Frankly, I Don’t Give a Damn

Spoken by apathetics and those wishing to appear so everywhere, the “I don’t give a damn” barb has got to be one of the most used and abused argument finales ever. Who doesn’t know this one? The year: 1939. The line spoken by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) to Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in 1939’s classic blockbuster, Gone With the Wind, was, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Damn, it’s famous!

In 2005, the famous quote was voted the number-one movie line of all time by the American Film Institute. Interestingly, that list’s number two movie quote was, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” That line was delivered by Marlon Brando, who wasn’t a fan of how Gable dropped the verbal apathy on Scarlett. Apparently, Brando didn’t care for Gable’s too-slow and dramatic walk to the door in that scene. I guess he thought the lead to delivery of a big line was a bit too obvious.

Damn, it’s scandalous!

Arguably, Rhett’s “damn” line ushered in a new era of profanity in the movies. While the word had been used in a handful of silent films and talkies before Gone With the Wind, the movie industry censors had started to crack down on potty mouth words since the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. Also known as the Hays Code, the rules were part of an industry-wide self-censorship initiative.

Although rumor persists that Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznic was fined $5,000 for using “damn” in the film, it seems more likely the script was approved as part of a production code amendment allowing the use of “hell” and “damn” when the words were essential to the portrayal of the story or taken from a literary work, etc., etc. As it turns out, the original text of Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name used the phrase, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” Close enough.

Damn, it’s… what is it, anyway?

For something so commonly used in spats everywhere, have you ever wondered why we say this in the first place? Like most traditions, there are a couple of competing theories.

The word “dam” (no ’n’ in the original Middle English version) has been around for a long time, say back to the 12th to 16th centuries, at which time it wasn’t necessarily considered profane. The verb meant something like “to condemn” or “to declare guilty.” It was derived from the Latin word “damnare,” also meaning “to doom” or “declare guilty.” Add the religious angle of damnation or condemnation to hell, and the meaning has remained somewhat constant over the centuries. Some etymologists believe that over the years, folks started to use the phrase “don’t give a damn” synonymously with “I don’t care.”

But there’s a far more fun and interesting possibility. Like most things, I suspect these dual paths melded at some point, as a good play on words is always a crowd-pleaser.

In the 18th century, British troops arriving home from India reportedly brought the phrase back to jolly old England. The Indian “dam” was a coin of near worthless value, at least compared to the pound sterling. Accordingly, it’s easy to see how one might express a condescending attitude about not giving a “dam” for, well, whatever. Add in the play on words factor, shifting “dam” to “damn,” and we have a winner.

That other one…

Wherever Rhett Butler’s speechwriter stole the phrase, at least it’s been preserved more or less intact over the years.

That other big one, you know, “Play it again, Sam,” has been edited over the years into something that never actually happened. The famous line from Casablanca, uttered by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in most misquotes, was actually, “Play it.” But even that’s a little misleading, as similar lines are delivered by both Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick. When Ilsa walks into Rick’s bar and sees his long-suffering piano player, she sits down and says, “Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.” A little later, proving he can handle the painful memories from the couple’s past fling in Paris, Rick makes a similar request.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Ilsa’s version of the famous line lands at number 28 on the AFI movie quote list.

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