One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.
Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.
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 is a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent lexicographer, language researcher, and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Orin is the author of several language reference books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford) and Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners (Merriam-Webster).
A few years ago I wrote about how collocations in fiction skew the statistics of collocations in a corpus because of their extremely frequent use; Ben Zimmer expanded on the idea in a later New York Times piece. In summary, the point is that a number of collocations would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction. This is because writers of fiction—particularly writers of the amateur, unedited fiction that appears online—tend to reuse the same tropes and phrases so much that these effectively become clichés, formulaic ways of expressing the same (rather tired) ideas and events.
All of that came to light when I was working with the Oxford English Corpus, a well balanced and carefully curated corpus that, at the time, had about two billion words of English. These days I’m working with the enTenTen13 corpus, a web-crawled corpus of nearly 20 billion words, owned and made available by Sketch Engine. Sketch Engine’s web-crawler roves the Internet indiscriminately, pulling text from wherever it can be found. Like some grandmother aghast in Greenville, the web-crawler regularly comes upon sites with pornographic content. The difference between the grandmother and the web-crawler is that while she may avert her gaze in shock and dismay, the web-crawler grabs the text, parses and tags it, and adds it to the corpus. The result is that enTenTen13 houses a steaming, pulsating trove of pornographic writing.
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.
The recent launch of the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) gave me a chance to indulge in my long-time hobby of looking up the swear words. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my favourite home-grown colourful language in a future post, but I want to start with an entry that gives me the kind of pride that others expended on the Olympic Games last month.
The entry for fuckwit (p. 647) includes the note:
Used elsewhere but recorded earliest in Australia
That’s right. Australia is the home of the fuckwit. The earliest citation in the AND and the Oxford English Dictionary is from Alex Buzo’s 1970 play The Front Room Boys. The earliest non-Australian citation in the OED is from a 1992 article in Making Music magazine from America.
The second edition of the AND expands the citations for fuckwit, makes a clearer distinction between nominal and adjectival use, and (most importantly) adds an earlier citation for fuckwitted. Here are the entries, along with the earliest few citations: