When lyrics were clean, almost

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Forms and rhythms in music are never altered without producing changes in the entire fabric of society.” He also said, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” so it’s better that we stick with his take on music. In twentieth-century America, ragtime, jazz, rock, and later punk and rap, all bristled against the accepted music of their times. Although the earliest indictments of these genres were aimed primarily at the music itself, it was not really until the 1950s that songs were being banned for their lyrical content. This content, though, was generally regarded for its subject matter and not necessarily for the language used in expressing the ideas. This is to say that although the songs were deemed vulgar or subversive, actual profanity—or “sweary” language, if you will—was still a rare bird. However anyone swore in real life, cussing, cursing, or just “potty-mouth talk” did not really begin to make its way into the recording booth until the late 1960s. Continue reading

Give my revamps to Broadway

 

When Stephen Sondheim was writing the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” to be sung in the 1957 musical West Side Story, he was hoping to be the first person to use a serious four-letter obscenity in a Broadway show: “Gee, Officer Krupke—Fuck you!” This did not come to pass. Columbia records balked because obscenity laws would prohibit the recording from being shipped over state lines. In the end, the line was changed to “Krup you!”— Sondheim has since maintained that it may be the best lyric line in the show. Is there any doubt what the lyric would be if it were written today? In the fifty-plus years since West Side Story, the expletive is not only fully accepted in the theater, but roundly applauded. Continue reading

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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Emphatic affirmatives

English has equipped us with a full spectrum of ways to agree—the noncommittal sure, the tepid OK, the formal yes. But some situations demand a more enthusiastic response than a simple yes, and coming to our aid are our trusty sweary sidekicks, which help us intensify yeah into hell yeah and absolutely into absofuckinglutely. They’ve also made their way into a few (relatively) fixed expressions that we use to convey emphatic assent:

Damn straight

(Also damned straight, goddamn straight, or goddamned straight)

Straight meaning “honest” or “true” dates from the 1530s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the earliest citation of damn straight comes from Roger D. Abraham’s 1964 Deep Down in the Jungle: Black American Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia:

“God damn straight, I’ll be there.”

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