I still maintain that slang is good for you, but, sometimes, profanity is even better. Slang is playful and facetious, the story goes, the language by which groups hang together. Profanity, on the other hand, is supposedly coarse and mean. Well, that’s true enough, in some cases, but I’ve recently been reminded that profanity is occasionally the lighter alternative, that the relevant slang is what’s coarse and violent. Yes, I’m talking about sex, or, more precisely, the language of sex — not copulate or get it on, but the relative value of fuck and bang or nail.
Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.
Ass shows up a lot on Strong Language. We’ve looked at kick ass and my ass, lick-my-ass and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit review.)
As a suffix, –ass is used to form ‘generally negative (but increasingly positive too) adjectives and occasionally nouns’, notes Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This Janus nature recurs in slang, as in the contradictory shit vs. the shit. And you can’t spell Janus without anus.
A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).
Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.
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.