Ambiguous abbreviations

A little over a year ago, the Health Quality Council of Alberta launched a campaign to eliminate abbreviations in health care, arguing that their inherent ambiguity could lead to devastating consequences in life-or-death situations. Does DOA mean “date of admission” or “dead on arrival”? And in fast-paced health care settings especially, using these abbreviations increases the risk of misinterpretation.

Fortunately, most of us sweary language lovers live and work in more relaxed environments, and we can exploit the ambiguity of abbreviations for entertainment. Here are some favourite examples, in alphabetical order, taken from real sources. Leave yours in the comments! (Mouse over the headings if you’re not familiar with what they euphemize.) Continue reading

Up yours: The gesture that divides America and the UK

Sometimes a gesture can convey a message more satisfactorily than words. Why tell someone to fuck off when you can just give them the finger? We like to think that gestures can transcend language, or that they are a more universal form of communication, but we only have to look at the difference in the offensive gesture repertoire of North American and UK English speakers to know this is not true. In fact, Americans are deprived of a particularly satisfying offensive gesture, and it causes much mirth for Brits, Australians and New Zealanders.

The ‘up yours’ gesture is made with the index and middle finger raised and parted, and the palm facing towards yourself. It has similar connotations to the ‘middle finger’ gesture, but with an added element of defiance. The hand may be moved up and down for added effect. The gesture is demonstrated by this besuited chappie:

morris et al

(Image from Morris et al. 1979)

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Fucking ambiguity

In a post last month on the versatility of fuck, Rob Chirico wrote that the word has ‘escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root’. That is, most current uses of fuck are independent of sexual meaning. But it’s an incomplete escape. All words shimmer with connotations and the shadows of former and parallel meanings, so ambiguity inevitably creeps in now and then.

The polysemy of fuck (and other swearwords) can be exploited deliberately for entertainment – in jokes, comics, innuendo, and so on. Accidental confusion, by contrast, seems rare. This is because semantic, pragmatic and prosodic context normally provide more than enough information to indicate whether the word is meant sexually or not.

So I was struck by a concrete example of this fucking confusion, even though it was fictional. It appears in Michael Connelly’s suspense novel Chasing the Dime (2002), for which minor spoilers follow in the next paragraph and indented text below.

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Buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo

The title of this post is a coherent, grammatical sentence.

If you like having fun with English, you will sooner or later meet several versions of a long sentence made entirely of the word buffalo that show four facts of English:

  1. We can often convert words from one class to another – noun to verb or vice versa, for example – without changing them, as in converting the noun buffalo to the verb buffalo (linguists call this zero derivation);
  2. We can use nouns as modifiers in place of adjectives without changing them, as in using the place name Buffalo to mean ‘from Buffalo’;
  3. Some nouns don’t change form in the plural, either (buffalo being one);
  4. We can omit relativizers such as that, as in “buffalo buffalo buffalo” in place of “buffalo that buffalo buffalo.”

So OK fine. Buffalo. Who gives a fuck about buffalo? Hairy humpbacked ungulates. Look, I grew up near a bunch of bison that people called buffalo, and they were nothing all that special. Truculent humpbacked bearded beasts. Didn’t taste as good as beef either. Tough fuckers.

What words are really famously versatile in English? Swearwords. Of course. The sentence “Fuck off, you fucking fuck” gives a hint of the matter. It also shows, on the other hand, two ripostes to the above: Continue reading