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.
Our last bitch chronicle ended by observing that son of a bitch is semantically poetic. The sounds of son of a bitch can be poetic, too. It takes stress at different points for different expressive purposes: son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch is different from son of a bitch. So, there’s value in the full and precise articulation of the phrase, but also pragmatic value in truncating the phrase, or extending it, or playing with it euphemistically.
The situation comedy How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM), created by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, aired for nine seasons (2005–2014) on CBS. The show focuses on the complicated friendships among five twenty-/thirty-somethings: Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor) is an architect from Cleveland, Ohio; Marshall Erikson (Jason Segel), a lawyer, hails from Minnesota; his girlfriend/fiancée/wife, Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan) is a kindergarten teacher and New York native. Ted, Marshall, and Lily met while students at Wesleyan University. They are joined by Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) and Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), a Canadian trying to make a career as a news reporter/anchor. Their antics are framed by Ted’s voice-over explanation to his children (the voice belongs to Bob Saget), in 2030, about how he met their mother, Tracy McConnell (Cristin Milioti), whose face we first see in Season 9. It’s not television for the impatient.
At this writing, my son, Ollie, is seven-and-a-half years wise, so of course he’s begun to swear, albeit on mostly innocuous terms. Trust me, he hasn’t learned to swear from his mom or dad. We’re careful to set a good example around the kids. And we’re not big swearers ourselves. True, every time Jenny heard George W. Bush talk about the Iraq War on the radio she muttered, “Pig-fucker,” but that was before we had children, and given recent political events in America, she’s unexpectedly nostalgic, historically and linguistically revisionist.
Ollie has picked up profanity from friends, of course. He has no phone yet and doesn’t text, so OMG isn’t in his spoken lexicon. He can’t depend on initialism for euphemism. He started to interject Oh, my god in the usual places — frustration with his parents’ decisions, moments of surprise or wonder, frustration with intractable Legos or intermittent Netflix, well, mostly frustration, I guess. We sympathize and we know, too, that frustration often requires verbal expression and relief. Nevertheless, we discourage Oh, my god and recommend Oh, my gosh, instead.
Expletive infixing is a much-loved mode of profanity. Is profanity good for you? Absofuckinglutely. Does infixing serve profanity as what James B. McMillan once called an “emotional stress amplifier”? I guarangoddamntee it. For most of us, infixings like these and interposings like shut the fuck up aren’t everyday speech, but nowadays, they’re hardly shocking. If you’re just not paying attention to your conversation, an infixing might take you by surprise, but the surprise will be mild, and the forms cleave so well to rules that they are obviously — gasp! — conventional. How does one draw attention to the unconventionality of one’s speech when infixing gets — yawn — a bit tired?
In fact, the rules of infixing are constantly under construction and repertoire of profanity thus constantly renewed. A March 2016 post at Celebslam, “Model at Midnight,” celebrated the Polish model Kate Sajur’s putatively “sweet rack.” It attracted the attention of Carmen Ribecca of The Superficial, an even better celebrity gossip site. Ribecca’s “good morning” post of April 1, 2016, included “Hell the fuck to the lo Kate Sajur” among several other enticing links. I’m less interested in the rack than I am in Ribecca’s novel twist on infixing. Like much other slang and profanity, Ribecca’s headline is poetic. Like many on-the-fly poets, Ribecca does what Ezra Pound exhorted poets to do when they could find nothing new under the sun: “Make it new.”