Swears in the news

What a fucking week! In the U.S., Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement — but only after siding with the court majority in upholding President Trump’s travel ban and bestowing a judicial blessing on anti-abortion facilities. The Environment Protection Agency’s chief ethics officer recommended an investigation of his own boss. Immigrant children as young as 3 were being ordered to appear in court alone. A gunman with a festering grudge shot up the newsroom of a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five employees. And in the UK … well, we’ll get there in a minute.

It was, in short, a week guaranteed to elicit a lot of strong language, and on that score it did not disappoint. Here’s a brief round-up.

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SHYTE storm

 

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Kevin Richards, the Canadian chocolatier who founded SHYTE Chocolate in May 2017, is in on the joke.

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A Patrick Swayze insult

On April Fool’s Day, I ran across this item, which purports to be a long-winded rant about common English usage errors (that aren’t really errors). A close read reveals it to be satire. And one thing it does in keeping with the genre of such pieces is begin with a long windup—what I call “the burnishing of the credentials.”

To poke fun at the author, I wrote, “And somehow, this gormless berk can hear apostrophes in the spoken word.” Let’s unpack that epithet, which is British English.

The first part, “gormless,” is explained thus by Oxford Living Dictionaries:

Mid 18th century (originally as gaumless): from dialect gaum ‘understanding’ (from Old Norse gaumr ‘care, heed’) + -less

That’s straightforward enough. It makes a superb addition to any noun meaning “idiot” or “fool,” with the added satisfaction of being in Norse code.

As to the second part, “berk,” it’s a type of Cockney rhyming slang. You’ll be familiar with this if you’re a fan of British comedy. Take a look at this skit by The Two Ronnies. In the sermon, the minister says, “A poor man who had no trouble and strife.” (wife) “She’d run off with a tea leaf.” (thief) “He now lived with his eldest bricks and morter, Mary.” (daughter)

This is the usual way rhyming slang works. “Frog and toad” means “road.” Once you’re wise to this game, context will usually point you straight to the meaning. “I’d go out for a pint, but I’m short bees and honey.” If you guessed what rhymes with “honey,” you’re on the money.

Not all rhyming slang follows this pattern. The more obscure terms have a story behind them, like “didn’t ought” meaning port wine. (Polite ladies, offered a second or third glass, should demur by saying “didn’t ought.”)

“Berk” is of this sort. It’s a truncation of Berkeley Hunt, a fox hunt traditionally held at Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire. As “hunt” rhymes with “cunt,” Bob’s your uncle.

Back to the title of this post, try your savvy: “He wants 800 quid for his old beater. The bloke’s Patrick Swayze.”

How I Met Your Mother: The bitch chronicles, part 3 — Little Miss Appropriation

Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.

In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.

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“Jumos”: a slurry-sounding typo dredges up a slangy, sweary past

One of the stranger items to surface so far from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury—whose sweary account of the Trump White House I recently covered—is the curious case of jumos.

On the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a group of Russians, Wolff writes that Bannon said: “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these Jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”

Putting aside Bannon’s explosive implication that Trump himself met with the Russians, despite White House denials to the contrary, Bannon’s statement had many scratching their heads: What is a jumo? Specifically, it had Maggie Serota wondering in her January 3rd Spin article: “Did Steve Bannon Invent a New Slur?”

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