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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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.

Fast forward to the present day. Continue reading