At the movies · Lyrics · Music · On the box · Word of the week

Word of the week: sonofabitch

Sonofabitch (alternatively sunuvabitch, son-of-a-bitch or even “son of a bitch”) is an old-fashioned exclamation or term of abuse that I have been hearing a lot over the last month while I work my way, very happily, through all 11 series of the sitcom “Modern Family”. (I wrote about the show in this earlier post.) I also started drafting a piece about the word a year ago, prompted by hearing Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” on the radio. It was in the charts on this date in 1969, and featured in Paul Gambaccini’s “Pick of the Pops” in September 2019. “Sonofabitch” is recognized as a correct spelling by the word processor I am using to draft these words, so that’s how it will appear in the thousand words that follow.

Throughout my childhood there were two albums that my mother owned that I played more than any others: The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem “Hearty and Hellish” (recorded live in New York City) and Johnny Cash “Live at San Quentin”. We had albums by Elvis Presley, soundtrack albums (like “Oklahoma!”, “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady”) and a much-played compilation of Irish showbands called, appropriately enough, “The Showband Scene”. All of these records were played frequently, but not as much as The Clancy Brothers or Johnny Cash.

Our LP of “Live at San Quentin” is typical of its time, just 5 tracks per side, around 32 minutes of audio in total. Here’s a link to “A Boy Named Sue” but I assume that most people over the age 25 are already familiar with it. So are many people under the age of 25. My children have been hearing it since they were babies, a regular accompaniment to car journeys, and it crops up from time to time on the radio. It tells the story of a boy whose father left home when the kid was only three, and gave him the name “Sue” before leaving, to toughen him up.

When I was a child I misheard one of the words in the opening lines: “Well my daddy left home when I was three / And he didn’t leave much for ma and me / Just this old guitar [pronounced gee-tar] and an empty bottle of booze”. I heard that last word as “glue”. “Booze” was not in my vocabulary at the time. The song takes us through the boy’s early life (“I grew up quick and I grew up mean”) and his plans later in life for revenge on his father (“I made me a vow to the moon and stars that / I’d search the honky-tonks and bars / And kill the man that give me that awful name”).

They meet (“at an old saloon on a street of mud”), they fight, the boy wins, but doesn’t kill his dad, who says: “Now you’ve just fought one hell of a fight / And I know you hate me and you’ve got the right / To kill me now / And I wouldn’t blame you if you do / But you ought to thank me before I die / For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye / ‘cause I’m the [BLEEP] that named you Sue”.

Yes, there was a rude word bleeped out on the single and on the album version. For over 30 years I had no idea what it was until I bought an extended CD edition of “Live at San Quentin” around 2002. It has longer spoken introductions to the songs (very welcome) and a few additional tracks. It is also unexpurgated. The word that was bleeped out was “sonofabitch”. There was also a “damn” that was edited out of the single version. The final lines, unexpurgated, are “But if I ever have a son / I think I’m gonna name him … Bill or George … any damn thing but Sue (I still hate that name)”.

Ten years after “A Boy Named Sue”, the hit version of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” also avoided the word “sonofabitch”. It was replaced with “son of a gun”: “I told you once you son of a gun / I’m the best there’s ever been”. Those are the words that appear on my Charlie Daniels t-shirt (pictured in this piece), but in live performances he often sang “sonofabitch” instead.

Times have changed, and the word is no longer deemed too rude for daytime radio. I can’t imagine a time when uncensored versions of “WAP”, the recent #1 by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, will be played on any mainstream radio stations. If you haven’t heard it yet, and don’t know what “WAP” stands for, you’ll have to do your own research. This is not a song that I foresee ever playing on car journeys with the children, even when they’re all grown up.

But, returning to the theme of “Modern Family”, my children are old enough to watch every episode with me. In the next few weeks they will celebrate their 14th and 16th birthdays, and the show has a “12” rating. The rudest word in it is “sonofabitch”, which seems to be said by someone in just about every episode that I have watched in the last few weeks. It is the exclamation of choice for paterfamilias Jay Pritchett (played by Ed O’Neill). He says it multiple times in the show titled “Las Vegas” (s5ep18), each time he goes outside to count the number of floors in the fancy hotel they’re staying in. That’s when I first noticed it, and since then I have heard it used as an exclamation, as an insult and as a comparison. Basketball legend Charles Barkley says it about Phil Dunphy at the end of s8ep18 (“Basketball!”). An ice cream cake in s7ep5 (“The Verdict”) is described as “melting like a sonofabitch”.

That usage brought to mind a line that has stayed with me since I first saw John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” 40 years ago. One of the women in the besieged police station takes a bullet in the arm and uses the following expression: “It hurts like a sonofabitch”.

In those days the word was often reduced to the three letters “SOB”, which is also the title of a 1981 Blake Edwards film that I have never seen. In the early 1980s UK cinemas rebranded their hot-dogs with the abbreviation “SRB”, for “Sausage in a Roll in a Box”. The jingle that accompanied the cinema ads has just lodged in my head, and might be there for a while: “S-R-B / S-R-B / Sausage in a Roll in a Box for me”. A college friend ordered one at the long-gone Victoria Cinema in Cambridge’s Market Square (it has been an M&S for at least 30 years now). The elderly lady working at the concession stand referred to it repeatedly as an “SOB”. She must have known something that we didn’t.



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