Among many other things, Madeline Kripke was a collector of dictionaries and other language books. At her death, in April 2020, an early victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, she left behind more than 20,000 books, boxes full of manuscripts — from an early Merriam-Webster archive to her own purchasing records, essential to determining the provenance of her many acquisitions — and ephemera, so much that she could barely move in her Greenwich Village apartment. But impressive as they are, the numbers are less important than her curation: she wasn’t a hoarder, and she didn’t collect accidentally or on a whim, but purposefully and with great knowledge of the history of people’s interest in language. She was a formidable scholar who chose to exercise her intelligence, not by teaching in a university, but by curating a peerless private collection. Much of that collection is devoted to strong language or language adjacent to it.
Interjectional “shit” in a drunken 1844 diary entry
One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.
Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.
A metric buttload of OED additions
The quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary is always an occasion for rejoicing among hardcore lexicography buffs. The latest update is an even bigger bumper crop than usual, with a whopping 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries online. If you skim through the public list, you’ll see that a very large number have to do with the words arse, ass, bum, and butt, including related phrases and compounds. You might even say there’s a metric buttload of such additions. (Buttload, by the way, was already added to the OED back in June 2009, citing examples going back to 1988 — none of the metric variety, unfortunately.)
English-usage authority Bryan A. Garner shook Language Twitter by suggesting that only philistines pronounced pubes as a single syllable.
More than a few of us responded with tweets of bewilderment and skepticism, likely confusing everyone around us as we muttered “PYOO-beez. PYOOBZ. PYOO-beez??” at our screens. Continue reading
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.