Biting the fig. The finger, part II

I wrote about some of the diverse uses of the bird, the single-digit salute, the flip-off—the finger—in my book Damn!, and subsequently here at Strong Language in my digital piece, “Bird is the Word.” I found roots that harked back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes, and to ancient Rome, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger.” In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.”  Emperor Caligula offering of his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, to his subjects to kiss was seen as scandalous. But that was Nero for you. What else did you expect? The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Rome for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the man during a performance. Although my next book, the cookbook memoir Not My Mother’s Kitchen, did not contain a single cussword or allusion to one, I discovered along the way that the Italian peninsula still had their fingers on the pulse of profanity—only this time with figs. Continue reading

When lyrics were clean, almost

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Forms and rhythms in music are never altered without producing changes in the entire fabric of society.” He also said, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” so it’s better that we stick with his take on music. In twentieth-century America, ragtime, jazz, rock, and later punk and rap, all bristled against the accepted music of their times. Although the earliest indictments of these genres were aimed primarily at the music itself, it was not really until the 1950s that songs were being banned for their lyrical content. This content, though, was generally regarded for its subject matter and not necessarily for the language used in expressing the ideas. This is to say that although the songs were deemed vulgar or subversive, actual profanity—or “sweary” language, if you will—was still a rare bird. However anyone swore in real life, cussing, cursing, or just “potty-mouth talk” did not really begin to make its way into the recording booth until the late 1960s. Continue reading

Give my revamps to Broadway

 

When Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to be sung in the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass. Columbia records balked because obscenity laws would prohibit the recording from being shipped over state lines. In the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!”— Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show. Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? In the fifty-plus years since West Side Story, the expletive is not only fully accepted in the theater, but roundly applauded. Continue reading

Up against the wall, mother-fugger

As much as the youthful Norman Mailer may have enjoyed inflating his self-image by inundating friend and foe with a superheated geyser of “fucks,” his favorite word wasn’t acceptable for the printed page in 1948. The disgruntled (read “pissed-off”) Mailer was forced to substitute the word “fug” for “fuck” in his gritty war novel The Naked and the Dead. The story goes that this prompted the waggish starlet Tallulah Bankhead to say upon first meeting Mailer, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” If Mailer never wanted to see—or say—another “fug” in his life, there was a counter-culture rock group that thought the euphemism was the ideal name to have to “stick it to” the establishment of the 1960s.

Enter The Fugs. Continue reading

Who gives a fart!

Well, apart from those with colostomy bags, I suspect that probably everyone during the course of an ordinary day lets loose at least one emission of “confidential information.” Yet, it comes as no breaking news that discussing it—let alone passing on that information in public—can be more taboo than ventilating any of George Carlin’s “heavy seven” cuss words?

This was not always the case. And Jonathan Swift (expressing himself under the nom de plume Fartinhando Puffindorst, Professor of Bumbast in the University of Cracow) cleared the air of this sonorous subject in his 1722 opus The Benefit of Farting Explained: or Fundamental Cause of the Distempers Incident to the Fair Sex (Proving, a posteriori, most of the disorders entailed on them are owing to flatulencies not seasonably vented). Meanwhile, the prominent Parliamentarian Whig and wit Charles James Fox tooted his own trumpet on the subject in his 1787 An Essay on Wind, in which he resonantly gushes, “Fart loud, I say, and never more be restrained by example, age, rank, or sex, for it is natural and laudable, wholesome and laughable, humorous and comfortable.” Continue reading