Skimming social media recently, I came across posts reporting the death of R&B singer Billy “The Kid” Emerson at the age of 97. Though he would later renounce secular music and become a preacher, Emerson had a great run as a singer and songwriter in the 1950s, signing to Sun Records in its heyday. While Emerson never achieved the fame of labelmates like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, some of his songs have endured as rockabilly standards, perhaps most notably “Red Hot.” Emerson wrote and recorded “Red Hot” for Sun in 1955, though his single didn’t crack the charts.
“Red Hot” would become more famous when it was covered in 1957 by another Sun act, Billy Lee Riley & The Little Green Men. From there it entered the repertoire of many rockers, including the Beatles, who can be heard playing “Red Hot” in recordings at Hamburg’s Star Club in 1962.
“Red Hot” features Emerson’s immortal call-and-response refrain:
My gal is red hot Your gal ain’t doodly-squat
Doodly-squat (meaning ‘nothing/anything at all’ or ‘an insignificant amount’) might seem like a mild topic for Strong Language, but there’s a lot going on under the surface of that frivolous-sounding word. The Oxford English Dictionary surmises that the doodly part comes from doodle as a slang term for ‘excrement,’ and the squat part comes from the use of that word as a verb meaning ‘to void excrement.’Over time, doodly-squat would get eclipsed by the variant diddly-squat, which the OED calls a “probably euphemistic” alteration. Both doodly-squat and diddly-squat, as well as plain old squat, are prime examples of what linguists have called “vulgar minimizers” or “squatitives” (more on that later).
With the passing of Scott Walker, who found pop-music fame as a member of the Walker Brothers before setting out on an inimitable solo career, the singer’s best-known work has been making the rounds online. One particularly memorable song from Walker was his first solo single, “Jackie,” released in December 1967. “Jackie” was an English-language rendering of Jacques Brel’s “La chanson de Jacky,” translated from French by Mort Shuman (a Brill Building songwriter who would go on to co-create the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris). Both the French and English lyrics were quite racy for the time. The English chorus, as unforgettably delivered by Walker, goes:
If I could be for only an hour If I could be for an hour every day If I could be for just one little hour A-cute-cute in a stupid-ass way
Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.