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.
For Deadspin, Jeff Pearlman has written a remarkable piece, “The Fallout From Sportswriting’s Filthiest Fuck-Up.” Pearlman dives deep into the story of how an incredibly obscene paragraph managed to get slipped into a sports article in the Gallatin (Tenn.) News Examiner in 1997. In the middle of an otherwise routine item on the local high school soccer team comes this shocker:
Dixon sucks donkey dicks and doesn’t wipe the shit off before practice. We like to keep him at the sweeper position so his sperm breath will stop people from penetrating to the goal. Speaking of penetrating, he prefers tall, red-headed guys. Told me to tell Kris he said ‘hello.’
Last October, when the Trump/Pussygate story broke, I said it would “go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity.” Now, six months into the Trump administration, we’ve come to another banner day for profanity, as the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza reports on a remarkable conversation with Anthony Scaramucci, aka the Mooch, Trump’s incoming communications director. Scaramucci unloaded on White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, with a side order of profanity devoted to Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. And news outlets all over the world are reporting on it.