Country singer Neal McCoy has a new song called “Take a Knee, My Ass,” bluntly commenting on the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He performed it in concert, and the Facebook live stream has gone viral. Buzzfeed has helpfully transcribed some of the lyrics:
I’ll honor the ones who gave it all
So we’re all free to go play ball
If only for their sake
I won’t take a knee
Arm and arm, side by side
America’s heroes fought and died
Is showing some respect too much to ask?
I speak for those whose freedom was not free
And I say
Take a knee
(McCoy prefaced the song by saying it has “a bad word in it,” in case anyone was offended by the word ass.)
The “take a knee” part of the chorus and title is a straightforward allusion to the kneeling football players. (See my Language Log post for a history of the expression.) But the “my ass” part introduces another body part into the mix, and people have been having fun intentionally misinterpreting it.
The new movie Only the Brave tells the true story of a group of firefighters who battled a deadly wildfire in Arizona in 2013. In his review in the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri writes that “much of the dialogue in Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer’s script works at that level of earnest, tough-guy poetry, like a fortune cookie you might find in a vat of Skoal dipping tobacco.” One example Ebiri gives of this tough-guy poetry: “I know you guys are looking for sympathy, but the only place you’re gonna find it is in the dictionary, somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis.'”
The GQ article on which the movie is based doesn’t have that specific line, though it does quote some other rough-and-tumble language from Brendan McDonough (aka “Donut”), a young member of the 20-man hotshot fire crew (played by Miles Teller in the film). “The reason we’re so close is you’re fucking put through some shit,” Donut says. But the “shit and syphilis” line is certainly something you could imagine coming out of the mouth of a hardened firefighter. In fact, it’s got a pedigree going back to World War II, with less obscene variations dating back to the nineteenth century.
A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).
Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”
On Twitter, Siobhán Britton (aka @wigglymittens) shared a recipe from the magazine Glamour (UK edition) listing an unusual ingredient: “a bee’s dick of salt.” [Update, Aug. 29: As noted by Suzanne Wilder in the comments below, the recipe comes courtesy of the sweary Australian food blog Shannon’s Kitchen. The recipe on the blog is even swearier.]
The tweet was widely shared, including by the writer William Gibson, who was so enamored with the phrase “a bee’s dick” that he incorporated it into a new post-Charlottesville rallying cry: “Tolerate not even a bee’s dick of white supremacy.”
My recent post on how a particularly obscene paragraph ended up on a local sports page inspired me to go back to a post I wrote in 2015, “When Shit Hits the Newspapers.” In it, I mentioned the enticing prospect that bullshit might have appeared in an American newspaper a few decades before that word started showing up in the writings of such luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter noted on the American Dialect Society mailing list back in 2008 that there is a mention of a stage-robber in Las Vegas, New Mexico, named John “Bull Shit Jack” Pierce in Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts. Roberts seems to cite an 1881 issue of the Las Vegas Daily Optic on this point. Now that the Optic from that year has been scanned and digitized, it’s possible to check. Sadly, there is no “Bull Shit Jack” to be found, but the expurgated versions that did appear in newspapers of the era leave little doubt as to what his nickname actually was.