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.

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Green’s Dictionary of Slang is the dog’s bollocks

Soon after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755, so the story goes, he was approached by a pair of prudish readers who commended him for omitting ‘improper’ words. Johnson, according to one account, replied to the women: ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’

Today you can find improper words in any good dictionary – but only the main set. Fuck is there, but not fuckish, fuckfaced, fuck-nutty, fuck my old boots!, or fuck the dog and sell the pups. You’ll see shit in the usual sources, but good luck finding shit-breath, shit factory, shit-squirting, shit out, or shit on the dining room table.* Regular dictionaries just don’t cover the remarkable range of taboo vocabulary, nor should they.

For this we turn to specialist slang dictionaries. These do not shy from obscenity but embrace it in all its mutable monstrousness (I say this as someone who loves monsters, and mutants). And the best slang dictionary in existence – it defines, expertly, all the phrases above and thousands like them – is Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). Last year it went online. If that’s news to you, prepare for a treat.

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“I want to kick ass” in 1862?

A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).

Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”

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U-2, the sweary spy plane

In the 1950s the aerospace corporation Lockheed developed a single-seat, high-altitude plane under great secrecy, built by a small team of engineers in the company’s  Skunk Works facility. The craft was not designated B or F, being neither bomber nor fighter: this was a spy plane. But an R for reconnaissance would not be discreet, so it was given a low-key U, for utility, and a 2 for its place in the development chain.

That’s the official story behind the U-2’s name, and there’s no real reason to doubt it. But there’s an apocryphal – and sweary – alternative, described by Phil Patton in his book Travels in Dreamland: The Secret History of Area 51 (Orion, 1997). Patton’s anecdote features top test pilot Tony LeVier and pioneering aircraft designer Clarence Johnson, who ran Skunk Works and was nicknamed Kelly for his pugnacious streak.

On the U-2’s maiden trip in 1955, LeVier was in control and Johnson flew behind in support. It was a tough aircraft to fly, nicknamed the Dragon Lady for good reason, apparently:

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The curious case of Bull Shit Jack

My recent post on how a particularly obscene paragraph ended up on a local sports page inspired me to go back to a post I wrote in 2015, “When Shit Hits the Newspapers.” In it, I mentioned the enticing prospect that bullshit might have appeared in an American newspaper a few decades before that word started showing up in the writings of such luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter noted on the American Dialect Society mailing list back in 2008 that there is a mention of a stage-robber in Las Vegas, New Mexico, named John “Bull Shit Jack” Pierce in Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts. Roberts seems to cite an 1881 issue of the Las Vegas Daily Optic on this point. Now that the Optic from that year has been scanned and digitized, it’s possible to check. Sadly, there is no “Bull Shit Jack” to be found, but the expurgated versions that did appear in newspapers of the era leave little doubt as to what his nickname actually was.

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