Interjectional “shit” in a drunken 1844 diary entry

One of the curiosities in the study of offensive language is just how recent are most of the figurative uses of the main obscene words. Though fuck can be found as far back as the fourteenth or fifteenth century (depending on how one chooses to interpret some proper-name evidence), even the most familiar non-sexual expressions are barely more than a century old: fuck you is first recorded in 1905, fucking as an intensifier is from the 1890s, interjectional fuck only from the late 1920s.

Of course, it is entirely possible that such uses were earlier, but not recorded (or discovered). This is the case with most words, but even more so with offensive language, where there are very strong taboos—cultural and often legal—against printing it. The early evidence we have for even the literal senses of such words is sparse, and there were better reasons for these senses to be recorded, not least their use for prurient purposes. And there are many clear indications that these words were in much wider use in speech. The figurative senses are that much less likely to be written down. One place we do find them is in court records, where there is a specific need for recording the precise nature of someone’s language. The earliest known examples of cocksucker (1894), motherfucking (1890), and up shit creek (1868) are all from legal or similar government records.

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What is a grammar ho?

This 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 has written a few posts for Strong Language and writes about language at his blog Never Pure and Rarely Simple.

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I stumbled across a website called Shit My Students Write,* on which teachers – it’s not specified what level – anonymously submit examples of their students’ writing. Most are of the type that used to be called “schoolboy howlers”. Sometimes the student’s intention is clear: “Hitler was a facetious dictator.” But I couldn’t figure out what was intended by the student who wrote:

My grandmother, when she was alive, was quite the grammar ho.

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Unass and ass up

We like ass at Strong Language, and it’s an impressively productive piece of vocabulary. Recently I came across a whole new use of it – new to me, that is – in Jay Dobyns’s undercover-biker memoir No Angel. That use is unass, and it turns out to have more than one meaning.

Here it is in Dobyns’s book:

1. About a hundred miles in, we pulled off at Cordes Junction to gas up. We stopped at a Mobil and unassed. My legs and shoulders were killing me.

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Testicular fortitude

If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:

  • ballsy
  • big balls
  • break my balls
  • have (someone) by the balls
  • ball-buster

So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.

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A fuck shit stack of sweary songs

My last collection of sweary songs began with some vintage a cappella filth about cocksuckers. For balance, I’ll start this one with The Fourskins’ winning ditty ‘Her Vagina’ (most audio that follows is VNSFW):

Want ruder? Harry Roy and His Orchestra sang about ‘My Girl’s Pussy’ almost a century ago. Warning: this one has serious earworm potential:

(Comic artist R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders introduced me to the song.)

A lyric for our times: ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ by Martha Wainwright:

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