Testicular fortitude

If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:

  • ballsy
  • big balls
  • break my balls
  • have (someone) by the balls
  • ball-buster

So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.

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Boobs vs. tits: a first look

When you don’t call breasts breasts, are you more likely to call them boobs or tits?

Let’s take it as a given that you are more likely to talk of them at all if you are a male novelist. That’s intuitively obvious (at least to me, and to many others) and has lately been much remarked on. To the annoyance of many women, breasts are sexualized in the male gaze in our society (but by no means in all societies; some find the idea frankly silly). So men, and notably horndog novelists, are apt to talk about them. But…

…here’s the thing. When women talk about how tiresome this is, I have been struck by how often they use the word boobs.

I’m not going to say guys never use the word boobs, because that’s not true, but my experience is that if you see the word boobs, it’s probably written by a woman. Guys talk about tits, hooters, jugs, cleavage, a nice rack, and, of course, breasts, but my impression has long been that boobs is a word that skews strongly to female authors (let’s be scientific and call this hypothesis 1), while tits, on the other hand, is a word male authors are more likely to use (hypothesis 2).

So I decided to check this out with a little corpus research. Continue reading

The fresh prints of ‘bell-end’

When dance-lord Michael Flatley said he would perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration ball in January, someone cheekily redirected colossalbellend.com to Flatley’s website. (It now points to Trump’s Twitter page.) Reporting on the story, the Guardian noted: ‘Bellend is a British insult.’

Helpful, but short on detail. Just what kind of insult is bell-end? What does it mean, and how is it used? Where did it come from, and when, and why? And what’s bell end brie?

Let Strong Language ring your bell.

Image macro of Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live saying, "I gotta have more 'bell-end', baby!" (instead of "cowbell")

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The middle finger in American Sign Language

This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.

The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.

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Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.

In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.

In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.

Directionality

Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

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