The middle finger in American Sign Language

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.

Directionality

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:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

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“Christ fucking shit merde!” On the variable power of multilingual swearing

In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.

As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.

Which brings us to multilingualism.

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The Elements of Fucking Style: A fucking book review

In order to make this review as useful as possible, I excavated the library for my yellowed copy of Strunk and White, hereafter referred to as S&W for brevity. (I mistyped that “Stunk” and debated leaving it for posterity.)

Baker and Hansen have written a fucking brilliant parody of the well-known (one might even say “hoary”) guide to writing, The Elements of Style. This is seriously important shit, people. It’s not just a parody. It’s a useful guide, perhaps even more useful than the original.

Let’s compare the Tables of Contents first, shall we?

S&W includes an introduction, Elementary Rules of Usage, Elementary Principles of Composition, A Few Matters of Form, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused, An Approach to Style, and an index.

B&H includes an introduction, Rules That Even Foreigners Should Know, On Writing Like an Adult, Punctuation, Form, and a Few Matters of Etiquette, Goddamn, You’re Good (a Good-Bye), Words Your (sic) Bound to Fuck Up, a Glossary of Terms You Don’t Understand, and a Note. (The Note was, for me, worth the price of purchase.)

A Note of My Own: I’m going to refer to the parody as B&H. The majority of people in my acquaintance refer to The Elements of Style as “Strunk and White,” so I’m carrying that to the logical next step. While I appreciate the parody title, it’s just easier to call it “B&H” in keeping with fucking tradition. Bite me.
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