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.
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.
Long an admirer of Joseph Mitchell, I take his portrait of A. S. Colborne and his Anti-Profanity League as iconic, though, as the trail of news Colborne left behind him proves, Mitchell’s view was partial and misleading. Colborne was by no means the only American anti-profanity campaigner, and the fact that he wasn’t alone, that anti-profanity activism persists in America today, supports profanity’s expressive power — a vestige of taboo keeps strong language strong. As it turns out, a little anti-profanity goes a long way.
Prompted by my first post about Colborne, Patrick Collins searched Chronicling America and commented on several other anti-profanity movements. Some were charmingly local, others of regional, if not national, scope. Among the former, in Leesburg, Ohio — as reported in The Highland Weekly News (13 December 1882) — “An anti-swearing league ha[d] been formed among the boys of the village.” A few years later — as reported in the The Omaha Daily Bee (21 June 1886) — the Commercial Travelers’ Protective Association placed anti-profanity placards in hotels and restaurants, for the public good, of course, but also to curb the sweary impulses of those very commercial travelers — the motive was less moral than a matter of public relations.
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.