One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:
Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.
Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.
It’s always entertaining to look up rude words in a dictionary. This activity can tell you something about the editor, and perhaps the intended audience. A nineteenth century single-copy hand-written dictionary that translates between Tibetan and Newar (a language of Nepal) offers a uniquely joyful smutty read.
We’re delighted to share an extract from the new book From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by Allan Metcalf. It will be published next month by Oxford University Press, which describes it as “a lively look at the words that have come to define different generations in history” – including fuck.
Even major dictionaries declined to include fuck until quite recently, yet it now appears without fuss in an impressive range of cultural domains. So how did fuck make the leap? In the text below, Metcalf traces the word’s emergence out of largely disreputable use into ever more mainstream contexts.
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.
For your weekend reading pleasure, a bumper batch of sweary shit from around the internet. You may have seen some of these items before, especially if you follow @stronglang on Twitter, but I bet there’s something new here even to devotees.
Romance writer KJ Charles has a great defence (and examination) of swearing in fiction, showing its importance in conveying character and mood, among other things.
I’m not ashamed of my name, says Mr Fuck (pronounced ‘foo-key’).
Swearwords help boost awareness of sign language at Adelaide Fringe festival.
There’s been a lot of anger and sarcasm in bookish circles at the ‘Clean Reader’ app that (ineptly) replaces profanities and vulgarities with sanitised alternatives: ‘chickenshit bullshit’, as Strong Language‘s @VoxHiberionacum pithily described it. Lionel Shriver has a smart response in the Guardian: