Unfit to Print

“We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.”—The incoming congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, referring to President Donald Trump.

The Honorable Gentlewoman from Michigan has been criticized for her recent remarks by many, including some in her own party. But, in the Trump era, the front pages daily contain words hitherto considered unfit to print: “Grab ’em by the pussy” (Donald Trump); “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock” (the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci); “a fucking moron” (the former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, regarding the President). Shortly after Tlaib’s inaugural address, a video from 2011 surfaced, showing Trump outlining his strategy for negotiating trade with the Chinese. “Listen, you motherfuckers,” he says in the video, “we’re gonna tax you twenty-five per cent.”

In fact, the term “motherfucker” has a long, rich history in American public life, but, prior to our current era of less delicate standards, this history has been largely suppressed. A few examples:

“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all motherfuckers are upon us.

John Winthrop gave a sermon in 1630 in which he presented a vision for the Massachusetts Bay Colony that was inspired by Matthew 5:14—that is, the “city-upon-a-hill” part. (The word “motherfucker” does not appear in Matthew, though many scholars believe it is implicit.) Forensic X-rays of Winthrop’s text show the word “cocksuckers” beneath a film of curdled sheep milk, a seventeenth-century version of Wite-Out. Winthrop eliminated “cocksucker” and substituted it with “motherfucker,” which at the time meant “a righteous person.” President Ronald Reagan often quoted “City Upon a Hill,” but, at the urging of his wife, Nancy Reagan, he omitted the second part of the sentence.

The stirring speech that Patrick Henry delivered on the eve of the American Revolution still raises hairs on one’s arm. According to the historian J. P. Woottersly, by the late eighteenth century, “motherfucker” no longer denoted “a righteous person.” During the century and a half since Winthrop’s era, the word’s meaning became “one who thinks King George III is a jolly good fellow.” According to Woottersly, “To call someone in 1775 Virginia a ‘motherfucker’ was no compliment, and very often ended in a duel.”

“But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every motherfucker in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”

George Washington is not often associated with potty talk, but his diaries and private correspondence are replete with five-letter words, such as “fucke” and “shite.” One missive to his wife, Martha, written during the bitter winter encampment of 1778-9, starts, “Valley Fucking Forge.” It is important to recall that, though he was the father of our country, he was also a soldier.

Lincoln scholars are divided. The word does not appear in the written text of Lincoln’s speech, and yet everyone standing within earshot later attested to hearing him say it. Recent scholarship points to evidence of a rat infestation at Gettysburg and speculates that Lincoln, who was observed continually stamping his heels on the platform as he spoke, may have been cursing at rodents underfoot.

Admiral David Farragut’s defiant order, given during the Battle of Mobile Bay, in 1864, is the stuff of legend, but the War Department, fearing that it might only stiffen the spine of the Confederacy if his actual words became known, changed “motherfuckers” to “torpedoes” in the official record. Just as Washington was a soldier, so was Farragut a sailor.

Robert Oppenheimer famously invoked this line from the Bhagavad Gita upon detonating the first atomic bomb, in the New Mexico desert, in July, 1945. (Oppenheimer had studied Hinduism in an attempt to understand the workings of the universe.) In the story, when the warrior-prince Arjuna asks his charioteer, Lord Krishna, to reveal his universal form, Krishna manifests as a sublime but terrifying being, brighter than the light of a thousand suns bursting all at once. Oppenheimer intended to say, “I am become Death,” but, in his excitement, “motherfucker” popped out. The quote was tidied up by the Manhattan Project P.R. department.

John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, agonized over this line in the President’s famous speech to Berliners, in 1963, at the height of the Cold War. In an oral history, housed at J.F.K.’s Presidential library, Sorensen relates, “We wanted to convey the sense of ‘we’re all in this shit show together.’” He rehearsed Kennedy again and again, but, in the President’s pronounced Boston accent, it came out as “mothahfuck-ah.” Sorensen deemed this “risky for an audience that didn’t understand English. So, in the end, we went with mütterpumper, which isn’t even actual German. But, from the way they banged their beer steins on the tables and threw their pretzels into the air, we figured, they get it, they get it.”

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