Jay muses that the line “What the digamma?” might actually be a disguised form of “What the fuck?” since the archaic Greek letter digamma (Ϝ) strongly resembles the Latin letter F (even though it was originally pronounced as /w/). So was the author of this verse cleverly using Homeric Greek to express a proto-WTF?
You want to hear a dirty joke? You don’t have to go to a schoolyard, locker room, comedy club, or even a Republican presidential debate. No, simply go to your bookshelf, theater, laptop, or wherever you consume masterpieces of English drama and check out one of Shakespeare’s most tragic – and erotic – love stories, Antony and Cleopatra.
I read the play for the first time a few weeks back as part of my ongoing effort, as you may now be well familiar, to take on Shakespeare’s corpus this year 400 years after his death – and boy, is this some hot stuff. The play, no doubt, continues to reward viewers and readers with its complicated and sexualized construction of power and politics in the “infinite variety” (2.2.241) of its leading lady, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Further developing this theme, the play also rewards audiences with some of its strong language – here, centered on taboo topics of sex and genitalia.
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.
What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly?
Flying fuck enjoys many fun literal interpretations. Gadget-heads might like the remote-controlled helicopter featured above, craftier folk this flying fuck lovingly fashioned from “wire hate,” both as Nancy Friedman shared with me.
Urban Dictionary offers a number of humorous entries for flying fuck, too, including a rare, African “flightless bird” and a rather acrobatic sex act. Speaking of birds, some do hook up mid-flight (at least as part of courtship) – not unlike the more adventurous frequent fliers among us. Creativity (and Mother Nature) aside, the earliest record of flying fuck is, in fact, a literal one. But let’s save the best for last.
I recently viewed for the first time Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, a rather Shakespearean tale of Jordan Belfort’s excess in money, sex, drugs, and swears, inter alia. The film, you may recall, grabbed a lot of headlines for its record-breaking number of fuck‘s in a non-documentary film. (The all-time title goes to Steve Anderson’s 2005 documentary, Fuck.)
I suppose it’s hard to argue against such gratuitousness in a story all about it, but I did have to resist the urge to keep a tally during my viewing. Quantity aside, there were some truly memorable swears in the film. My personal favorite? “The book, motherfucker, from the book” (about 0:45 into the clip). That’s good shit. Ironically, during a fuck-filled argument with his wife later in the film, Belfort pleads: “Let’s use our words.” In so many ways, this sums up one of the story’s central theme: Rags to riches is the great sales pitch. (I’m still rooting for you, though, Mr. Bookman.)
That said, I found myself thirsty for a tonic when the credits rolled. Immediately, I jumped to Robert Creeley‘s iconic “I Know a Man.” It’s a staple of anthologies, but it remains fresh 61 years after initial publication and stands as an incredible example of using words, particularly swear words. Creeley’s poetry is sparing without being sparse, emotive without being emotional, spontaneous without being uncontrolled. Not uncontrolled, to be litotic–that’s how I’d characterize the form, content, and, yes, swears in “I Know a Man”:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,–John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.*