An unlikely swearword hit the headlines twice in recent days, thanks to its use on mainstream television from two prominent figures. In the first clip below, celebrity journalist Piers Morgan uses bollock as a transitive verb (meaning ‘scold, reprimand’) on the ITV chat show Good Morning Britain:
[The YouTube clip is gone, but you can see the footage on the Evening Standard website.]
The phrase ‘whether he’s praising them or bollocking them’ is in reference to letters Prince Charles wrote to his sons William and Harry and the difficulty they sometimes had in deciphering his handwriting.
Presenter Susanna Reid immediately told Morgan to ‘excuse your language’, and after expressing surprise (‘Can you not say that?!’) he quickly apologised to viewers. Bollock and its derivatives are milder than prototypical swearwords like fuck but much ruder than synonyms like reprimand, roast and reproach. After all, bollocks refers chiefly to testicles.
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:
(Image from Morris et al. 1979)
Swearing varies a lot from place to place, even within the same country, in the same language. But how do we know who swears what, where, in the big picture? We turn to data – damn big data. With great computing power comes great cartography.
Jack Grieve, lecturer in forensic linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, has created a detailed set of maps of the US showing strong regional patterns of swearing preferences. The maps are based on an 8.9-billion-word corpus of geo-coded tweets collected by Diansheng Guo in 2013–14 and funded by Digging into Data. Here’s fuck:
O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite: