Regional Fucking English

The online edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English is the gift that keeps on giving. (And speaking of which, you can get a 50 percent discount on a subscription to Digital DARE — as a gift or for yourself — until Jan. 31, 2015. The order form is here.)

DARE is built around a massive dialect survey conducted between 1965 and 1970 and infused with further evidence of regionalisms from the historical record up to the present day. You might think that the respondents to questionnaires nearly half a century ago wouldn’t have offered up much in the way of vulgar language. You’d be wrong.

Using Digital DARE’s wonderful search function, let’s take a look at a few entries that involve the pinnacle of English vulgarity: fuck.

bull fuck

One of the questions asked by the DARE surveyers was this:

Qu. H37: What words do you have for gravy? Any joking ones?

Joking words for gravy? Well, in 1966 and 1967, four informants in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington, to be precise) answered with bull fuck.

Why bull fuck? The DARE entry cross-references bull gravy, which in 1949 was glossed by Periodicals of the American Dialect Society (PADS) as a vulgar term used in western Texas for “creamy gravy.” (In Kentucky, one also finds bulldog gravy.)

Further clarification appears in the entry for jism (also spelled chism, gism, jizzum, etc.). It’s been used to mean “energy” since 1842 and “semen” or “seminal fluid” since 1899. And in 1935, Dialect Notes reported that “in various parts of the South, gism has the meaning ‘gravy’ or ‘cream sauce.'” DARE has a cross-reference back to bull fuck from that meaning. So putting it all together, the joke that traveled from the South to the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century was that creamy gravy looks like semen, specifically bull semen.

[Update: Jesse Sheidlower’s indispensable book The F-Word also has an entry for bull fuck, defined therein as “cream gravy (sometimes as a thick stew) or custard, fancied to resemble the semen of a bull.” He cites Eric Partridge’s 1961 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which noted that the term had been used to mean “custard” by Canadian railroad-construction crews since about 1910. Fuck in the sense of “semen” also gets an extended historical treatment in Jesse’s book.]

fuck bug

Informants were asked for names of various beetles, and then got this open-ended question:

Qu. R30: What other kinds of beetles are known around here — for example, because of their odor or color or something else?

In 1968, one person in Louisiana answered as follows:

Fuck bugs — little orange and black bugs that come out in great numbers, always coupled, during the summer (last of July, first of August).

Why fuck bug? DARE surmises it’s a more vulgar version of love bug, a term for a fly so called in the Gulf States “because it is found in copulating pairs.” (Honeymoon fly is another variation on the theme.) I’m not sure I’ll ever think of Herbie, the Love Bug the same way again.

fuck bump

This was given by an informant in Texas in 1970 to the following question:

Qu. X59: What do you call the small infected pimples that form usually on the face?

Once again, DARE’s cross-references come in handy. We find that pimples have long been called bumps in the South and South Midland. We also find that love bump is attested in the same regions, explained by an informant in Georgia: “they have them when they’s havin’ change of life.” And another Texan offered up pussy bumps: “if you get some pussy they’ll go away.”

So in various parts of the South, the pimples of puberty were associated with sexual awakening. Other cross-referenced terms include passion pimple and whore boil. Some variants are not about love-making but, um, self-love: jack bump and jerk bump.

fuck the dog

This phrase was mentioned in responses to a number of different questions:

Qu. A9: What do you call wasting time by not working on the job?

Qu. A10: And doing little unimportant things: Somebody asks, “What are you doing?” and you answer, “Nothing in particular—I’m just ________.”

Qu. BB27: When somebody pretends to be sick (often to get out of doing something) you’d say he’s ________.

Qu. KK31: To go about aimlessly looking for distraction: “He doesn’t have anything to do, so he’s just ________.”

Fuck the dog showed up as answers to these questions in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Oregon, so the scattered usage suggests it might not have been so regional. Indeed, fuck the dog has a long history in American military slang. I wrote about it on Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” blog:

In The F-Word, lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower gives examples of “fuck the dog” dating back to 1935, when it appeared in Jack Conroy’s novel A World to Win. And there are even a couple of examples from the World War I era that refer to the expression obliquely, in the more decorous, and therefore more printable, versions “feed the dog” and “walk the dog.”

Whether the action was feeding, walking, or fornicating, though, all of these early examples were used to mean “to loaf around” or “to waste time” (dogs have often been associated with laziness, as in the expression “dogging it”). Later on, possibly around World War II, “fucking the dog” and its euphemistic equivalents took on a secondary meaning of “blundering.”

My Slate piece focuses on how fuck the dog got euphemized as screw the pooch. The story that I pursued (also in sanitized fashion for my Wall Street Journal column) was that the expression was born in a Yale dorm room in 1950 and then spread to the Air Force and the space program.

But DARE notes that screw the pooch is just one of several euphemisms for fuck the dog. Other examples include jack the dog and poke the puppy. I’m partial to one mentioned by Doug Wilson on the American Dialect Society listserv: intercourse the canine, which he said was used in the late ’60s.

As DARE’s lexicographers look to update the dictionary for the 21st century, it will be fascinating to see the latest developments in regional fucking English.

13 thoughts on “Regional Fucking English

  1. schrisomalis December 23, 2014 / 9:01 pm

    This is abso-regionally-fucking wonderful, Ben! Can we expect to see some regional shitting English in the future?

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  2. Jake December 23, 2014 / 9:42 pm

    The only familiar meaning of “fuck the dog” for me, though, doesn’t actually match any of those questions: it’s more “screwing up” than “screwing around”, and the only question which comes even close to the connotation of “doing a crappy job” is A9.

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  3. Ben Zimmer December 23, 2014 / 11:11 pm

    Steve: Sure, shitty regionalisms can come next.

    Jake: See my Slate piece for more on the semantic shift of fuck the dog and its euphemisms from “screwing around” to “screwing up.” In the DARE survey, there were no responses from the fuck the dog family for Qu. JJ42: “To make an error in judgment and get something quite wrong.” But there was one response (from South Carolina) involving another animal: screw the kitty.

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  4. misterslang December 24, 2014 / 3:23 pm

    I like the fact that if bull fuck means gravy, gravy, at least in slang, means semen / vaginal secretions Thus the gravy-bowl and gravy-receiver, the vagina. Round we go.

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  5. John Wells December 24, 2014 / 3:41 pm

    At my school in southeastern England the equivalent of ‘fuck bump’ was ‘shagspot’, obviously related to the verb ‘shag’ meaning ‘fuck’ (OED).

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  6. sesquiotic December 24, 2014 / 4:09 pm

    I can attest fuck the dog meaning ‘waste time’ from Alberta as of 1980 or earlier. The ‘screw up’ sense became familiar to me a bit later but seemed a natural outgrowth, in the ‘didn’t do the job properly’ sense.

    A joke that was passed around was the following: A British fellow was visiting his Canadian cousin, who was a farmer. It was the off season, so there wasn’t much to do. After the first day, the Brit said, “Well, I’ve had a simply ripping day! I went for a lovely stroll about the grounds. What about you?” The Canadian said, “Oh, not much, just fucked the dog.” To which the Brit replied, “Really! I did that to a pig once, but never told anyone.”

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  7. Debunker December 24, 2014 / 4:27 pm

    I like to give a broken deckchair. Now THAT’S the gift that really keeps on giving … 🙂

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  8. Mark Junker December 26, 2014 / 9:58 pm

    Screwed the pooch has a more fatalistic meaning. More akin to up shit creek.

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  9. Chips December 27, 2014 / 10:30 am

    As a further example of regional fucking English, in northern Australia at least, is “Fuck my brown dog!” as a term of exasperation and/or disbelief. Why the dog is brown, I have never been able to find out.

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  10. Dennis Preston December 27, 2014 / 3:11 pm

    I knew northern Australia and northern Kentucky surely had something in common. “Fuck a big brown dog” (they were bigger and not necessarily ours) was a common exclamation there is the 40s, 50s, and 60s at least.

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    • Chips December 27, 2014 / 7:48 pm

      Likewise, it’s not necessarily a dog that belongs to to you at all … even as I have used the exclamation I’ve been thankful my dog at the time was either black, blue or red!

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  11. Patricia December 28, 2014 / 2:58 pm

    My favorite is one I made up year ago. Fuck a duck ..

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