How to write dirty tongue-twisters

First off, let’s all agree that a big part of the fun of dirty tongue-twisters is that you’re trying not to say a dirty word. The dirty word is just waiting there, impossible to ignore, magnetic, and you’re supposed to dance all around the rim of it without slipping into it. So while there’s something to be said for gleeful vulgarity, we miss the point a little if we write something like this:

She sits, shitting incessantly, and such shits as she shits sitting slip from her shitty seat like chic sliding shipside slippers.

So thing number one in writing a dirty tongue-twister is to find a vulgar word or expression to dance around. It should be a common one, one that springs easily to mind and mouth, so that habit will lead the speaker astray. And then everyone will giggle.

Obviously, this means you need to find words that are similar to the vulgar expression. But not all words are equally useful. There are a couple of factors to bear in mind:

  1. Priming. Set up an expectation and get the mind heading down the path to wrongeousness.
  2. The phonetic gesture. When you speak, you are making a gesture with your articulatory organs. To make a tongue-twister, you want to set up a pattern of gestures that naturally leads to fuckups. Some things to use:
    1. Habitual sequences. There are some gestures and combinations of gestures that are more habitually used than others and that the speaker will tend towards by reflex – basically, you want the mouth to make a typo.
    2. Small differences. Slightly differing gestures that use the same part of the mouth (“sh” versus “s,” for instance) are harder to keep straight than ones that use more widely separated parts of the mouth.
    3. Defeated alternation. It’s easier (unless you have dysdiadochokinesia) to make repeating or consistently alternating gestures than it is to make an uneven pattern, and once a pattern’s set it’s harder to break it than to stay with it. So if you establish “p t k p t k,” a “t p k” may throw a person off. Try saying “typical capital pat-a-cake” a few times, for illustration.

As you read and speak, the eyes precede the tongue by a few words and your mind is already planning what you will say next, so you have the next few words queued up in your brain and available to interfere with your articulation of what you’re saying at the moment – so not only previous patterns but upcoming ones too can fuck up your shit. When you blow it, it’s like missing the hand when playing pat-a-cake. In fact, it has been found (because someone had to) that, for instance, a [g] said in place of [k] in a tongue-twister will be more like a [k] than the average [g] will. It’s an articulatory “Oh shit, what, wait” moment.

The best way to know whether something will trip up the tongue is to try it, of course. But the problem when writing these things is that you soon get the pattern lodged in your mind, so with successive revisions it can become difficult to tell what’s most effective. Knowing the reliable tricks can come in handy.

One more thing: The amusement value of dirty tongue twisters comes in part from the obviousness of the dirty word or phrase that’s being narrowly avoided. Make sure people can see into the pit you’re dancing around.

Now, I could quote some of the more popular dirty tongue twisters out there. Ones such as

I am not the pleasant pheasant plucker, I’m the pleasant pheasant plucker’s son, but I will pluck your pleasant pheasant till the pleasant pheasant plucker’s come.

I slit the sheet, the sheet I slit, and on the slitted sheet I sit.

But I won’t. Instead, let’s make one together. (This means I make one and you watch.) Let’s see, what’s a good vulgar expression? It needs to have potential for confusion with other intelligible words in the articulatory gesture.

Let’s say I choose cunt licker. I have to deal with the fact that, in English, the mouth has rather fewer options at the back than at the tip and the lips. (’Twas ever thus.) There are no fricatives (“f,” “s,” etc.) or affricates (“ch,” “j”) or nearby liquids (“l,” “r”) to match with “k” or “g.” So I’m going to be playing with the “n t l” and with confusion with the order of the sounds. Ideally, we want to have at least one pair of words where a simple transposition will lead to the naughty phrase (e.g., pheasant plucker, slit the sheet). It’s hard to do that with cunt licker – there is no lunt kicker, for example, and clown tickler is not really close enough.

If I use stupid cunt, I can see potential with Cupid and stunt. But that’s less sexy and more abusive, so it’s less fun. If I focus just on cunt, however, there’s a well-known spoonerism on the difference between a circus and a chorus line: a circus is a cunning array of stunts, and…

So there is that, with the advantage that those who have heard the joke will think of it. The phrase cunning stunt has perhaps less potential for confusion between gestures in the same place because of the easier differentiation with the nasals, but you can mess around with the alternation: set an expected pattern and defeat it.

So you play around with the “k n t s” sounds a while to see what you can knock up. Something about continuing tons of cunning stunts? Hmm. More. Kinetically intuiting. Syntax. We also want to make sure we have multiple passes at the naughty word, so people who get through one and feel good about it may be caught with their guards down on the next. Umm…

Sexy syntax contains cunning stunts that stun with counts of kinetic scansion disconnecting intuition in tense scanning of stunts and cunning…

Nah, too dry, and too much variety. Not really hard enough; it doesn’t set up a clear pattern to disrupt. It’s better to get the eyes practically crossing with repetition and near-repetition so people will lose their place. Maybe try the question-answer type as in “Peter Piper.” Needs to be right in your face. Let’s try some vowel confusion too.

They stunned the Count as he stood counting cunning stunts in the county stands. Could you stand in the county stands to count the cunning stunts?

A little better. Remember: with dirty tongue-twisters, the point is as much for people to hear what you’re getting at as to trip up the tongue. You need to dance around the rim – repeat it enough that it seems sure someone will trip. A tongue-twister is indeed a cunning array of lingual stunts.

Shall we try another? The easiest one to mess people up with is probably shit, but that’s been done a lot. Motherfucker has potential, but I want to try something I haven’t seen yet. Hmmm. Tits. (Yes, I’ve seen tits, but I can’t recall a good tongue-twister using tits. The word, I mean.) Hmm. And nipples. There’s excellent spoonerism potential: nipples and tits to tipples and knits. So now we can make a tongue-twister about a lady who knits and tipples. Remember to set up a confusing pattern, and to involve sounds that repeatedly use close-together tongue gestures.

Penelope knits a stippled tapestry, and while she knits she tips a simple tipple to her lips.

Naw, not lewd enough. Too much vowel assonance, too – sounds good but it’s actually easier. Maybe add something with out. And play on confusion between the “p” and “t” voiceless stops, which don’t use the same gesture but are in the same region of the mouth and have only their location to differentiate them. Make sure to have an appropriately confusable sound within two or three words of your target lewd or crude phrase (to make tits out you’ll want tips out with a final –ts nearby or knits out with an initial t– nearby).

“It’s a pity,” Penelope pouts, “that a little knitting tipple is not stipulated. A pattern plus a pretty little tipple knits out temptingly.”

Well, not an all-time classic, partly because nemptingly is not a word (but the mpt makes a nice traffic jam to throw off the mouth in anticipation). But amusing to listen to, perhaps. Good for a titter or two.

OK, now you try.

One thought on “How to write dirty tongue-twisters

  1. CMH February 23, 2015 / 10:21 am

    I feel like I’m taking the easy road here, but here it is:

    Six shifting ships sit in the shifty, silty sea.

    Probably needs more clusters to really trip you up.


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