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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Never mind the bollocking, here’s the slang data

An unlikely swearword hit the headlines twice in recent days, thanks to its use on mainstream television from two prominent figures. In the first clip below, celebrity journalist Piers Morgan uses bollock as a transitive verb (meaning ‘scold, reprimand’) on the ITV chat show Good Morning Britain:

The phrase ‘whether he’s praising them or bollocking them’ is in reference to letters Prince Charles wrote to his sons William and Harry and the difficulty they sometimes had in deciphering his handwriting.

Presenter Susanna Reid immediately told Morgan to ‘excuse your language’, and after expressing surprise (‘Can you not say that?!’) he quickly apologised to viewers. Bollock and its derivatives are milder than prototypical swearwords like fuck but much ruder than synonyms like reprimand, roast and reproach. After all, bollocks refers chiefly to testicles.

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Piss off, Aesop?

In her latest post for Strong Language, Nancy Friedman enlightened us with some happenings of shit, which excremental theme Ben Yagoda fittingly continued in his print on bullshit. Some months back, Nancy also covered shit‘s execratory counterpart, piss, while Iva Cheung had the floor with some very unparliamentary language, including an instance of pissant (see Section 12).

For Strong Language standards, pissant is piddly. Yet the word nonetheless struck me as a curious little vulgar vermin that’s not yet crawled around these pages, though the site’s very own James Harbeck treated the word similarly some years back, which I discovered – like a pissant – just as I was finishing this post.

Piddly or repeat aside, it’s one of the (rare) times you’d actually be excused for confusing etymology with entomology, to the relief of many word historians.

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Limmy’s swear-off

Scottish comedian Limmy has some fun with action film clichés in this short (NSFW) sketch from his superb Limmy’s Show. It mixes familiar ideas, like the escalation of insults, with completely unexpected turns like, well, you’ll see. Let’s just say it gives the phrase bad language a new meaning. Transcript follows below the fold.

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Fucking ambiguity

In a post last month on the versatility of fuck, Rob Chirico wrote that the word has ‘escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root’. That is, most current uses of fuck are independent of sexual meaning. But it’s an incomplete escape. All words shimmer with connotations and the shadows of former and parallel meanings, so ambiguity inevitably creeps in now and then.

The polysemy of fuck (and other swearwords) can be exploited deliberately for entertainment – in jokes, comics, innuendo, and so on. Accidental confusion, by contrast, seems rare. This is because semantic, pragmatic and prosodic context normally provide more than enough information to indicate whether the word is meant sexually or not.

So I was struck by a concrete example of this fucking confusion, even though it was fictional. It appears in Michael Connelly’s suspense novel Chasing the Dime (2002), for which minor spoilers follow in the next paragraph and indented text below.

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