Last October, when the Trump/Pussygate story broke, I said it would “go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity.” Now, six months into the Trump administration, we’ve come to another banner day for profanity, as the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza reports on a remarkable conversation with Anthony Scaramucci, aka the Mooch, Trump’s incoming communications director. Scaramucci unloaded on White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, with a side order of profanity devoted to Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. And news outlets all over the world are reporting on it.
Fuck, shit, bollocks, twat, bloody, and cunt are not the seven words you can never say on television – they’re six words that Susie Dent has said on television. Susie Dent’s Guide to Swearing, a new mini-series from Channel 4, offers an informative and irreverent summary of the history and use of some of our favourite bad words. You can watch the full series below.
A word-history specialist and broadcaster, Dent has written several books on language, most recently Dent’s Modern Tribes. She is best known as the resident lexicographer in ‘dictionary corner’ on Countdown, a perennially popular British TV game show. We can’t not mention that Countdown inadvertently produces the odd rude word to great general amusement.
Though she went to a convent school and was not allowed to swear at home (aside from an occasional bloody that ‘managed to fly below the radar’), Dent tells me she didn’t rebel into foulmouthedness. She loves swear words but doesn’t swear often – except at moments of stress or pain, when it ‘most definitely helps’. There’s a word for that:
Popular lore says there are profound differences between how women and men behave. It also implies these differences are axiomatic, hard-wired, and more significant than the variation within each group. One such myth says women are intrinsically more polite, deferential, and indirect than men. So here’s a sweary counterexample.
Don Kulick’s 1993 paper ‘Speaking as a woman: structure and gender in domestic arguments in a New Guinea village’ (PDF)* is about a special speech genre used to address (if not resolve) social tension and conflict. The phenomenon, known as a kros, is a loud, obscene, highly public, near-daily, and stereotypically female display of anger – usually involving a woman criticising her partner, children, relatives, or fellow villagers.
Kros means ‘angry’, as in cross. It begins suddenly: a woman will ‘raise her voice sharply and perhaps shout an obscenity’, writes Kulick. Villagers stop and listen, and if the kros intensifies they will move closer to its source. The kroser usually stays in her home, and the object of her anger is normally away somewhere – if they end up face to face mid-kros, violence can ensue which may embroil much of the village. Kulick continues:
Kroses are heavily characterized by obscenity, sarcasm, threats, and insults, all of which are conveyed in shrill screams across the village. They are extremely abusive, and perhaps for this reason they are structured by precise conventions.
This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.
The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.
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Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.
In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.
In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.
Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:
This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”: