Collocations of ‘cock’: What corpus linguistics tells us about porn writing

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).

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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.

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Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times

The following is a guest post by Blake Eskin, an editor and writer who has kept track of expletive avoidance by the New York Times, with his Tumblr Fit to Print and the #fittoprint hashtag on Twitter.

Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words “pussy” and “fuck” on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.

Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.

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A banner day for profanity

It’s safe to say that October 7, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity. On this day, a recording emerged of the Republican nominee for president saying utterly reprehensible things about women, featuring no fewer than four taboo words: pussy, fuck, bitch, and tits. (His interlocutor threw in one more: shit.) And major news outlets had to decide whether they should transcribe the quotes verbatim, in some cases setting new precedents in how they handle such vocabulary.

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Four Femmes on the Thames: ‘Woman up and grow a twat!’

The Four Femmes on the Thames are a cabaret-style group who specialise in old-style jazz and swing music with a comedy twist. Their song ‘Woman Up’ was described by Holly Brockwell at Gadgette as the sweary feminist anthem of the year. I’m sure you can see the Strong Language angle (and appeal) already.

The title, if you’re wondering, inverts the sexist idiom man up, and instead of grow a pair the Femmes suggest that people grow a twat, recalling a quip (‘Grow a vagina – those things can take a pounding’) often misattributed to Betty White. The song is a 3-minute NSFW delight; lyrics and more below the fold:

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“A feline profanity”: Part 1

Pity the poor media-standards editor in this sweary era. One can only imagine, for example, the wringing of hands and gnawing of blue pencils last month when, at a mass rally, the short-fingered vulgarian and U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump repeated a supporter’s accusation that Trump’s rival Ted Cruz was “a pussy.”

Yes, the word was undiplomatic. And provocative. But was it newsworthy? Was it printable? And what did it signify?

(Beginning at 1:08)

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