This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on linguistics in social media and politics, and helped create the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He was last seen on Strong Language with an article on emoji swearing. He tweets at @philipseargeant.
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Blowjobs have played an occasional but important part in political history. The most notable recent example, of course, involved Bill Clinton. It was his equivocation over the nature of his relations with Monica Lewinsky that led to him being impeached on perjury charges. A century before Clinton, another president had an even more decisive oral-sex-related experience. Félix Faure, President of the French Republic between 1895 and 1899, was unlucky enough to die in office from a cerebral haemorrhage which he supposedly suffered while being fellated by his mistress.
The latest entry in the annals of political crises involving blowjobs doesn’t concern the act itself, however, but rather the word. Specifically, it concerns the use of the word as a political insult. And even more specifically, an insult expressed by means of car vanity plates.
“Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue!” Falstaff colorfully denounces Master Ford as a working-class peon in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2.2.246). Shakespeare packs this gender and class comedy with pranks, pratfalls, and, yes, profanity. But no swearing is quite as memorable, and impressive, as its famed Latin lesson. That’s right: It wasn’t enough for the Bard to concoct his artful swears in his English. He cooked them up in Latin, too.
It’s always entertaining to look up rude words in a dictionary. This activity can tell you something about the editor, and perhaps the intended audience. A nineteenth century single-copy hand-written dictionary that translates between Tibetan and Newar (a language of Nepal) offers a uniquely joyful smutty read.
In terms of plot, Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (Henry V) is fairly straightforward: invading France after making a claim on French territories, a vastly outnumbered King Henry (Harry) dispatches them at Agincourt, uniting the two kingdoms through his subsequent marriage to the French princess. In terms of language, however, the play has a lot of texture – not to mention the Bard’s ambivalent depictions of power and war that complicate this historical drama.
With its extensive cast of characters, Henry V features a range of linguistic registers. The lofty commentary of the Chorus frames the historical action of the play. The clergy’s academic discourse convinces Harry to mount his siege. Simple peasants malaprop in prose while the King rallies his troops with impassioned battle cries: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And the French princess, Catherine, says cunt.
Most of us who have traveled abroad have usually toted along some sort of guidebook, be it Michelin’s Guide France, Baedeker’s Germany, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They generally include a slew of phrases the authors assume you will find essential: “Do you speak English?” “Have you any ready-made clothes?” “Is the bed well-aired?’ “What time is the next steamer?” Rarely, if ever, do you see supremely useful phrases. “Excuse me. Is this the way to Jim Morrison’s tomb?” And you will never find what you eventually need more than anything else, a good, hearty swear: “This is bullshit!”
Having spent some time in France and Argentina, I managed to pick up a few choice morsels omitted from the venerable guides. Since we are packing lightly for our journey, here are a few words that might come in handy when all else fails.