Fuckbird, Cockstand and Frigging: Some annotations of James Joyce’s erotic letters to his wife, Nora Barnacle

Earlier this month, Whores of Yore published a set of letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters are taken from Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, London), and they are delightfully raunchy filth. Joyce’s discussion of topics including masturbation, anal sex, coprophilia and his sexual desire for his wife are frank enough to even make a Strong Language reader blush a little.

James Joyce by Alex Ehrenzweig, 1915 restored

Before I’d even stopped blushing, there were some words that got me thinking. And so, I present some annotations to some of the language in the letters. Thanks to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com for providing a trove of information.

Blackguard

“Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like” (2 December 1909)

Here Joyce affectionately uses a term that means ‘dishonourable’ or ‘villainous’, which may be lost on the modern reader. He also uses the term a half a dozen times in Ulysses, but only ever in reference to men.

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Commercial as fuck

Back in July 2015, when I wrote about the spread of “as fuck” and its abbreviation, “AF,” my sightings were limited to tweets, rap-album titles, and small-batch consumer goods sold on Etsy and other online marketplaces. In a comment on my post, “Y” predicted a bigger future for “AF”: “It’ll be co-opted by the mainstream. In fifty years, Modern Maturity will have recipes for Scrumptious-as-Fuck Cupcakes, and Midwesterners will tell their minister that his sermon was def as fuck.”

Fifty years? Try 22 months. That’s how long it took for New York–based FoodKick to launch its cheeky-as-fuck ad campaign in subways and social media.

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Sweary links #23

Strong Language contributor Jonathon Green (@misterslang), the author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, has a new project of special interest to SL readers: Slang Family Trees. “The aim,” writes Jonathon, “is to look at some of slang’s primary themes and show the way the lexis assesses given topics on a semantic basis.” The trees are constructed with mind-mapping software and appear as .pdf files. To get started, see vagina, penisand drunk.

 

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To drive awareness on International Women’s Day about how women are paid on average 25 percent less than men, J. Walter Thompson London created an outdoor campaign that uses censorship to show how offensive the world can seem with 25 percent missing. (Via Little Black Book)
 Find your purse?
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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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