Political blowjobs, or The power of expletive-filled number plates

This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on linguistics in social media and politics, and helped create the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He was last seen on Strong Language with an article on emoji swearing. He tweets at @philipseargeant.

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Blowjobs have played an occasional but important part in political history. The most notable recent example, of course, involved Bill Clinton. It was his equivocation over the nature of his relations with Monica Lewinsky that led to him being impeached on perjury charges. A century before Clinton, another president had an even more decisive oral-sex-related experience. Félix Faure, President of the French Republic between 1895 and 1899, was unlucky enough to die in office from a cerebral haemorrhage which he supposedly suffered while being fellated by his mistress.

The latest entry in the annals of political crises involving blowjobs doesn’t concern the act itself, however, but rather the word. Specifically, it concerns the use of the word as a political insult. And even more specifically, an insult expressed by means of car vanity plates.

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When the news gets shitty

Back in October, news spread about an anonymous crowdsourced list titled “Shitty Media Men,” which compiled various rumors and allegations of sexual misdeeds by men in the media industry. “Shitty Media Men” became newsworthy again this week after Twitter started buzzing that Harper’s was planning to publish a piece by Katie Roiphe that would reveal the name of the list’s creator. That led to several writers declaring that they would pull stories from Harper’s in protest. In a piece for The Cut, Moira Donegan bravely stepped forward to identify herself as the creator of the list.

Here I won’t dwell on the shittiness of the media men’s alleged behavior, or the shittiness of Harper’s and Roiphe for whatever plans they might have had to out Donegan and expose her to potential abuse. (Roiphe claims she wasn’t going to name Donegan without permission, but a fact-checker from Harper’s contacted Donegan and told her she was going to be identified.) Rather, let’s look at how newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are handling the shitty word at the center of this shitty story.

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The seven deadly synonyms

In Sinclair Lewis’s prescient 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the ignorant demagogue Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip wins the 1936 election with the support of millions of impoverished and angry voters. Among the more serious totalitarian indignities of Windrip’s “Corpo” government are the curtailing of women’s and minority rights and the building of concentration camps. Another tactic is the bowdlerizing of language and the forbidding of words and phrases that seemingly run counter to the administration’s noble ends.

Fast forward to the present day. Continue reading

Ratfcking phonotactics

When I read a recent article by Charles P. Pierce in Esquire about Russian-related dirty tricks in the 2016 US election, something caught my eye: ratfcking and ratfck.

Now, obviously this is ratfucking and ratfuck without the u. I’ve already talked about obscuring of sonority peaks (consonant nuclei) in “Why the f— do we do this and why the —k don’t we do that?” But in this case it’s not ratf*cking or ratf–cking. The vowel isn’t obscured. It’s just pulled out like a card from a deck.

Obviously, Mr. Pierce – should you talk to him in person – might well pronounce the word with the u intact. This ratfcking is likely a delicacy enforced by a nod to decorum in print. But here’s the thing: When I’m talking in a context where I don’t want to be too obtrusively vulgar but I still want to express vehemence (there are a lot of contexts of this sort), I will actually say “fcking,” /fˑkɪŋ/. So I wondered whether this kind of thing is catching on in print.

It’s not, not really. Ratfcking is a rare hit, and not widespread. You can find a few instances of bullsht and cockscker but almost none of motherfcker or just about any other one you can think of. The various corpora turn up no hits at all for most of them. (Those fcking asshles.)

But is ratfcking a possible word in English? Continue reading

A fuckload of anti-profanity

Long an admirer of Joseph Mitchell, I take his portrait of A. S. Colborne and his Anti-Profanity League as iconic, though, as the trail of news Colborne left behind him proves, Mitchell’s view was partial and misleading. Colborne was by no means the only American anti-profanity campaigner, and the fact that he wasn’t alone, that anti-profanity activism persists in America today, supports profanity’s expressive power — a vestige of taboo keeps strong language strong. As it turns out, a little anti-profanity goes a long way.

Prompted by my first post about Colborne, Patrick Collins searched Chronicling America and commented on several other anti-profanity movements. Some were charmingly local, others of regional, if not national, scope. Among the former, in Leesburg, Ohio — as reported in The Highland Weekly News (13 December 1882) — “An anti-swearing league ha[d] been formed among the boys of the village.” A few years later — as reported in the The Omaha Daily Bee (21 June 1886) — the Commercial Travelers’ Protective Association placed anti-profanity placards in hotels and restaurants, for the public good, of course, but also to curb the sweary impulses of those very commercial travelers — the motive was less moral than a matter of public relations.

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