OK, look at this f—ing s—. And this f—king sh—. And this f–cking sh–t. And how about this s—t? Really, who are the c—s, c—ts, or c–nts who do that?
And, more importantly, why the —k don’t those —nts do it another way? What the –uck keeps them from doing this —it? Or, for that matter, fu— and shi– and cu—? Or, um, –uc– or –un–?
Really, look. If I write f— it could stand for a whole bunch of words, but we know which one is worth censoring. But likewise, if I write —k we know it stands for a word worth censoring, and what the –u— other word could it be than fuck? So why not do that?
There are a few reasons. First, of course, it’s “the F word,” not “the word that ends in K.” But that still leaves us with the issue of why we privilege that first letter. Convenience of alphabetization, yes, but in truth we could as easily alphabetize by last letter, or by first vowel, if we wanted. If we preferred that, we would set up the means to do so, just as we normally leave out the when alphabetizing (even iTunes has gotten the hang of this).
But when words come out of our mouths, they come out first part first. There is that salience of the initial. This also means that if we happen to stop halfway through a word because we’ve been cut off, we may write it like What the fu— or What’s this shi— or You rotten cu—. Which means that censoring the words by cesnoring just the very ends looks like we’ve just cut the person off.
But it also looks, erm, wrong. It looks like a statue with a fig leaf over the knees but not the penis.
And there’s the meat of it. The vowel is really the business part of the word. The first letter is the face – what we need to recognize it – but the vowel is the cock or cunt of the word, and the letters after it are the upper legs: not really the fucker, but they lead to it.
And that all has to do with syllable structure as we English speakers know it.
Every syllable has a nucleus. This is what gives it its motive force. It’s the peak of sonority – the loudest part, the part you can sustain the longest. It’s normally a vowel or sometimes a liquid consonant (like the /l/ in detestable – the final e is silent), but it can be any sustainable sound, including the /n/ in couldn’t, the /m/ in hmm, and even the /ʃ/ in shh. This is, as I have said, the business part. The genitals. The part that has to be covered if any part has to be covered – except when there’s no onset, in which case it has to be the face of the word (as in a— and a—hole).
A syllable (in English, though not in every language) can have a coda. This is the consonant(s) coming after the nucleus, like the /k/ (written ck) in fuck, and the /t/ in shit, and the /nt/ in cunt. The coda (if there is one) and the nucleus together form the rime, which is a precious linguistics way of spelling rhyme, which is exactly what it looks like: the part of the word that rhymes with other words that, uh, rhyme with it.
A syllable can – and often does – have an onset. This is the consonant or consonants that start it off. It’s the /f/ in fuck, the /k/ in cunt, the /ʃ/ in shit. It’s also the /spl/ in split. In English, we have clear rules about what consonants can and can’t be combined how in an onset. For instantce, we can put /s/ before a lot of consonants, and /r/, /l/, /w/, and /j/ (that’s “y”) after a lot of them, but not vice-versa. The first sound in the onset is the sound we hear first (unless there’s no onset), and so it serves as the face of the word – unless there is no onset.
The only part of a syllable that’s not the rime is the onset, which shows us again that the onset is the face of the word, and helps explain why the coda is more censorable than the onset. Also, while the vowels (or syllabic consonants) give the thrust of the word, the consonants give it definition and distinctiveness – an an analogy sometimes used is that the vowels are the blood and the consonants are the bones and muscles.
When we have a sound that uses two letters to spell, such as the /ʃ/ in shit and the /k/ in fuck, we have a choice of writing both (which will be clearest) or writing just the one at the edge of the word (f—k, s—t). It’s a tougher one when one letter by itself doesn’t stand for the sound (as in s instead of sh), because s—t, for example, looks rather as though the first sound should be /s/, as in spit or snot or other words not really worth censoring but still potential targets of prudes.
So, to sum up: We keep the first letter (if we keep anything) because that’s the face of it. If there’s no onset, that means we have to make the nucleus the face of it (special privilege). We can censor either the entire rime, or just the nucleus and perhaps whatever consonants are closest to it (c—t rather than c–nt). But above all, unless it’s the first sound of the word, we must censor the nucleus, which is the thrust of the word. Because –u—, —i–, and –u— are like statues with fig leaves over everything except the genitals. You can see the naughty bit and at the same time you aren’t sure whose naughty bit it is. Give us a face, you motherf—ers!
Great article. Reminds me of the time the Metro coyly censored the word ‘m*****fucker’ – exactly like that!
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Tolkien refers in his essay “English and Welsh” to “the things that strike the modern Saxon as insuperably odd and difficult about Welsh […]. Chief among these are, I suppose, the alteration of the initial consonants of words (which revolts his Germanic feeling for the initial sound of a word as a prime feature of its identity)”. Of course, the dominant figures in linguistics have pretty much always spoken Germanic languages.
Indeed, for a number of very good reasons I wanted to make sure my comments were clearly limited to English swears! Welsh is one of the most problematic in this regard, because while other Celtic languages such as Irish and Scots Gaelic are more likely to maintain the original letter and simply add a letter to show the phonological mutation, Welsh bloody respells it altogether. So an m subject to lenition to /v/ in Gaelic is written mh, but in Welsh is written f (which is why Llanfair is St. Mary).
As to the dominant figures pretty much always speaking Germanic… I wouldn’t be Saussure about that. 😛 (But for the most part I think you’re right, although it’s broadening now.)
Which makes figuring out Welsh compounds very difficult: when you have segmented the compound, if part begins with f you have to look under b, f, ff, m and hope there isn’t more than one such word to choose from.
Those who wonder how modern a thing this practice is will find of interest this poem from the 1600s: http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/answer-68
it is credited to Shadwell, but my recollection – which I will have to double-check – is that Shadwell was the recipient, and it was written by Wiliam Wycherly.
Yes, confirmed: It was by Wycherly.