The news has travelled around the world: It’s OK to swear on the radio in Canada now!
Only… it’s not quite what the headlines make it. This is more a story of one listener telling a French-language radio station to shut the fuck up, and the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council telling that listener to sit the fuck down. It’s not open “fuck” season all day all the time on all Canadian radio from coast to coast to coast. It’s just an acknowledgement that the word fuck is no more offensive to French-Canadians at large than the word screw is to English-speaking Canadians.
But let’s start with some background.
Swearing on the air in Canada
First of all: You’ve been able to say “fuck” on the air in Canada – in English-speaking Canada, even – for years, within specific limits. Continue reading
Recently, my father and I were enjoying a pleasant train ride through the Irish countryside to visit some family friends. Our conversation, as it does, went to –shit. Chickenshit, specifically.
I don’t recall what occasioned our chuckling about chickenshit, not that one ever needs a reason, but soon our chatter turned to other piles of -shit, e.g., bullshit, batshit, jackshit, the shit-list goes on. This put to mind, of course, Strong Language, where we’ve been well covered in –shit words over the years, memorably Kory Stamper on dipshit, Mark Peters on frogshit, and Ben Zimmer on ripshit.
I was curious about how English’s many species of –shits, whether they be formed by compounding or affixation, relate to one another. So, naturally, I made a matrix—a matrix of –shits—comparing them by kind and degree.
13 Reasons Why is an interesting, stylish, well-acted, and controversial television series adapted by Brian Yorkey for Netflix from Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). The series is thick with coming-of-age themes. Profanity is one of them, and it’s all over the dialogue, as you’d expect, but one of its central characters, Clay Jensen (played by Dylan Minette) memorably awakens to both the pleasure and the gravity of profanity in “Tape 4, Side B” (1.8), which aired, with the rest of the series, on 31 March 2017.
As the series opens, Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) has committed suicide and has recorded her reasons for doing so — thirteen of them — on cassette tapes sent after her death to the people she holds responsible for it. That’s a disturbing premise, and some critics found the presentation of it troubling, as well. Clay isn’t one of those reasons, though the tapes are delivered to him, too, and he listens to them, gradually learning what things had been going on in Hannah’s life besides their falling in love, horrible things, things swearing was made to resist and relieve. Continue reading
Soon after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755, so the story goes, he was approached by a pair of prudish readers who commended him for omitting ‘improper’ words. Johnson, according to one account, replied to the women: ‘What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?’
Today you can find improper words in any good dictionary – but only the main set. Fuck is there, but not fuckish, fuckfaced, fuck-nutty, fuck my old boots!, or fuck the dog and sell the pups. You’ll see shit in the usual sources, but good luck finding shit-breath, shit factory, shit-squirting, shit out, or shit on the dining room table.* Regular dictionaries just don’t cover the remarkable range of taboo vocabulary, nor should they.
For this we turn to specialist slang dictionaries. These do not shy from obscenity but embrace it in all its mutable monstrousness (I say this as someone who loves monsters, and mutants). And the best slang dictionary in existence – it defines, expertly, all the phrases above and thousands like them – is Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS). Last year it went online. If that’s news to you, prepare for a treat.
In a previous post, I explained how the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the provision in the Lanham Act — which governs American trademark law — prohibiting trademarks that “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Such trademarks, the Court determined, express viewpoints, and the First Amendment protects speech from viewpoint discrimination. In a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged that Matal v. Tam, the case in question, did “not present the question of how other provisions of the Lanham Act should be analyzed under the First Amendment,” but if the Court sticks to its rationale in that case, it will have to extend First Amendment protection to all kinds of strong language, not just slurs but profanity and obscenity, too. I could call my pro-profanity nonprofit advocacy group Express Your Damned Self® and register the name as a trademark because Fuck the Lanham Act® — that’s our slogan— and there’s not a damned thing you or the Patent and Trademark Office could do about it. Continue reading