Back in October, news spread about an anonymous crowdsourced list titled “Shitty Media Men,” which compiled various rumors and allegations of sexual misdeeds by men in the media industry. “Shitty Media Men” became newsworthy again this week after Twitter started buzzing that Harper’s was planning to publish a piece by Katie Roiphe that would reveal the name of the list’s creator. That led to several writers declaring that they would pull stories from Harper’s in protest. In a piece for The Cut, Moira Donegan bravely stepped forward to identify herself as the creator of the list.
Here I won’t dwell on the shittiness of the media men’s alleged behavior, or the shittiness of Harper’s and Roiphe for whatever plans they might have had to out Donegan and expose her to potential abuse. (Roiphe claims she wasn’t going to name Donegan without permission, but a fact-checker from Harper’s contacted Donegan and told her she was going to be identified.) Rather, let’s look at how newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are handling the shitty word at the center of this shitty story.
It’s become our annual tradition here on Strong Language to hand out awards for the best in swearing over the past year. (See the honors for 2015 here and 2016 here.) The Tucker Awards are named after the patron saint of Strong Language, Malcolm Tucker, the super-sweary political fixer from the BBC’s The Thick of It (and the film spinoff In the Loop), as portrayed by Peter Capaldi.
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.”