A Patrick Swayze insult

On April Fool’s Day, I ran across this item, which purports to be a long-winded rant about common English usage errors (that aren’t really errors). A close read reveals it to be satire. And one thing it does in keeping with the genre of such pieces is begin with a long windup—what I call “the burnishing of the credentials.”

To poke fun at the author, I wrote, “And somehow, this gormless berk can hear apostrophes in the spoken word.” Let’s unpack that epithet, which is British English.

The first part, “gormless,” is explained thus by Oxford Living Dictionaries:

Mid 18th century (originally as gaumless): from dialect gaum ‘understanding’ (from Old Norse gaumr ‘care, heed’) + -less

That’s straightforward enough. It makes a superb addition to any noun meaning “idiot” or “fool,” with the added satisfaction of being in Norse code.

As to the second part, “berk,” it’s a type of Cockney rhyming slang. You’ll be familiar with this if you’re a fan of British comedy. Take a look at this skit by The Two Ronnies. In the sermon, the minister says, “A poor man who had no trouble and strife.” (wife) “She’d run off with a tea leaf.” (thief) “He now lived with his eldest bricks and morter, Mary.” (daughter)

This is the usual way rhyming slang works. “Frog and toad” means “road.” Once you’re wise to this game, context will usually point you straight to the meaning. “I’d go out for a pint, but I’m short bees and honey.” If you guessed what rhymes with “honey,” you’re on the money.

Not all rhyming slang follows this pattern. The more obscure terms have a story behind them, like “didn’t ought” meaning port wine. (Polite ladies, offered a second or third glass, should demur by saying “didn’t ought.”)

“Berk” is of this sort. It’s a truncation of Berkeley Hunt, a fox hunt traditionally held at Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire. As “hunt” rhymes with “cunt,” Bob’s your uncle.

Back to the title of this post, try your savvy: “He wants 800 quid for his old beater. The bloke’s Patrick Swayze.”

You must be piss-taken

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?

Continue reading

Bowdler please, I can’t hear 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:

sechatterly

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

Call me

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

DIY Oathmaking

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:

sethc

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