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.
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.
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.
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.
The following is a guest post by Kate Warwick.
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It’s definitely a hand grenade of a word, especially in speech. But is it just the literal meaning of cunt which makes it so offensive? Linguistically, there are other elements of the word which contribute to its force: connotative layers of meaning, its sound and the impact on the hearer.
From the 11th century’s rather off-puttingly named Godwin Clawecunte to the 21st century’s complete cunt, the word has clearly undergone some meaning extension; from literal or denotative to abusive or connotative. It’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint change, of course, but the development of connotative meaning can be seen in Pepys’s 17th century use to mean a sexually active women, ‘he hath to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him’. Later, in Manning’s First World War novel, his soldiers even refer to a man as a cunt, ‘A bloody cunt like you’s sufficient to demoralise a whole fuckin’ army corps’.
So by the early 20th century cunt has acquired a layer of hatred in its meaning. Without going into detail about potential social causes, how did this happen? There are plenty of other words, like twat, which literally mean the same thing, but don’t have the sense of ‘despised, unpleasant, or annoying place, thing, or task’.