Sentimentally, we like to think that ladies of an earlier time — mostly our grandmothers and great-grandmothers — lived virtuous lives, without swearing. When Joseph Mitchell profiled A. S. Colborne, who spent much of his life trying to exterminate profanity, for The New Yorker in 1941, he captured the paradoxical view of women’s swearing, partly as a function of class, at that time. When Mitchell visited one day, Colborne explained, “I’m sort of sleepy … Sat up late last night studying over bar and grill profanity. Why, the women are worse than the men. And you can’t talk to them! Why, they’ll spit in your eye!” But then, he remembered that when he first started admonishing swearers on the street, he would insist, “‘Your dear old mother never taught you to talk like that. Think it over!” But maybe some mothers did, and some classy women of the mid-twentieth century apparently swore a lot, whatever our mythology.
I was reminded of this while reading Janet Somerville’s new selection of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, Yours, for probably always (Firefly Books, 2019) and then Caroline Morehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Gellhorn is a remarkable writer, perhaps most famous for her war reporting. The final edition of The Face of War (1988), collects dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Finland and China, Word War II, wars in Java and Vietnam, the Six Day War, and Central American wars. She wrote fiction, too, perhaps most importantly The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), four stories about the Great Depression. To my mind, Gellhorn is one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.
This is a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent lexicographer, language researcher, and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Orin is the author of several language reference books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford) and Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners (Merriam-Webster).
A few years ago I wrote about how collocations in fiction skew the statistics of collocations in a corpus because of their extremely frequent use; Ben Zimmer expanded on the idea in a later New York Times piece. In summary, the point is that a number of collocations would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction. This is because writers of fiction—particularly writers of the amateur, unedited fiction that appears online—tend to reuse the same tropes and phrases so much that these effectively become clichés, formulaic ways of expressing the same (rather tired) ideas and events.
All of that came to light when I was working with the Oxford English Corpus, a well balanced and carefully curated corpus that, at the time, had about two billion words of English. These days I’m working with the enTenTen13 corpus, a web-crawled corpus of nearly 20 billion words, owned and made available by Sketch Engine. Sketch Engine’s web-crawler roves the Internet indiscriminately, pulling text from wherever it can be found. Like some grandmother aghast in Greenville, the web-crawler regularly comes upon sites with pornographic content. The difference between the grandmother and the web-crawler is that while she may avert her gaze in shock and dismay, the web-crawler grabs the text, parses and tags it, and adds it to the corpus. The result is that enTenTen13 houses a steaming, pulsating trove of pornographic writing.
This is a guest post by Alon Lischinsky, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Discourse at Oxford Brookes University, who — after working many years on materials like management books and corporate annual reports — is now studying the language of porn using corpus linguistics. He tweets at @alischinsky.
The British police drama Broadchurch can be gritty, uncompromising and bleak, but rarely sweary. Despite the grim events that rock the small coastal town, whole episodes pass without any strong language other than the occasional expletive shit or bloody hell. By the time that Cath Atwood gets coarse in S03E05, it’s because her husband and best friend’s affair has truly fucked her up:
Men: How far we haven’t come.
During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.
Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.