Swearing in the time of coronavirus

We’re staying inside, we’re social-distancing (or, more accurately, physical-distancing), we’re washing our hands over and over, we’re inventing new corona-words, we’re choosing new email signoffs (adieu to “Cheers!”; bonjour to “Be well”).

And here in the virtual Strong Language enclave, we’re thinking about illness-inspired swearing.

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Testicular fortitude

If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:

  • ballsy
  • big balls
  • break my balls
  • have (someone) by the balls
  • ball-buster

So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.

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WTF?! We need a game-night game about profanity!

If you go to Louisville, Kentucky — as my wife and I do as frequently as we can — you have to eat, so you’re always on the lookout for worthwhile restaurants. Frankly, we tend to eat at our favorite spots whenever we visit, but before our last weekend there, I checked the restaurant-tagged Google map for new places. There was one of our favorites, Doc Crow’s — oysters on the shell, exceptional pork rinds — and just behind it was a bar called The Troll Pub. I clicked over to its website and immediately exclaimed “What the fuck?” which was only partly an expression of my incredulity, because at The Troll Pub they have WTF happy hours — Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — so I was also just reading what was in front of me. But what an offense! I stared in disbelief at WTF, a perfectly good profanity, brought down by a marketing pun. “How often are we taken in by this indirection?” I wondered. In fact, it happens more than you’d think, let alone hope. I learned this when shopping around for fun game night games, some of which perpetrate similar puns.

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The U.S. trademark register is full of shit (or at least a few turds)

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been refusing plenty of applications for marks containing curse words on the dubious ground that they are too commonplace to serve as trademarks. Ever. As I explained in my last post, these applications include SHUT THE FUCK UP legal services, KEEP FUCKING GOING jewelry, and YOU’RE AWESOME KEEP THAT SHIT UP dinnerware and oven mitts.

After that shocking exposé, we’ve earned a sweary tour through those scandalous marks that have made it onto the federal register. Applying to register these before the Supreme Court eliminated the ban in 2019 would have been a complete waste of time and money. But they have now officially penetrated the federal database. I’m not including the multiple asterisked-for-your-protection marks now on the register, though those too wouldn’t have made it through during the heyday of the scandalousness ban.

Let’s start with the shitstorm. Continue reading

Some sweary trademarks still off limits

This post set out to be a fun romp through the naughty marks in the U.S. federal trademark register. Don’t worry, that post is still forthcoming . . . but in the meantime I’ve learned about a distressing trend that’s stopping lots of sweary marks from attaining federal registration.

Despite having been instructed by the Supreme Court that it can no longer refuse trademark applications on the ground that the contents are “scandalous,” the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) won’t commit wholeheartedly. It’s relying on a shaky rationale to justify rejecting a variety of recently-filed FUCK- and SHIT-formative marks, like GOOD SHIT, APESHIT and YOU FUCKING GOT THIS. Continue reading