The expressions swear like a trooper and swear like a sailor are so common as to be cliché. But why do we swear ‘like a trooper’ or ‘like a sailor’? And what else do we swear like, idiomatically, in English and other languages?
Troopers and sailors
Swearing has long been identified with the military, source of so much slang, ribald chants, tribal insults, and other forms of strong language. Profanity would come into its own in war, aiding both bonding and catharsis: ‘an easement to the much besieged spirit’, as Ashley Montagu put it.
So routine was swearing in WWI that to omit it carried real force. In his 1930 book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914–1918, John Brophy writes, ‘If a sergeant said, “Get your ––––ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’
We can assume that fucking is the censored word. The spread of fuck through war is described in Ruth Wajnryb’s Expletive Deleted (2005):
Pull up a chair, my little dears, and I’m going to tell you a sad tale of fallen words, a story about how little dears – or should I say words for ‘little’ and for ‘dear’ – started out lovely and beloved and ended up scorned and scornful. Continue reading
I still maintain that slang is good for you, but, sometimes, profanity is even better. Slang is playful and facetious, the story goes, the language by which groups hang together. Profanity, on the other hand, is supposedly coarse and mean. Well, that’s true enough, in some cases, but I’ve recently been reminded that profanity is occasionally the lighter alternative, that the relevant slang is what’s coarse and violent. Yes, I’m talking about sex, or, more precisely, the language of sex — not copulate or get it on, but the relative value of fuck and bang or nail.
Last week, in response to the passage of draconian anti-abortion laws in several U.S. states, a Los Angeles–based makeup company announced that for four days it would be donating 100 percent of its revenue to organizations that support reproductive rights. The company, which was founded in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election “by a group of jaded romantics,” is no stranger to controversy. The provocation begins with the company name: Lipslut.
Pictured: Lipslut’s “F*ck Trump” shade. The company also sells “F*ck Kavanaugh” (named for the newest U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Brett “I Like Beer” Kavanaugh), “F*ck Hollywood,” “Notorious R.B.G.” (a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and a dark purple shade called — deep breath — “Leftylibglobalistsantifacommiesocialisthollyweirdopigs,” which takes its name from an internet troll’s insult.
Lipslut joins an increasing number of mainstream brand names, titles, and idioms that deploy the S-word. As of this writing there are 54 registered or pending SLUT trademarks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database; while a few are put to risqué use (SLUTNATION.XXX), many are family friendly. Which means that slut—a wanton word throughout its history—may be shape-shifting yet again.
The American Dialect Society’s (ADS) word of the year event, on the go since 1990, is the culmination of the annual WOTY cycle. It showcases the creativity of language users and highlights items of genuine interest and note. For many word lovers it transcends the ambivalence they feel about the custom in general [cough-youthquake-WTF-cough].
ADS words of the year are spread across multiple evolving categories, with an overall winner chosen from that set: political, digital, slang/informal, most useful, most creative, most likely to succeed, euphemism, hashtag, emoji. There’s even a WTF category, this year featuring covfefe, Oh hi Mark, procrastination nanny, and raw water.
Nominations for 2017 were mild compared to the rudefest that was 2015, but there are exceptions: pussyhat (‘pink knitted hat worn by demonstrators at the Women’s March’) was shortlisted for word of the year; askhole (‘person who continuously asks ridiculous or obnoxious questions’) was in the running for most creative; and, most notably, shitpost was declared the digital word of the year.
So what the shit, you might wonder, is shitpost?