Sweary not sweary: Joe Pesci in Home Alone

With Joe Pesci back in the spotlight thanks to The Irishman, and Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been remembering one of his finest performances – as hapless burglar Harry Lyme in Home Alone. It’s easy to forget how against-type this role was for Pesci, best known for playing menacing, foul-mouthed criminals in gangster films like Casino:

(Don’t miss the TV version, with its fancy hecking swear-avoidance.)

When Pesci was sent the script for Home Alone, he ‘saw he could do something with it’, according to executive producer Mark Levinson. But the filmmakers knew that Harry Lyme would be a challenge for Pesci. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, director of photography Julio Macat says:

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Sweary semantics in The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums features a short exchange that’s interesting for its taboo-linguistic detail. It takes place between Royal himself, played by Gene Hackman, and Henry, played by Danny Glover.

If you haven’t seen the film, but you might sometime (do, dammit), don’t worry about spoilers – the images below don’t give much away. And you don’t need to know the characters’ backstory, so let’s jump right in:

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New frontiers in the giving of fucks and shits

Back in December 2014 when the Strong Language blog was just starting out, Stephen Chrisomalis contributed a memorable post, “How many swears can we give?” In it, Stephen mused on a couple of memes — “Look At All The Fucks I Give” and “Not a Single Fuck Was Given That Day” — and traced the history of “(not) give a TABOO TERM” (damn, shit, fuck, etc.) as what linguists call a “negative polarity item.” The following year, John Kelly posted about a newly popular idiom, “zero fucks given.” (Zero fucks given or ZFG was also nominated in the Most Useful category in the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year voting.) Since then, there have been many more creative variations on the theme. Here are two humorous entries in the “no fucks/shits to give” genre that have popped up recently.
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A fuck shit stack of sweary songs

My last collection of sweary songs began with some vintage a cappella filth about cocksuckers. For balance, I’ll start this one with The Fourskins’ winning ditty ‘Her Vagina’ (most audio that follows is VNSFW):

Want ruder? Harry Roy and His Orchestra sang about ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ almost a century ago. Warning: this one has serious earworm potential:

(Comic artist R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders introduced me to the song.)

A lyric for our times: ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ by Martha Wainwright:

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A paradoxical-ass word

Ass shows up a lot on Strong Language. We’ve looked at kick ass and my ass, lick-my-ass and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit review.)

As a suffix, –ass is used to form ‘generally negative (but increasingly positive too) adjectives and occasionally nouns’, notes Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This Janus nature recurs in slang, as in the contradictory shit vs. the shit. And you can’t spell Janus without anus.

A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).

Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.

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