Sweary links #26

Once upon a time, dear StrongLangers, we made a promise to keep you regularly updated with interesting sweary tidbits from the Wide World of Web. We kept that promise until we didn’t. It has been, we note with embarrassment, more than 30 months since we posted Sweary Links #25. Well, we’re going to atone for that lapse right now. Not with 30 months of links: are you fucking kidding? Baby steps. Here’s what caught our attention over the last month or so. To stay up to date, follow us on Twitter.

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What pleas they may fuck out of such books: Google Ngrams vs Long-S

Ever seen an old printed book with the letter S that looks like an F? This ligature, to the uninitiated, looks like ſ; it’s called the ‘long s’, and it has very much fallen out of use in modern typography. John Bell is widely credited for the demise of the long S, which is why we don’t see it very much any more, but it is often seen in European books printed between the 1400s and 1790s.

The google ngram reader relies heavily on optical character recognition (OCR) software to make their books searchable; OCR software  strives to match each printed character in a text to a recognized typographic character. Even human readers can have difficulty with reading text which heavily use the ſ, as seen from this 1739 printed example of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:

the-alchemist-1739Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: A Comedy, first performed in 1610 and published 1739, from the Internet Archive

The Google Books Ngram project is a thoroughly imperfect resource for studying linguistic change in English-language print, mostly because out-of-fashion typographic conventions such as long-S completely throw off searches. To the untrained eye, or to a computer doing its very best to apply modern rules to anachronistic text, the word ‘suck’ using the long-S looks an awful lot like “fuck”. Google seems to know about it, too, as they make their default search dates 1800-2000, but you can easily change that to 1500-2000 and observe the differences in uses between ‘suck’ and ‘fuck’. The primary difference is that between 1650 and 1790, ‘fuck’ appears to be printed far more often than than ‘suck’, with a noticeable switch around 1665:

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Home-grawn lix

After considerable deliberation and fucking around with shit, and probably a bit of “fuck it,” we’ve redone the look of the Strong Language blog a bit, including a new banner to make it bolder and to give us a more grabby icon for Twitter and elsewhere. Among other things, it features grawlix. Grawlixes. (Grawlices? Hm, no.)

You know what grawlixes are, right? Grawlix is a word invented by Mort Walker to refer to those various symbols – some typographic, others including skulls, spirals, and lightning bolts – that cartoonists use to represent swearing. (Read more about grawlix on my blog Sesquiotica if you want.)

Well, those are innocuous, right? Simply typography and cartoons, no swearwords actually presented. Suitable for all occasions.

Ha. Like fuck they are. Ask yourself if you would use “WTF” or “OMFG” with your Sunday school teacher (or equivalent adult authority figure). We know what the F stands for. Likewise, we know what grawlixes stand for. Continue reading

When “shit” hits the newspapers

In 1945 (in The American Language: Supplement 1), H.L. Mencken decried “the extraordinary prudishness of the American newspapers, which always hesitate to report genuine profanity in full, or even any harmless discourse quoting its more familiar terms.” While things have loosened up a bit in the seven decades since Mencken registered his complaint, there are still certain four-letter words that are considered off-limits for most American papers, including shit.

The New York Times famously made an exception to the no-shit rule in 1974 when it transcribed a line from Nixon’s Watergate tapes, “I don’t give a shit what happens.” Times editor Abe Rosenthal was quoted at the time as saying “We’ll only take shit from the President,” an edict that again came into play in 2006 when a live microphone caught George W. Bush dropping an S-bomb. There have been a few other shit sightings in the Times since then, though the so-called Obama Doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” has been decorously bowdlerized as “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

Beyond the Timesshit has worked its way into some U.S. newspapers since the relaxation of linguistic taboos in the late ’60s. Countercultural publications led the way, as with The Realist and its 1966 shit-in, or The Village Voice reporting on hippie activists in 1967. By the ’70s and ’80s more mainstream papers were joining in, too, and not just when quoting the president.

But before all that, in the era of “extraordinary prudishness” to which Mencken referred, shit typically would only make it into the newspaper thanks to some sort of typesetting shenanigans. Here I’ve collected some of the accidental/prankish shits that have come to light in searches of digitized databases.

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