A matrix of -shits

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 matrixa matrix of –shitscomparing them by kind and degree.

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Not quite 13 reasons why “fuck” is a really great word

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

The First Amendment — Fuck yeah!®

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

Racial Slurs®

“Strong language” covers a lot of speech, from profanity to racial and ethnic slurs. The slurs got a big boost on 17 June 2017, in a United States Supreme Court decision. Until then, the Lanham Act of 1946 — which governs American trademark law — prohibited use of derogatory terms like slurs in federally approved trademarks. To quote the Act, trademarks may not “disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” The Court unanimously decided instead that trademark owners can disparage with abandon and bring others into contempt or disrepute deliberately or with disregard.

In the words of Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, Simon Tam — founder of The Slants, the first all Asian-American dance-rock band — applied “for federal trademark registration of the band’s name […]. ‘Slants’ is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent, and members of the band are Asian-Americans. But the band members believe that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they will help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office refused the application because slant refers to the disparaging stereotype that people of Asian heritage are “slant-eyed.” The band hoped to “‘take ownership’ of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.” The USPTO obstructed that re-appropriation. Continue reading

Oh, Scrap — My Son’s Swearing with Euphemisms!

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’s 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.

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