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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The poetics of expletive clickbait

Expletive infixing is a much-loved mode of profanity. Is profanity good for you? Absofuckinglutely. Does infixing serve profanity as what James B. McMillan once called an “emotional stress amplifier”? I guarangoddamntee it. For most of us, infixings like these and interposings like shut the fuck up aren’t everyday speech, but nowadays, they’re hardly shocking. If you’re just not paying attention to your conversation, an infixing might take you by surprise, but the surprise will be mild, and the forms cleave so well to rules that they are obviously — gasp! — conventional. How does one draw attention to the unconventionality of one’s speech when infixing gets — yawn — a bit tired?

In fact, the rules of infixing are constantly under construction and repertoire of profanity thus constantly renewed. A March 2016 post at Celebslam, “Model at Midnight,” celebrated the Polish model Kate Sajur’s putatively “sweet rack.” It attracted the attention of Carmen Ribecca of The Superficial, an even better celebrity gossip site. Ribecca’s “good morning” post of April 1, 2016, included “Hell the fuck to the lo Kate Sajur” among several other enticing links. I’m less interested in the rack than I am in Ribecca’s novel twist on infixing. Like much other slang and profanity, Ribecca’s headline is poetic. Like many on-the-fly poets, Ribecca does what Ezra Pound exhorted poets to do when they could find nothing new under the sun: “Make it new.”

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Sweary links #22

Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the media’s coverage of the Donald Trump pussy-grab tape: “The word Trump used may not be the most obscene term for a woman’s genital area. But it’s the one that focuses on it in a purely sexual way.” (Also see our own posts on the subject: A Banner Day for Profanity, by Ben Zimmer; Pussy on a Hot Trump Mic, by Copy Curmudgeon; and Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times, by Blake Eskin.)

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Speaking of Trumpian vulgarities, Language Log ponders the candidate’s use of “like a bitch.”

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Arnold Zwicky tracks down the history of jackhole: coined by two Los Angeles radio personalities to circumvent Federal Communications Commission language proscriptions.

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(Hat tip: @scarequotes)

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“Pussy” on a hot Trump mic

The Old Gray Lady is a prude.

In a story about Samuel L. Jackson and the motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane, the New York Times mentions that he “unleashes a 13-letter epithet” without even giving the reader a first letter to go on. (Times readers, it is assumed, are prepared to solve crossword clues anywhere in the paper, even in a guide to what’s on TV.) In a story about someone being fired for swearing, the paper does not name or even hint at the swear, though it does accompany the story with a charming F-bomb illustration that I kind of want to hang in my dining room. Until last year, if Yankees or Mets fans chanted “bullshit” after a blown call, the Times would refer to this only as “a barnyard epithet.”

But this week, the New York Times published “fuck,” “bitch,” “tits,” and “pussy” without so much as a hyphen or asterisk to conceal their naughtiness.

So what the fuck is happening to the Times?

In a word: Trump.

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