After John Kelly published his comprehensive post on merkin in 2015, I assumed there could be little left to say about those pubic hairpieces with the quaint name. (You should read the whole post, but here’s the etymological gist: from Matilda to the diminutive Maud to the secondary diminutive Mal to the third-degree diminutive Malkin to the variant merkin.) Yet recent developments suggest that we are far from finished with merkin, or it with us.
On December 10, 1896, the actor Firmin Gémier stepped onto the stage of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre and uttered the first word of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi: “Merdre!” The audience immediately lost their shit. For fifteen minutes, they screamed, shouted, whistled, and argued with each other, all because an actor in an avant-garde theatre had uttered a word perilously close to merde, which is French for “shit.” They were, you could say, pissed off.
On January 5, 2022, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, sat down with for a Q&A with readers of the newspaper Le Parisien and said, among other things, “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.” It was duly reported. His opponents lost their shit – or at least made indignant noises. The world press, for their part, gained their shit – or anyway one bit of good shit to draw readers like flies. The provocation was in both the wording and the sentiment: Macron said he really wants to emmerder the unvaccinated, and you can see that same merde in the bowels of the word. He didn’t mean he wants to shit on them, though – in English, we’d more likely say “piss them off.” (And it should be pointed out that Macron did say “pardon the expression” before using the term.*)
The world, and France, has changed quite a bit in 125 years; from being a word an actor can’t come close to saying on stage, merde has become a word that is just a bit impolite for a politician to say in public. Likewise, newspapers and other media sources that decades ago could never print “piss” can now use it in a headline – the first page of Google results I get (YRMV) for macron piss off brings up headlines from the BBC, The Guardian, Canada’s Global News, NPR, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), France 24, Reuters, CNN, and The Independent (UK).
Not that everyone was so gleeful in reporting it, of course. The New York Times dourly reported “Using Harsh Language, Macron Issues a Challenge to the Unvaccinated” – it did translate Macron’s quote as “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” but added “using a French word that is more vulgar” and, further down, explained further “Mr. Macron studiously used the word ‘emmerder,’ which is translated literally as ‘to mire in excrement’ and means to ‘annoy’ or ‘to give a hard time to.’”
There are two particularly pressing questions in regard to this news:
- Why is it emmerder and how do you use the word in conversation?
- How did news sources in other languages translate it?
Was it a misinterpretation? A well-meaning reporter’s deft attempt to avoid a Federal Communications Commission fine for airing “obvious profanity”? An example of the perfidious mainstream media’s pro-Democrat bias?
Or was it something else entirely?
Here’s what we know: On October 2, as 28-year-old racecar driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed about his winning race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, some people in the stands were chanting “Fuck Joe Biden!” (What provoked the political chant at a nonpolitical gathering? Unclear, but it had already been well documented, along with the #FJB hashtag, both on- and offline.)
NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast either heard or wanted to hear something different:
“That was a shitshow.”
Thank you, Dana Bash, for the most concise and quotable characterization of the first Trump-Biden debate.
And, by the way, she did not – as some news sources are putting it – say “a shit show.” There’s an important difference. The Star Wars Holiday Special was a shit show: it was a TV show and it was shit (Mark Hamill confirms). The debate was a shitshow. A clusterfuck. A shambolic bumbleplex of wanktastic dimensions. As horrifying as if you let a vulgar beshitten amphetaminated overgrown toddler scream at an elder statesman and called it a “debate.” Which, actually, yeah. Levels worse than a shit show (Mark Hamill also confirms). If you want to know more about the origins et cetera of shitshow, Nancy Friedman laid down the good shit a few years ago here in “What a shitshow!”
But that leads us all to an important question, a question that it took a highly respected bestselling writer – and one of the absolutely nicest people on Twitter – to ask:
Replies poured in. Which makes me happy, not just because I love languages and I love the earthy colloquial words in them best, but because, unlike Trump’s shithole or Scaramucci’s fucking paranoid schizophrenic, cock-block, and suck my own cock, Bash’s shitshow didn’t get nearly as much notice in the international press. Believe me, I looked. In general, it seems, the international press didn’t give a shit and didn’t show up for this debate. (Good call.) So I rely on Celeste Ng’s Twitter respondents to inform us, with a bit of my own occasional additional looking up to check some details.Continue reading
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the planful Massachusetts Democrat, is not the presidential candidate who comes to mind when one thinks of political potty-mouths. (See Ben Zimmer’s 2019 Tucker Awards for examples of public swearing from Beto O’Rourke and Tim Ryan, who are no longer in the race, and from Donald J. Trump, who for the time being is.) So it was a bit of a surprise when Warren’s campaign adopted “LFG” as an unofficial campaign slogan and began selling “You and Me LFG” merchandise.