Great moments in swearing: Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet is a film with an enduring power to unsettle viewers. Its unique brand of ‘darkness in colour’ (to borrow Pauline Kael’s phrase) features also at the level of language, with the cornball goofing of its young sweethearts set against the malevolent and compulsive profanity of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper.

For his book Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asked David Lynch if all of Frank’s fucks were in the script or if any were improvised. Lynch replied:

I had many, many, many of them written in the script, but Dennis always added more, because you get on a roll, and you can’t help yourself. And if an actor is locked into the groove so solidly, even if they say extra lines, or not exactly the way they’re written, they’re truthful. And for me Dennis was one of those guys. He always says that I could never say the word on set and that I would go to the script and say, ‘Dennis, when you say this word.’ [Laughs.] That’s not true exactly.

The filmmakers initially passed on Hopper because of his reputation, but the actor persisted and Lynch, thankfully, reconsidered. Without presuming to psychoanalyze Booth – ‘there’s enough material there for an entire conference,’ as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty – we can see in his profanilect* motifs of incest, defecation, and violence, among other things. He swears inventively but also routinely, and constantly.

Enough fucking about. Let’s look at some examples. (Spoiler and trigger warnings ahoy.)

Blue Velvet: Dennis Hopper, standing next to Dean Stockwell in a red-painted apartment, says, "Let's hit the fucking road!"

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“Jumos”: a slurry-sounding typo dredges up a slangy, sweary past

One of the stranger items to surface so far from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury—whose sweary account of the Trump White House I recently covered—is the curious case of jumos.

On the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Russians, Wolff writes that Bannon said: “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these Jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”

Putting aside Bannon’s explosive implication that Trump himself met with the Russians, despite White House denials to the contrary, Bannon’s statement had many scratching their heads: What is a jumo? Specifically, it had Maggie Serota wondering in her January 3rd Spin article: “Did Steve Bannon Invent a New Slur?”

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How I Met Your Mother: The bitch chronicles, part 2 — You son of a beetch

Our last bitch chronicle ended by observing that son of a bitch is semantically poetic. The sounds of son of a bitch can be poetic, too. It takes stress at different points for different expressive purposes: son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch. So, there’s value in the full and precise articulation of the phrase, but also pragmatic value in truncating the phrase, or extending it, or playing with it euphemistically.

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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.

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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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