Smells like … Fucking Fabulous

More than a decade ago, I was hired by a large US retailer to develop names for a new perfume the retailer was introducing. There was no actual fragrance for me to sniff, or even a list of ingredients—just a concept and a target audience. The “juice,” as it’s called in the business, would come later.

A few years after that project I attended a talk by a fragrance-industry consultant who told the audience that most perfumes are created that way now: first a mood board, then a name, and then, finally, the contents of the bottle.

Most perfumes. But not all. Not, for example, Fucking Fabulous, a unisex fragrance launched in 2017 by American fashion designer Tom Ford. In this case, the name came last.

The official line from the Tom Ford brand is that Fucking Fabulous is “undeniably the most straightforward name for a beautiful scent.” It’s a little too straightforward for many retailers. Bluemercury, an upscale beauty chain, bowdlerizes it as F’ing Fabulous (see image). Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and Neiman Marcus just call it Fabulous, while depicting the bottle with the full name. Sephora, by contrast, minces no words: It’s Fucking all the way.

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Visual Swears 2: Electric Fuckaloo

Back in 2015 I wrote about visual swears in film, where profanity appears on the screen rather than on the soundtrack. The films featured in that post were The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blade II, Shoot ’Em Up, Runaway Train, and Sorry to Bother You. Since then I’ve gathered a fuckload more.

Visual swears can have all sorts of motivations for filmmakers: humour, attitude, character type or mood, place detail, meta-commentary, and so on. After all, they’re deliberately built into a film’s production design – unless it’s a documentary, in which case they’re still selected in the framing and editing.

The first film below happens to be a documentary, and a great one: Dark Days (2000), which explores the lives of people living in a disused New York subway tunnel. One of them labels a makeshift toilet SHIT SPOT, perhaps for both informational and comedic reasons:

Front view of a makeshift toilet, with open seat balanced on some poles over a bucket. The inside lid has text that says, in all capitals, 'Shit spot' and an arrow pointing down.

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This merkin life

After John Kelly published his comprehensive post on merkin in 2015, I assumed there could be little left to say about those pubic hairpieces with the quaint name. (You should read the whole post, but here’s the etymological gist: from Matilda to the diminutive Maud to the secondary diminutive Mal to the third-degree diminutive Malkin to the variant merkin.) Yet recent developments suggest that we are far from finished with merkin, or it with us.

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Charlie Foxtrot

“And it’s an insult to people when you say it’s an insurrection, and then a year later, nobody has been charged with that (crime),” DeSantis continued. “I think it’s very important that if this is what you said it was, why are you not charging people? So, I think it’s going to end up being just a politicized Charlie Foxtrot today.”

If you’re unfamiliar with military lingo, it’s part of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phonetic alphabet that assigned the 26 code words to the 26 letters of the English alphabet in alphabetical order: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, and Zulu.

It’s likely that at some point, when on the phone with a person who’s in a cubicle, you’ve said something like, “My name is Smith, that’s ‘S’ as in Sam,” etc.

So, getting back to DeSantis, here, by “Charlie Foxtrot” he’s using military slang for “clusterfuck.” Oddly, this is fairly recent, dating to 1969, meaning “a total disaster.” It would be natural to interpret it as meaning “a cluster of fucks.” But that’s not quite right. One of the signature elements of the Vietnam War was that officers often made bad decisions. And officers wore oak-leaf clusters on their uniforms.

Ergo, a “clusterfuck” would be a disastrous situation resulting from top brass not understanding the reality on the ground. As this term emerged in general English usage, the military sense has drifted away and the common understanding is that it’s just a general cluster of fucked-up things happening.

Update: I should have been more clear that this is a speculative etymology and not a proven one. It certainly could have arisen from the general sense of “a cluster of fucked-up things happening.”

Merde! “Emmerder” les emmerde

On December 10, 1896, the actor Firmin Gémier stepped onto the stage of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre and uttered the first word of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi: “Merdre!” The audience immediately lost their shit. For fifteen minutes, they screamed, shouted, whistled, and argued with each other, all because an actor in an avant-garde theatre had uttered a word perilously close to merde, which is French for “shit.” They were, you could say, pissed off.

On January 5, 2022, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, sat down with for a Q&A with readers of the newspaper Le Parisien and said, among other things, “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.” It was duly reported. His opponents lost their shit – or at least made indignant noises. The world press, for their part, gained their shit – or anyway one bit of good shit to draw readers like flies. The provocation was in both the wording and the sentiment: Macron said he really wants to emmerder the unvaccinated, and you can see that same merde in the bowels of the word. He didn’t mean he wants to shit on them, though – in English, we’d more likely say “piss them off.” (And it should be pointed out that Macron did say “pardon the expression” before using the term.*)

The world, and France, has changed quite a bit in 125 years; from being a word an actor can’t come close to saying on stage, merde has become a word that is just a bit impolite for a politician to say in public. Likewise, newspapers and other media sources that decades ago could never print “piss” can now use it in a headline – the first page of Google results I get (YRMV) for macron piss off brings up headlines from the BBC, The Guardian, Canada’s Global News, NPR, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), France 24, Reuters, CNN, and The Independent (UK).

Not that everyone was so gleeful in reporting it, of course. The New York Times dourly reported “Using Harsh Language, Macron Issues a Challenge to the Unvaccinated” – it did translate Macron’s quote as “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” but added “using a French word that is more vulgar” and, further down, explained further “Mr. Macron studiously used the word ‘emmerder,’ which is translated literally as ‘to mire in excrement’ and means to ‘annoy’ or ‘to give a hard time to.’”

There are two particularly pressing questions in regard to this news: 

  1. Why is it emmerder and how do you use the word in conversation?
  2. How did news sources in other languages translate it?
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