It wasn’t too long ago that I began to notice speakers of British English (BrE) using various forms of “taking the piss.” This is a most curious expression and even in context the meaning is not readily apparent if you are unfamiliar with it. Does it mean “to be offended” or maybe “over the top”?
But recently I saw an American speaker use it in a mainstream publication, so if it’s becoming a Transatlantic crossover, we need to chase it down.
Here are a few examples spotted in the wild:
1 I was alive when Ibrahomvic took the piss out of England.
2 Beware of Gary—He will take the piss and make you laugh …
3 United Nations take the piss out of the Beatles with new reissue.
4 Do you notice when people take the piss out of you or try to mess with you?
As a child, I was wont to explore the family library and one of the first dictionary look-ups I can recall was the word “unexpurgated.” Likely from a cover like this:
And thus I learned that editors at some level were interceding between author and reader, removing text or replacing it with grawlix (#$*)&^@) or G——, G—–n, G*ddamn, and so forth. The difference being that when the editor removes the offending text entirely, the reader is unaware that a profanity existed, whereas in the second type the reader is challenged to recreate the elided word. Continue reading
Southern dialect abounds with colorful expressions, most rooted in rural life and relationships. Some, like “bless her heart,” sound benign but have a darker edge to them (she’s an idiot, but lovably so).
Others, like “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while,” and “Even a blind mule doesn’t trip over the same rock twice” have a bit of flexibility in them, such that other animals can be substituted for the usual ones, or they’ll overcome a different kind of obstacle. Regardless, the point will be similar to “Even a broken watch is right twice a day.”
What interests us here are the expressions that allow for wider substitutions, such that a basic pattern exists and the speaker can alter them on the fly for the level of force and humor desired. Of these, let’s look at:
Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit! Continue reading
While most common obscenities are a single barked word or set phrase, a number of them allow for user creativity, and ad-hoc formation that suits the moment. These are noteworthy in that they permit a linguistic dialing-up or dialing down of the desired force.
Jesus H. Christ
The insertion of “h” into “Jesus Christ” is a mild intensifier, and has a long history. The etymology is contested, but likely stems from the Christian symbol representing the first three characters of Christ’s name, iota-eta-sigma, which looks like IHS:
Suggestions that the “h” stands for “Harold,” ‘Henry,” or “holy” can be summarily discarded. So far, this results in a standard epithet, but the fun starts when one adds “on a” to the pattern, e.g.: “Jesus H. Christ on the cross,” “Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick” or “Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket.” or from the Blues Brothers movie, “Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ.” Also: “Jesus H. Christ on a cracker,” “Jesus H. Christ on a rubber crutch,” and “Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick.” Continue reading
Imagine yourself as one of your ancestors. Not a hundred or a thousand years ago, but one of your progenitors from some 100,000 years back in the mist of time.
You’ve fallen from a tree, tripped on a rock, stepped in a pile of dung, or barked your knuckles while sharpening a tool. Your natural response is to utter a sound of fury — an Ur-expletive — “arrgh!”
And for some reason, this lessens the pain. Swearing is natural because it has a hypoalgesic effect; it reduces the sense of agony. Indeed, swearing has always been attached to any experience of strong emotion, punctuating the profound.
Given this, you’d expect that we would have a record of such words in our culture stretching back to antiquity. But we don’t, because strong language has traditionally been a taboo and only in recent history has it been allowed in print.
Go back some 50 years, you’ll find Bowdlerization and grawlix to be ubiquitous. “G—–n!” and the like are normal in period literature. The editing set were forceful in suppressing expletives from print. When the Nixon tapes were released, [expletive deleted] was rampant throughout the transcription.
Our understanding of swearing as a linguistic speech act has to be inferred from hints and clues peppered throughout recorded history. We see it in ancient graffiti, in Latin words like “irrumo” (face-fucking), and in phrases like, “He swore like a sailor.”