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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Some observations on the phonaesthetics of tits, cunts, cocks, and spunk

Following on my initial observations on the phonology of cusswords, and connecting to Iva’s recent post on cooters and hooters, I’d like to spend some time looking at some phonaesthetic clusters in words relating to private parts and emissions. Continue reading

New voice transcription feature in Google Docs censors (some!) swearwords

Google Docs announced today that you can now create documents using your voice.  And of course, like any good linguist, I immediately went to try to stump it. It’s pretty good, actually — it recognized both pronunciations of “gif” and “aunt” in the contexts “animated ___” and “uncle and ___” although it tended to assume that I might have the bit/bet merger, which I most emphatically do not, and thus presented me with a few transcriptions that felt like odd candidates to me.

But then I tried swearwords and hit the fucking jackpot. Continue reading

What’s in a dirty word? Remembering Lenny

Finally I was called as a witness in my own behalf. I took the stand and Mr. Bendich examined me.
Q. Mr. Bruce, Mr. Wollenberg yesterday said (to Dr. Gottlieb) specifically that you had said, “Eat it.” Did you say that?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. What did you say, Mr. Bruce?
A. What did I say when?
Q. On the night of October fourth.
MR. WOLLENBERG: There’s no testimony that Mr. Wollenberg said that Mr. Bruce said, “Eat it,” the night of October fourth, if your honor please.
THE COURT: The question is: What did he say?
THE WITNESS: I don’t mean to be facetious. Mr. Wollenberg said “Eat it.” I said “Kiss it.”
MR. BENDICH: Do you apprehend there is a significant difference between the two phrases, Mr. Bruce?
A. “Kissing it” and “eating it,” yes, sir. Kissing my mother goodbye and eating my mother goodbye, there is a quantity of difference.
—Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People

If there was ever an example of a manipulation and exploitation of the context in which words were intentionally made to be confusing, that would be it. Taken out of context, both kiss and eat are entirely benign. We do them all the time, although we should probably be doing more of the former and less of the latter. Taken in context, Bruce’s use of “kissing it” had the exact same intention as “eating it.” In no way was the verb “kissing,” as Bruce used it here, similar to the kissing he might bestow upon his mother. In fact, had it been a French court, “kissing it” would have been even more derogatory that “eating it” since the French use “baiser”—to kiss—as a correlative to our “fucking.” Calling someone a “baiseur” is tantamount to us calling him a “fucker.” Direct swearing in public was severely frowned upon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was subject to fine or even imprisonment. Satirists like Bruce therefore often couched their expletives in careful substitution of double entendre. I say “often,” because it was also Bruce’s custom to shoot straight from the hip with unvarnished four-letter words—and longer. Whether it was his rants against government or his playful dissecting of words and phrases, I would go on to add that if there was one individual in the last hundred years who altered the way we speak in public, it was Lenny Bruce.

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