If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:
- big balls
- break my balls
- have (someone) by the balls
So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.
This is a guest post by Monika Bednarek, a linguist who has extensively analyzed US TV series. She is the author of Language and Television Series and the editor of Creating Dialogue for TV, a collection of interviews with Hollywood screenwriters. She has created a companion website at www.syd-tv.com and tweets at @corpusling.
* * *
The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?
Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.
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.
This week, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is out with its latest update. Among its crop of over 600 new words, phrases, and senses, some sweary entries flashed us the come-to-bed eyes on Strong Language—and we don’t mean continental grip, dead rubber, or additions to the many meaning of come, as suggestive as they may sound. From mild abuses to sexual euphemisms to derogatory slang, we’ve got the highlights here.
Earlier this month, Whores of Yore published a set of letters that James Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle. These letters are taken from Richard Ellmann’s Selected Letters of James Joyce (Faber & Faber, London), and they are delightfully raunchy filth. Joyce’s discussion of topics including masturbation, anal sex, coprophilia and his sexual desire for his wife are frank enough to even make a Strong Language reader blush a little.
Before I’d even stopped blushing, there were some words that got me thinking. And so, I present some annotations to some of the language in the letters. Thanks to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com for providing a trove of information.
“Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like” (2 December 1909)
Here Joyce affectionately uses a term that means ‘dishonourable’ or ‘villainous’, which may be lost on the modern reader. He also uses the term a half a dozen times in Ulysses, but only ever in reference to men.