This is a guest post by H.S. Cross, the author of the novels Grievous (FSG, 2019) and Wilberforce (FSG, 2015).
Americans are familiar with the word fag as a gay slur, but across the pond, this is not necessarily the case. When I first encountered the word in English boarding school novels, I was shocked, but I soon learned that there was more to fag than ugly insults hurled on Christopher Street. The word has a long history, stretching back to the early 1300s, but it was not until the 1920s that it began to be used in the context of sexuality. For seven centuries, fag and faggot were not strong language but instead commonplace in schools, government, work, agriculture, and sports, chiefly in Britain.
I write fiction set in an English boarding school between the World Wars, so I have to deal with the word fag all the time in one of its non-derogatory usages. A reviewer once praised me (I think?) for my “unflinching use of the word fag,” as if there were a way around the word in the English school context. There isn’t. Continue reading
There had been backstage musicals before A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975. But as far as I can tell, there had never been a backstage musical—or, really, any Broadway musical—that merrily sprinkled fucks and shits throughout the dialogue, which is spoken by auditioning singers and dancers as they bare their souls to an unseen director.* And there had never been a song in a Broadway musical with a title like “Tits and Ass.” In fact, less than a dozen years before A Chorus Line opened, uttering the phrase “tits and ass” in a public forum had gotten the comedian Lenny Bruce hauled off to jail.
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.
Fast forward to the present day. Continue reading
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.
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.”