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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses

What the H...?!

with Dan Young

Christopher Stires’ article “A Short List of Firsts in Television” appears in issue 259. It notes:

1967: Star Trek is the first series in which the word “hell” is uttered. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) says, “Let’s get the hell out of here” at the conclusion of the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode.

Dan Young seems to have discovered an earlier occurrence.

[Dan Young]: Like Mr Stires, I thought the first time “hell” was used on American TV was in 1967, when Kirk said “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

I’m old enough to appreciate all the old TV dramas from the 50’s and 60’s and ran into a surprise while viewing.

I’m not sure if it’s the first time, but it pre-dates the Star Trek episode. On June 7th, 1954, in an episode of Studio One called “The Strike,” written by Rod Serling, a commander has to order a strike on a place where he knows his own men are. He tells their platoon leader that he’ll “blow the hell out of them.”

It might have been live and unsanctioned by the network. I don’t know. That might make an interesting story.

[Don Webb] Christopher Stires’ article is instructive. Looking at it from today’s perspective, readers may think, “How quaint can you get?!” Bewildering Stories eschews quaintness, but we do have our limits.

And that makes me wonder: wasn’t “Hell” used in its literal sense — hence the capitalization — long before 1954? I can’t quite imagine religious programs saying things like, “Don’t do that, or you will surely go to Heck.” I imagine they found suitable euphemisms.

My great-aunts always swore in the other direction, e.g. “Heavens to Betsy!” And I’ve sometimes wondered what Jesus said when he was really annoyed.

By long experience, I can say that BwS’ policy of ruling out the two “naughty words” has made a marked improvement in many submissions. But I’m also aware that we have a purely cultural bias. In Quebec, we’d have to turn our guideline upside down. The French-Canadian equivalents of the f- and s-words are considered mild, but anything relating to the Church makes strong ladies blush and proper sailors faint dead away.

[Dan Y.] Good point about the expletive vs. the literal meaning, e.g. “going to Hell” vs. “Oh hell !”:

But I grew up in those fairly early days of television, and I remember Hades being the brand of choice when describing “down there” or “the other place.” Even if the actor in “The Strike” gave the line as a literal destination he was sending those poor troops to, it was still pretty gutsy for its day.

If you want an extreme example, I remember laughing at some TV programs’ being so hung up about the whole issue that they wouldn’t even name the Devil. “Mephistopheles” was substituted, but I remember the occasional “Horned One” or “Prince of Darkness.” Some writers got so confused they thought they were all the same.

There was a competitor to Dark Shadows as a gothic horror soap. I don’t remember the title, but it involved a man who would occasionally be possessed by an evil ancestor (who looked just like him, of course. Check the portrait over the fire). Don’t quote me, but I think the writers might have used “Beelzebub” when referring to “The Lord of the Underworld.”

Not even a near miss.

Interesting, too, the points you make about what constitutes strong or mild profanity in different cultures. I’m an American who grew up in Maryland. It was a rural place and we didn’t go in for much swearing. My parents felt that the f- and s-words showed a lack of imagination and vocabulary. Don’t get me started about the modern state of vocabulary. I’d end up rewriting my article on Orwell’s Newspeak being lovingly embraced by today’s “Texters.”

Though born in the States, I moved to Ireland sixteen or so years ago with my family. Here, the f-word is not only considered mild, it is in constant use, sometimes being every third or fourth word in a conversation. This is cyclic, as it’s especially used by children.

The Irish culture, in this regard, includes rating movies with absolutely weapons-grade vulgarity as all right for children to see. The Ratings Board here is one man. I heard him explain, “Why stop them from hearing it in the theatre, when they’ll hear it every day on the streets and in their homes?”

But if you mention that something is “bolloxed-up” in front of someone young, the kid’s parents will threaten violence. From where I grew up, it just meant that something had a “monkey wrench” (spanner) thrown into it.

Means something quite different, here.

[Don W.] Thank you, Dan! Points taken. When in Ireland, I shall swear like an American sailor, who would likely have no idea what “bollocks” or “bolloxed” means.

My first exposure to swearing in literature came when I was in grade school. I discovered Jay Williams’ and Edouard Sandoz’ The Sword and the Scythe (1946) in the school library. I was only nine years old, but the book made impressions on me that last to this day. To cite one:

A youthful 16th-century monk has made a list of all the expletives he’s heard in French and German. And he’s given them numbers. He goes around exclaiming things like “vingt-deux !” (22) or “trente-six ! (36). A juicy one would rate something like “quatre-vingt-dix-huit !” (98).

Bewildering Stories’ rule stands, though. Fictional characters can cuss all they want, if need be; they just can’t use the two “naughty words.” And contributors needn’t use numbers. My own hardy space trucker Dimmity Dumpling turns the air radioactive blue on occasion, but in “future speech.” If readers translate it, which is easy to do, she’ll make even the “bollocks” crowd cringe.

Vocabulary is there for when we need it. On thankfully rare occasions, contributors insist that the f- and s-expletives provide strong emphasis. No, they don’t; as you’ve shown, Dan, they’re merely common vulgarity. If we accepted any, we’d have to accept all, and experience has shown that some submissions would consist of little else. Small loss: when a contributor says — as has happened — that his story is worth no more than two f- or s-words, I am obliged to agree.

Copyright © 2015 by Dan Young
and Don Webb

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