I started watching "Deadwood" a few days ago and only got a few minutes into it before I shut it off.

The reason I hit the "ejector seat" was that a character in the show used "The 'F' Word" several times within a very brief span of time.

This show is set in the 1800s. I don't know what offended me more: the use of the word, or the laziness or stupidity of the writers in putting that word in a character's mouth at that time. I believe it is somewhat of an anachronism, and that it was used by "precious few" people back then, if any.

But then I got to wondering if maybe I'm wrong. Do I think the word was scarcely if ever used just because it did not get into print (you'll never see the word used by Twain, Dickens, Howells, Harte, or any of the others from the 19th Century, AFAIK)?

Am I correct in thinking the dialogue was inaccurate/anachronistic, or am I wrong about the prevalence of that word in the 19th Century?

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    The Romans used it. With a limited vocabulary, you'd have yourself a powerful, all-purpose punch to make a plucky impression. Jan 28, 2021 at 21:58
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    See History of Swear Words Jan 28, 2021 at 22:17
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    @choster - yes, curiously pregnant was a taboo word: english.stackexchange.com/questions/474850/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 28, 2021 at 23:16
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    @YosefBaskin Well kinda, but they spelled it futuere. But that was hardly their only foray into nasty language, and many of the others they used were worse by a long shot.
    – tchrist
    Jan 29, 2021 at 0:36
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    That's the gimmick of "Deadwood". As much foul language as possible. Historical accuracy be d-mned.
    – GEdgar
    Jan 17, 2022 at 22:46

1 Answer 1


The usage of the “F”word as well as other swear words appears to be exaggerated and not historically correct, but effective from a fictional point of view as noted in the following extract by American lexical semantician and author Geoffrey Nunberg:

If you have your characters use historically accurate swear words, they're apt to sound no more offensive than your grandmother in a mild snit. The only way to convey the potency of their oaths is to have them use modern swear-words, even if they're anachronistic.

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.

In fact when you look up the word in Jonathan Lighter's magisterial Dictionary of American Slang, you discover that the all-purpose insult "fuck you" was a turn-of-the twentieth-century creation, and "go fuck yourself" isn't attested until 1920. "Fucked up" and "Don't fuck with me" didn't show up till around the time of the Second World War. And while people may have been emphasizing nouns with "fucking" from the 1890's, it wasn't until well into the century that you heard things things like "She fucking well better tell me" or "Get the fuck out of here” both "Deadwood" favorites.



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