For all you fans of the popular HBO Western series Deadwood, now in its third season, I must apologize up front for the Deadwood article in this issue—along with this editorial, of course—which does not use any vulgar words (at least none fully spelled out). Please try to enjoy the piece anyway, for it is still entertaining and includes a %#!@-load of information about the real characters behind the %&$#ing small-screen portrayals. Many historic figures appear on the TV show—from Calamity “Cursing” Jane to Al “Swearing” Swearengen, from Charlie “What Did You” Utter to George “Curse Till I” Hearst. Salty accountants on the Internet have reported these numbers for Deadwood: 55 uses of the F-word in the first episode alone, 69.3 F-words per episode in season one for a total of 831, and 91.6 F-words per episode in season two for a total of 1,099. That is not to mention the C-word (one of the longer C-words that is), reportedly uttered 38 times in the pilot episode alone. I cannot vouch for these numbers, but dagnabit, Roy, that’s a heck of a lot of profanity!
Because of the foul language on Deadwood, some folks have turned the television off or clicked the remote (anyone showing reruns of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman?). To ensure that they will read the rest of this editorial, I declare the F-word to be “fumadiddle!” Win Blevins’ Dictionary of the American West defines it: “A way of describing something fancy, frilly, unnecessarily extravagant….” As for the naughty C-word, I shall reduce it to “chucklehead.” The question, then, is whether all the fumadiddle language in Deadwood is true frontier grit or just so much gibberish concocted by some chucklehead for its shock appeal and for better ratings? After all, nice-talking Western TV series were all but dead when mastermind David Milch created his new reality Western with dialogue straight out of the Vile West, if not the Wild West. In a New York magazine article on this profane subject, Milch said he did his research and consulted several books on slang before committing his characters to tarty tongues. In Everyday Life in the 1800s, Marc McCutcheon has a section on slang in which he confirms that the F-word (and he doesn’t mean “fumadiddle”) was used throughout that century and that the C-word (and he doesn’t mean “chucklehead”) was used “from at least mid-century on.” But he also says that “damn” was a more powerful swear word in the 19th century than it is now, that “gol-derned” was sometimes used as a euphemism for “goddamned,” and that “cussed” was a somewhat acceptable swear word of the time.
Nobody doubts that there was cussing as well as fighting in the world of mountain men, muleskinners and miners, but it is the extent of the Deadwood cussing and the nature of the bad words (too many sexual insults, not enough religious blasphemy) that disturb many critics, whether or not they’ve actually seen the show. “It was the Victorian era, and people weren’t raised to talk that way,” says Candy Moulton, the author of The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West From 1840-1900. “Sure there was rough talk at times in the Old West, but the language was not the way it is today; the sensitivities were different. You look at the old trail diaries and the like and you’ll see that people not only didn’t use those words but also skirted around such issues as childbirth—a woman didn’t give birth, she became sick to the stomach and a few days later she was back to doing her chores with another mouth to feed.” The dearly departed Dennis Weaver, who played Chester Goode with a limp and a twang on Gunsmoke, once argued that raw language was part of the Old West but that using it over and over caused it to lose its dramatic effect. Of course all those times Marshal Matt Dillon asked Chester for some coffee from 1955 to 1964, Chester never once said, “Why don’t you make your our own fumadiddle coffee, you chucklehead!” And Gunsmoke was considered the first adult Western.
Weaver’s argument is well taken. While I’m just glad that a Western series is actually running on television in the 21st century, I do think it would be nice if there was a new Western or two that our children could watch. At least the next generation can view many of the old Westerns on DVDs and even read about the real frontier in Wild West Magazine. I must concede, though, that there were times in the Old West when some darn good swearing was necessary. On Last Stand Hill, for instance, Lt. Col. George A. Custer needed something stronger than “Where’d all those cussed Indians come from?” And after Jack McCall shot him from behind at a Deadwood poker table, wouldn’t it have been acceptable for Wild Bill Hickock to cry out, “Fumadiddle!”?
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.