanity is too modern or too frequent haven't read history's documents closely enough.

    1. Anonymous6:24 PM

      No fucking shit!

    2. Anonymous7:34 PM

      Liked your character Jim! The wife and I actually got married in the comstock life, Virginia City. Any word on the movie? Heard the ball is in motion.

  3. I have had this conversation repeatedly with several of my fellow western authors. The point I always make has been echoed here: "dirty words" were not suddenly invented overnight by dadgum hippies, those words and terms have existed in many cases for centuries. Sailors "swore like sailors" because they were not in polite company; neither were miners or people who ran whorehouses. Just because damn and hell became d--- and h--- in the newspaper doesn't mean people didn't SAY the words, they were quotes after all.

    1. You nailed it: "dirty words were not suddenly invented by dadgum hippies." That works on three levels: first, most people hat the inclusion of real swearing in their sacred genre, the Western, and most want to blame hippies because they believe, quite correectly, that hippies made the culture more course. And two, to use the term "dadgum" is just priceless, and three, our fellow Western authors can be quite staid. Very good. Thanks.

  4. Interesting. I'm sure it gets old being asked redundant questions. I suppose we should be fucking grateful that people are interested in our goldarned history though.

  5. These people actually call themselves historians? Certainly they used foul language. Foul language has been with us from time memorial but why we insist on injecting modern verbiage into history truly mystifies.

    Today, we think of someone calling another a "cotton picker" as a quaint 50's childish saying. It was nothing of the kind, it was a major insult. Calling someone a "pickaninny" was a racial slur in the Antebellum South, yet it's laughable today. Calling a women a "Church bell", meant she was talkative. A "Flapdoodle" was sexually incompetent man, who is either too young to have had sex or one who is too old to attempt it. A "Gibface"
    was an ugly person. A "Hedge-creeper" was a prostitute. Calling someone "Pigeon-livered" meant they were cowardly. Do we use any of these today? Why then would anyone possibly think the people in the past would use modern verbiage?

    It is extremely doubtful that the f-bomb was used but words that at the era meant the same were certainly being used as was the case with "Flapdoodle". Times change and so does the usage of language. If we wish to be true to history,we must stop trying to inject modern influences into the past or we will simply lose the flavor of that past.

  6. I think that teamsters always talked like teamsters, but the shortened version of firetruck is an acronym that did not come into general use until the very late 19th century.

  7. How about a brief history of the word "f^ck"?

  8. I think it is as today as it was in Deadwood days. In a saloon they probably threw out all kinds of good words, but when they went home to the wife or out in front of a lady or your parents you shut it off. I never said the F word in front of my mom till I cussed God when my dad died. They cussed when mad but never the F word my whole life.

  9. Anonymous2:51 AM

    Entertaining and informative. And I'm with Oscar Wilde: "I am not young enough to know everything."


Post your comments