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.”

‘A pee’ vs. ‘a wee’ and the subtleties of translation in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar

I recently read Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar, translated into English from the original Swedish. It was a perfectly Scandinavian murder mystery, and for the majority of the book I did not notice it was a work in translation. There was one thing that kept tripping me up as I read:

image

Continue reading

“Trust me, I’m an asshole”

You’ve invented a new kind of bidet for the American market: an inexpensive, easy-to-install attachment that replaces toilet paper with a water stream. You’ve given your invention a cheeky name: Tushy.

Now you need a mascot to give your product a face. Naturally, you choose … an asshole. And you give it a starring role in a nearly three-minute-long advertorial.

“But like literally: Poop comes out of me.”

Sort of a manic pixie dream asshole, actually, with a potty mouth that cheerfully emits English swears and English-inflected Yiddish scatology along with a generous dose of social shaming.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Product review: CussCrate

How much do you love swearing? Enough to order a mystery box of swear-themed merchandise? Enough to order a monthly delivery of mysterious sweary shit? For a whole year?

Emily Simonis, a graphic designer, embroidery artist, and self-described “resident profanity expert” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is counting on a lot of affirmative answers. Her new subscription business, CussCrate, is dedicated to the proposition that people need, in her words and capitalization style, MORE PROFANITY. We at Strong Language agree! So Emily graciously sent a sample box for us (OK, me, Nancy) to review.

CussCrate label.

Continue reading