The whimsical world of emoji swearing

This is a guest post by Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University. Philip has published extensively on topics such as language and social media, English around the world, and language and creativity. With his colleagues he produced the acclaimed video series The History of English in Ten Minutes. He tweets at @philipseargeant.

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How do you say ‘cockwomble’ in emoji?

Is it possible to swear in emoji? According to BuzzFeed, the answer’s a definite yes. In what has all the elements of an archetypal BuzzFeed post, the site provides a handy run-down of twenty-one useful emoji expletives. This includes staples such as ‘bastard’ 👪🚫💍 and ‘wanker’ 👐⚓️. Then there are the slightly more esoteric terms like ‘cockwomble’ 🐓🐹, which led the vanguard in the Scottish anti-Trump protests last summer. And finally there are a few useful compounds such as ‘bollock-faced shit licker’ 🍒😃💩👅.

While emoji may have started life as a way of adding fairly straightforward emotion-related context to a message – a smiling face at the end of a sentence to indicate that you’re joking, etc. – as their popularity has grown, so has the range of functions for which they’re used. Nowadays they can be employed for everything from expressing political allegiances, to conveying threats and combating cyberbullying.

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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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The Finger, or “Bird Is the Word”

Nixon did it, and so did Kennedy. George W. Bush has been caught numerous times on tape grinning broadly and flashing what he called the “one-finger salute.” It has been described as “flipping someone off” or “giving someone the bird,” but when it comes right down to it, the gesture of raising the middle finger ultimately translates as “fuck you!” Every nation has its own array of verbal assaults, but they also have their arsenal of insulting gestures as well. In the United States, the ubiquitous finger is our call to arms. Unlike swearing aloud, which is based upon actual words with specific meanings, gestures are purely visual, and the finger has a kind of inherent meaning that words don’t have. In our case, the raised finger was initially most likely meant to resemble the erect penis, with the tucked-under fingers as testicles. As obvious as this may be, few people—if any—ever consider that notion when “flipping off” the trucker who just cut in front of you on the highway.

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