The middle finger in American Sign Language

This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.

The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.

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Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.

In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.

In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.

Directionality

Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:

Peter Wujcik signs "Fuck me? Fuck you!" in ASL

This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:

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Book review: ‘What the F’, by Benjamin K. Bergen

Swear words are powerful things. We use them in anger, in passion, in unguarded moments of strong emotion. But because they’re taboo, we often skate over them and pretend, maybe even to ourselves, that they occurred in a moment of weakness – that they’re not part of who we ‘really’ are. That this is precisely what they are underlies the great appeal of, and need for, the book reviewed here.

Profanity historically has been under-studied, disparaged or ignored by mainstream academia. But some research on it is highly revealing or suggestive, and it is expertly presented in Benjamin Bergen’s What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves (publisher Basic Books kindly sent us a copy for review). Bergen is a professor of cognitive science in San Diego, and he describes his book winningly, and accurately, as ‘a coming-out party for the cognitive science of swearing’.

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Making friends with “cunt”

This is a guest post by Michael Adams, Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, past president of the Dictionary Society of North America, and author of several books on language. Michael previously wrote here about Donald Trump’s swearing, and will be joining Strong Language as a contributor in the coming months.

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In a recent review of my book, In Praise of Profanity, on Strong Language, Stan Carey notes that I’m guilty of an “occasional lapse, such as the Americocentric suggestion that it’s ‘hard to imagine’ when the word cunt isn’t face-threatening — it quite often isn’t in Australia, Ireland, and parts of the UK, particularly Scotland.” Our language attitudes tether us to a time and place, and I must own my parochialism.

As if parochialism weren’t bad enough, I may have been wrong about the American status of cunt, too. I’ve come across evidence of cunt’s re-appropriation as a term of endearment — not unalloyed BFF endearment but a grudging, competitive willingness to get along well supported by a word all the riskier because it’s used in unfriendly ways against women.

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