Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.
For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:
I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.
The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.
Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)
Ass shows up a lot on Strong Language. We’ve looked at kick ass and my ass, lick-my-ass and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit review.)
As a suffix, –ass is used to form ‘generally negative (but increasingly positive too) adjectives and occasionally nouns’, notes Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This Janus nature recurs in slang, as in the contradictory shit vs. the shit. And you can’t spell Janus without anus.
A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).
Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.
The American Dialect Society’s (ADS) word of the year event, on the go since 1990, is the culmination of the annual WOTY cycle. It showcases the creativity of language users and highlights items of genuine interest and note. For many word lovers it transcends the ambivalence they feel about the custom in general [cough-youthquake-WTF-cough].
ADS words of the year are spread across multiple evolving categories, with an overall winner chosen from that set: political, digital, slang/informal, most useful, most creative, most likely to succeed, euphemism, hashtag, emoji. There’s even a WTF category, this year featuring covfefe, Oh hi Mark, procrastination nanny, and raw water.
Nominations for 2017 were mild compared to the rudefest that was 2015, but there are exceptions: pussyhat (‘pink knitted hat worn by demonstrators at the Women’s March’) was shortlisted for word of the year; askhole (‘person who continuously asks ridiculous or obnoxious questions’) was in the running for most creative; and, most notably, shitpost was declared the digital word of the year.
So what the shit, you might wonder, is shitpost?
Soon after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755, so the story goes, he was approached by a pair of prudish readers who commended him for omitting ‘improper’ words. Johnson, according to one account, replied to the women: ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’
Today you can find improper words in any good dictionary – but only the main set. Fuck is there, but not fuckish, fuckfaced, fuck-nutty, fuck my old boots!, or fuck the dog and sell the pups. You’ll see shit in the usual sources, but good luck finding shit-breath, shit factory, shit-squirting, shit out, or shit on the dining room table.* Regular dictionaries just don’t cover the remarkable range of taboo vocabulary, nor should they.
For this we turn to specialist slang dictionaries. These do not shy from obscenity but embrace it in all its mutable monstrousness (I say this as someone who loves monsters, and mutants). And the best slang dictionary in existence – it defines, expertly, all the phrases above and thousands like them – is Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). Last year it went online. If that’s news to you, prepare for a treat.
This is a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent lexicographer, language researcher, and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Orin is the author of several language reference books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford) and Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners (Merriam-Webster).
A few years ago I wrote about how collocations in fiction skew the statistics of collocations in a corpus because of their extremely frequent use; Ben Zimmer expanded on the idea in a later New York Times piece. In summary, the point is that a number of collocations would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction. This is because writers of fiction—particularly writers of the amateur, unedited fiction that appears online—tend to reuse the same tropes and phrases so much that these effectively become clichés, formulaic ways of expressing the same (rather tired) ideas and events.
All of that came to light when I was working with the Oxford English Corpus, a well balanced and carefully curated corpus that, at the time, had about two billion words of English. These days I’m working with the enTenTen13 corpus, a web-crawled corpus of nearly 20 billion words, owned and made available by Sketch Engine. Sketch Engine’s web-crawler roves the Internet indiscriminately, pulling text from wherever it can be found. Like some grandmother aghast in Greenville, the web-crawler regularly comes upon sites with pornographic content. The difference between the grandmother and the web-crawler is that while she may avert her gaze in shock and dismay, the web-crawler grabs the text, parses and tags it, and adds it to the corpus. The result is that enTenTen13 houses a steaming, pulsating trove of pornographic writing.