What’s a nice interjection like nuts! doing in a place like Strong Language, home of brazen epithets and unexpurgated swears? Nuts: such a mild word, so fusty and old-fashioned, so suitable for children’s tender ears.
Well, it wasn’t always that way. For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, nuts and its facetious cousin nerts were deemed so inappropriate that they were forbidden—along with, but not limited to, whore, SOB, damn, hell, fanny, and slut—in the scripts of Hollywood movies. (Needless to say, fuck and shit were too scandalous to merit mention.) It took a famous World War II battle, and the gradual loosening of the censorious rules known as the Motion Picture Production Code, to bring nuts, nerts, and nuts to you into semi-respectability and finally to quaintness.
John Kelly, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general who has been serving as the White House chief of staff since late July, had been heralded as one of the “adults in the room” in the chaotic Trump administration. For some people that assessment changed after Kelly made an emotional speech last Thursday defending Trump and attacking Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson in a dispute over the president’s condolence call to one of Wilson’s constituents. During the call, Wilson said, Trump told the shocked widow of slain soldier La David Johnson that her husband “must have known what he was signing up for.” Kelly disparaged Wilson as an “empty barrel.”
Outraged active and former members of the U.S. armed services responded swiftly on Twitter with a hashtagged military epithet that must have struck many civilians as mysterious: “BlueFalcon.”
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.”
Raise a glass-half-empty to Fuckup Nights, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. The “global movement and event series that shares stories of professional failure” was founded in Mexico City in 2012 and has spread to 252 cities in 80 countries, including Myanmar, Serbia, Colombia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The local languages may vary, but the name of the event, even in its native Mexico, remains proudly and swearily English: Fuckup.
That seems only fair: When it comes to describing failure, bungling, or omnishambles attributable to human incompetence or idiocy, nothing’s as succinct or as damning as fuckup. Or, surprisingly, as venerable. Continue reading →