I still maintain that slang is good for you, but, sometimes, profanity is even better. Slang is playful and facetious, the story goes, the language by which groups hang together. Profanity, on the other hand, is supposedly coarse and mean. Well, that’s true enough, in some cases, but I’ve recently been reminded that profanity is occasionally the lighter alternative, that the relevant slang is what’s coarse and violent. Yes, I’m talking about sex, or, more precisely, the language of sex — not copulate or get it on, but the relative value of fuck and bang or nail.
Here’s what started me thinking. While in the New Orleans airport on my way back from the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Dialect Society, and lots of other associated societies, I read Peggy Orenstein’s article, “What It Means to Be a Man,” in The Atlantic (January/February 2020). No, I wasn’t confused, but I had ordered a copy of her new book, Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020) and correctly assumed that the article previewed the book. I wasn’t looking for commentary on language, but, frankly, how can you talk about anything important — and much that isn’t — without talking about language? When it’s a matter of hookups and porn, strong language seems inevitable.
In fact, Orenstein’s article overflows with items of linguistic interest, but my attention landed on the following paragraph:
No matter how often I heard it, the brutal language that even a conscientious young man like Nate used to describe sexual contact — you hit that! — always unnerved me. In mixed-sex groups, teenagers may talk about hooking up (already impersonal) but when guys are on their own, they nail, they pound, they bang, they hammer. They tap that ass, they tear her up. It can be hard to tell whether they have engaged in an intimate act or just returned from a construction site.
That list should unnerve anyone. Men should worry about the terms with which they hammer and screw together their masculinities. My late mother and I disagreed about what makes a woman self-respecting, but surely a woman can be dtf — and I don’t mean deep transversive friction, though I suppose that can be part of it — yet refuse to be ploughed, nailed, tapped, or torn and object to being the object of sexual language like nailed, hammered, banged, and screwed. So, despite a general sense that fuck is the vulgar sexual term, it’s actually the neutral term, benign alongside the malignant hit and tap. As an expletive, fuck exploits its violent phonetics, but as a word for sexual congress, it’s less expressive — and arguably should be more acceptably expressive — than the locker-room slang alternatives.
In its deep history, fuck may have referred to various forms of violence and thus aligns better with banged and nailed, but who except an etymologist would know it? If fuck derives ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *peuk– — a popular etymological theory — it’s related to Latin pugnus ‘fist,’ pugil ‘pugilist, fist-fighter’ — which I suppose isn’t terribly far from fist-fucker — and the verb pugnāre ‘fight with the fist,” as well as the Latin verb pungere ‘prick’ — which gives English, among other words, puncture —and Greek pugmē ‘fist.’ The eminent Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins lent authority to this derivation late in his career, in his appendix of Indo-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5/e (2011). Anatoly Liberman, another eminence, disputes the PIE origin, argues that fuck and its cognates in other languages are 100% Germanic, in his Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology (2008). They start out meaning something like ‘move back and forth’ and gradually extend to sexual movement, rather than ‘strike,’ which is what one comes up with in the attempt to link its meaning to PIE *peuk-. Even historically, then, sex need not be violent, nor need words for it, though, because of its phonetics, which include striking microgestures in the mouth, fuck sounds like a word with pugnacious antecedents.
All the English slang that bothers Orenstein is relatively new, that is, compared to Latin, Greek, or Proto-Indo-European. The earliest attested item is hammer (1594), a joking use in Elizabethan drama — all of the dates here are borrowed from Green’s Dictionary of Slang; bang (1719) arrives considerably later, followed quickly by nail (1748), which, however, is used then in an extended metaphor in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, so not necessarily slang — the first undeniably slang use occurs in 1892, which in word historical terms is recent, indeed. Sex has been around forever, as has misogyny, so we might expect such terms to be even older than they are. We might also question why the old words for violent sex aren’t sufficient, why we needed such recent additions to the vocabulary as pound (1925), tap (1947) — though, according to GDoS, it meant ‘deflower’ 1682–1823 — and bash (1965).
The answer lies in group affiliation, both the groups of our present and generations receding into the past. Different groups need different words for sex, and young men, in attempts to bond with one another, apparently need a repertoire of such words with violent connotations. I don’t excuse hammer and tap, but I must point out that other slang indulges in metaphorical violence. When we’re drunk, we can be just that, or we can be apocalyptically violent (annihilated, wasted, blitzed, and bombed, for instance) or mildly so (smashed and, yes, both hammered and tore up). Teenagers, we must remember, live at the extremes; teenage boys are still banging on things and blowing things up. The question: can their language just grow up?
Of course, fucking probably describes loveless sex, but, according to Orenstein, young people do that already. Surely, one never nails or bangs the women one loves. In fact, one shouldn’t hammer or tap those one doesn’t love, either. One can fuck people without meaning to puncture them with one’s prick, or any other *peuk-ing thing. Slang is language with attitude. If you use nail and hammer and screw for the sex you have with other teenagers, it’s arguably a bad attitude, an attitude requiring some verbal hygiene.
If the boys talked about their loveless sex with fucking rather than banging or nailing, profanity would help them mind their manners better than slang can. Adults they won’t listen to, anyway, should probably point that out to them, but the cycle of violent slang for sex and other things will probably be unbroken.