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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Donald Trump swears a lot

We’re delighted to bring you a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Adams specializes in lexicography, slang, and the history of English. He is the author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003), Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009), From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (2011), and In Praise of Profanity (2016). You can expect that last one to reappear here sooner or later.

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Donald Trump swears a lot, perhaps more than any other major presidential candidate in history. I’m not sure that should bother us. Most Americans swear now and then and plenty of us swear more than Mr. Trump swears during his public appearances. I have no idea how much he swears in private; I’m pretty sure it’s none of my damned business.

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What gives ‘cunt’ its offensive power?

The following is a guest post by Kate Warwick.

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It’s definitely a hand grenade of a word, especially in speech. But is it just the literal meaning of cunt which makes it so offensive? Linguistically, there are other elements of the word which contribute to its force: connotative layers of meaning, its sound and the impact on the hearer.

From the 11th century’s rather off-puttingly named Godwin Clawecunte[1] to the 21st century’s complete cunt, the word has clearly undergone some meaning extension; from literal or denotative to abusive or connotative. It’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint change, of course, but the development of connotative meaning can be seen in Pepys’s 17th century use to mean a sexually active women, ‘he hath to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him’.[2] Later, in Manning’s First World War novel, his soldiers even refer to a man as a cunt, ‘A bloody cunt like you’s sufficient to demoralise a whole fuckin’ army corps’.[3]

So by the early 20th century cunt has acquired a layer of hatred in its meaning. Without going into detail about potential social causes, how did this happen? There are plenty of other words, like twat, which literally mean the same thing, but don’t have the sense of ‘despised, unpleasant, or annoying place, thing, or task’.[4]

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