Fuck, shit, bollocks, twat, bloody, and cunt are not the seven words you can never say on television – they’re six words that Susie Dent has said on television. Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing, a new mini-series from Channel 4, offers an informative and irreverent summary of the history and use of some of our favourite bad words. You can watch the full series below.
A word-history specialist and broadcaster, Dent has written several books on language, most recently Dent’s Modern Tribes. She is best known as the resident lexicographer in ‘dictionary corner’ on Countdown, a perennially popular British TV game show. We can’t not mention that Countdown inadvertently produces the odd rude word to great general amusement.
Though she went to a convent school and was not allowed to swear at home (aside from an occasional bloody that ‘managed to fly below the radar’), Dent tells me she didn’t rebel into foulmouthedness. She loves swear words but doesn’t swear often – except at moments of stress or pain, when it ‘most definitely helps’. There’s a word for that:
First there was the nothingburger. Now there’s the shitburger.
In a March column for the Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer traced nothingburger’s rise from 1950s Hollywood gossip to Capitol Hill politics. But earlier this week, we got a fresh round of nothingburgers when various people in the Trump camp used it—initially—to describe Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer during the presidential campaign in June 2016.
That all changed after Jr. tweeted out emails showing just how eager he was to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia in that meeting. Stephen Colbert had fun with this metaphor of the month during an opening monologue Tuesday night: “Yesterday, Reince Priebus said this whole story is a nothingburger. Well, these emails have turned into an all-you-can-prosecute buffet.”
Others reacted with a much more colorful variant: shitburger. Twitter, as ever, dished up some telling examples:
Unlike a nothingburger, between the two buns of a shitburger there is a there there—and it’s, um, well, yeah.
Here are some of the things I’ve seen characterized as a shitshow (or a shit show) during the last 115 days:
Go back just a little further and we have late-night host John Oliver’s “Clowntown Fuck-the-World Shitshow 2016” (March 2016); fellow late-night host Samantha Bee’s “most deranged electoral shit show in a generation” (February 2016) and “Shit Show the Musical” (à propos the presidential inauguration); and Michael Moore’s “My friends, this … is … a shit show” (also à propos the inauguration, at :55 in the video). In the March 2016 issue of the Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg reported that President Obama privately called the situation in Libya a shit show. (In public, he called it a “mess.”)
And that’s very far from a comprehensive list. It’s enough to make one agree with this sentiment from @hugetiny in Austin, Texas:
Earlier this month, Whores of Yore published a set of letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters are taken from Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, London), and they are delightfully raunchy filth. Joyce’s discussion of topics including masturbation, anal sex, coprophilia and his sexual desire for his wife are frank enough to even make a Strong Language reader blush a little.
Before I’d even stopped blushing, there were some words that got me thinking. And so, I present some annotations to some of the language in the letters. Thanks to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com for providing a trove of information.
“Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like” (2 December 1909)
Here Joyce affectionately uses a term that means ‘dishonourable’ or ‘villainous’, which may be lost on the modern reader. He also uses the term a half a dozen times in Ulysses, but only ever in reference to men.
These are the best of times for the hard-working shit- prefix. Last week, here on Strong Language, Ben Zimmer investigated the origins of shitgibbon – an epithet that has attached itself to the current occupant of the White House – and plumbed its deeper history in a follow-up post on Slate’s Browbeat blog. This week, the merde du jour is shit sandwich, which surfaced Thursday afternoon in a tweet from CNN anchor Jake Tapper about Robert Harward, a retired vice admiral, refusing the post of national security adviser.
(More on Harward from CNN here and from Esquire here.)
Whether Harward actually uttered the words “shit sandwich” is up for debate; Tapper’s single source was anonymous, and the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times didn’t even allude in a non-sweary way to the expression. Still, it’s as good a time as any — given the feculent state of affairs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and environs — to take a closer look at the history of shit sandwich. Which turns out to be more curious than you might suppose.