Do I got a Lee Kebum?

Below is a guest post by David Morris, a sub-editor and former English language teacher who holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics. David previously wrote for Strong Language about Gofukumachi and other English swears in Japanese words, and about an accidental ‘cunt face’ in The Sound of Music. He writes regularly about language at his blog Never Pure and Rarely Simple.

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Image of Moe, bartender in The Simpsons, picking up the phone in his barA running gag on the TV show The Simpsons has Bart ringing Moe’s tavern and asking for someone with a joke name which contains a double entendre. Moe asks his patrons if that person is present in a way which highlights the double entendre, before realising he’s been pranked again.

One very controversial example has Bart ‘looking for a friend, last name Kebum, first name Lee’. Moe says, ‘Hey guys, do I got a Lee Kebum? C’mon, look at the stools. Is there a Lee Kebum? Somebody check the rear. I know I got a Lee Kebum.’ Barney then quips, ‘Then you probably shouldn’t be handling food!’ Leaky bum, haha.

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Phonology of cusswords: some initial observations

Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

Recognize that list? It’s George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can’t say on television.”

Here’s that same set rendered in broad IPA transcription – I’ve bolded the vowels just so you can pick vowels and consonants apart at a glance:

ʃɪt pɪs fʌk kʌnt kɑksʌkɚ mʌðɚfʌkɚ tɪts

There are 20 consonants, not counting the syllabic r’s [ɚ]. Of those 20, 17 are voiceless; of those, 11 are stops, of which 6 are /k/ and 4 are /t/; the other 6 are voiceless fricatives, /s f ʃ/. The remaining 3 voiced ones are two nasals and a fricative.

There are 9 vowels and 3 syllabic r’s. Of the 9 vowels, 5 are /ʌ/ and 3 are /ɪ/. (In certain British dialects, those /ʌ/ sounds would be /ʊ/. I have not transcribed them as /ə/ because I think there is a useful distinction to be made between the reduced lax /ə/ and the full-value emphasized /ʌ/, which may in some dialects be rendered differently.)

In short, they’re very heavy on /k/, /t/, /ʌ/, and /ɪ/, and on voiceless consonants generally. This is not exactly the usual distribution of phonemes in English. Note that both of the dominating vowels are lax “short” vowels – a phonemic, not phonetic, distinction in English (i.e., we think of them as different from tense “long” vowels such as /i/ and /u/).

So what the fuck? Is this just because of a small sample size? We know Carlin played on the euphony of the list, so we can’t discount selection effect, even though we know that this list includes the rudest words in English.

Other vulgar terms of abuse or exclamation include asshole, bitch, bastard, and douchebag. None of these is perceived as quite as bad as fuck or cunt, or perhaps shit, but on the other hand they might be worse than piss or tits. In these 4 additional words, we see voiced stops and a greater diversity of phonemes:

æshol bɪt͜ʃ bæstɚd duʃbæg

Here we see /æ/ in 3 of 4 words, and /b/ in 3 of 4 as well. We see two “long” vowels, too: /o/ and /u/.

Compare, now, some still impolite but not really “offensive” words that can be used for the same things and in the same context:

screw, poo, crap, turd, pee, twat, snatch, pussy, dick, prick, wang, jerk, boobs

skru pu kræp tɚd pi twæt snæt͜ʃ pʊsi dɪk prɪk wæŋ d͜ʒɚk bubz

A much broader assortment, including several tense “long” vowels, /u/ and /i/. (Have you noticed the utter absence in all of these of /ɛ/ and /e/?) There are also more /æ/. There are voiced stops, and there are several instances of /r/ (really [ɹ] but we’re talking phonemes here) combined with another consonant (often /k/) in a syllable onset or offset. There are still a number of /t/ and /k/, but overall the words appear to be a bit less abrupt and crisp.

And then, of course, there are religious-based ones, such as Christ, damn, and hell. Christ has the distinction of being the only word covered here to have a full-on diphthong (as opposed to a narrowing off-glide on a phonemic monophthong). It also has the /kr/ onset we see in some of the milder naughty words, and it has the set of voiceless stops and fricative that match it to some extent with the naughtiest words. The others certainly lack the crispness and abruptness we get in the sharpest vulgarities.

I have three questions I think are worth following up on:

  1. How does this compare to the distribution of phonemes in expressive language more generally, and in English overall?
  2. What associative effect does this have on the expressive power of other words, and vice-versa?
  3. Tits? That’s the only word here (well, that and its pair boobs) that can’t be used as a term of abuse or a self-sufficient exclamation of anger, frustration, or pain. Wazzup with that?

I can give a partial answer to number 1 right off the top. David Crystal, in an article called “Phonaesthetically speaking” in English Today in April 1995, looked at words considered “beautiful” and compared their distribution of phonemes to those of English generally. In the “beautiful” words he found a strong leaning towards consonants /l m s n r k t d/ in that order, and in the vowels – after the common reduced /ə/ – the most common were /ɪ æ ɛ i aɪ o ʌ/ in that order.

OK, so that’s different enough from our vulgar set, as we might expect from “beautiful” words. But how about English generally? Per Crystal, the top consonants overall in English are /n t d s l ð r m k/ in that order, and the top vowels (again, after /ə/, which is so common in unstressed positions) are /ɪ ɛ aɪ ʌ e i o æ/.

Our statistical base for comparison with the chosen cusswords is not huge, but it looks on the face of it as though there is a phonological leaning. Just why there is a leaning and how it got to be there are very interesting questions. We can certainly point to semantics and social factors for some of the influence on choice of taboo words. But there’s room for phonological associations and maybe even direct sound symbolism to have some effect too.

That effect can include spreading from one word to another (in terms of choice of words or semantic shift of a word), as in question 2. That’s a question that’s worth a substantial paper of its own and I don’t have answers here and now. It would be worth knowing various people’s most preferred vulgarities and euphemisms (and dysphemisms and other expressive language) to get an initial sense of whether there are leanings, and to what extent you can make a word choice seem more or less rude through selection of phonemes. So I’m hoping that readers will post their favourite bad words in the comments. What do you shout when angry, or shout at people, or wish you could shout at people?

And then there’s tits. George Carlin allows that this word isn’t like the others, and it’s really not. Semantically, it has nothing to do with excreta or intercourse (breasts are not genitalia, and anyone who thinks they are should retake basic biology); in our society, breasts are as a general rule expected to be concealed and are focuses of sexual interest, so there’s a little prurience there, but that’s it. Consider the relative offensiveness of the following sets of words and the ways in which you can use them:

cock, dick, prick, dong, wang, pecker

cunt, twat, snatch, pussy, beaver, poontang

tits, boobs, hooters, gazongas, tatas, jugsmelons

I find that the third set seems less abusive and harsh in general – in sense and perhaps also in sound. And somehow among that set of words for mammaries there is just that one word, taken from teat, that is considered too off-colour.

What I find most interesting is the tits/boobs alternation. If you read something meant to be humorous (say in email or on the web) and it mentions breasts, the choice of tits versus boobs (and it generally is one or the other, not any of the remainder) is very much a tone-based and tone-influencing choice: “He weighed his options carefully and chose the one with the biggest boobs”; “He weighed his options carefully and chose the one with the biggest tits.”

I wonder to what extent tits makes one think of the tips, the nipples, due to the sound resemblance of the words (tits, nipples, tips) and also perhaps to the crispness of the /t/ which may bring to mind pointy nipples (that’s pure speculation). I wonder to what extent boobs sounds rounder and brings an image more of the overall shape rather than the nipples, which have become the one thing to conceal.

But I also wonder whether the voiceless stops and lax /ɪ/ vowel make tits seem to belong to the taboo set, while the voiced stops and tense /u/ vowel make boobs seem less offensive.

This is where an experiment or two would come in handy. Not that I’m likely to get any funding to do what seems like playing Joel Veitch’s Touretteaphone. Fuck it, I’ll just have to do it on my own time and money.