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.
The new movie Only the Brave tells the true story of a group of firefighters who battled a deadly wildfire in Arizona in 2013. In his review in the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri writes that “much of the dialogue in Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer’s script works at that level of earnest, tough-guy poetry, like a fortune cookie you might find in a vat of Skoal dipping tobacco.” One example Ebiri gives of this tough-guy poetry: “I know you guys are looking for sympathy, but the only place you’re gonna find it is in the dictionary, somewhere between ‘shit’ and ‘syphilis.'”
The GQ article on which the movie is based doesn’t have that specific line, though it does quote some other rough-and-tumble language from Brendan McDonough (aka “Donut”), a young member of the 20-man hotshot fire crew (played by Miles Teller in the film). “The reason we’re so close is you’re fucking put through some shit,” Donut says. But the “shit and syphilis” line is certainly something you could imagine coming out of the mouth of a hardened firefighter. In fact, it’s got a pedigree going back to World War II, with less obscene variations dating back to the nineteenth century.
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
A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).
Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”