Fucking ambiguity

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.

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Cussing, don’t leave home without it.

Most of us who have traveled abroad have usually toted along some sort of guidebook, be it Michelin’s Guide France, Baedeker’s Germany, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They generally include a slew of phrases the authors assume you will find essential: “Do you speak English?” “Have you any ready-made clothes?” “Is the bed well-aired?’ “What time is the next steamer?” Rarely, if ever, do you see supremely useful phrases. “Excuse me. Is this the way to Jim Morrison’s tomb?” And you will never find what you eventually need more than anything else, a good, hearty swear: “This is bullshit!”

Having spent some time in France and Argentina, I managed to pick up a few choice morsels omitted from the venerable guides. Since we are packing lightly for our journey, here are a few words that might come in handy when all else fails.

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And adults did it too? A brief reminiscence

“Fuck the children!”
—George Carlin

Growing up in the late 1950s I was naive enough to believe that adults did not curse—for a while. In fact, like so many other kids back then, I even thought that perhaps some of them did not know how to swear. No, not my parents, for sure. I recall an incident one evening in our tiny Queens apartment over a Laundromat when my folks were hosting a party. There I was, a second-grader serenely playing in the corner of the living room, having my toy soldiers killing each other off, when I overheard my father’s friend Pat say to him, “Ha, ha! Grand pricks.” Continue reading

Like I’m talking to a sexually intercoursing wall!

Plenty has been penned about the history, derivation, and usage of the word “fuck,” so there is no need to rehash it here. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of it that while mentioned is mostly glossed over. In English, at least, “fuck” is the most mercurial of swear words because it has escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root. While every other European language has its own word for “fuck,” English appears to be unique in its more universal application. Let’s take the following joke as an example:

In Jerusalem, a female journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She went to the Western Wall, and there he was! She watched him pray, and after about forty-five minutes, when he turned to leave, she approached him for an interview.

“I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?

“For about fifty years.”

“Fifty years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace between the Jews and the Arabs. I pray for all hatred to stop, and I pray for our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“How do you feel after doing this for fifty years?

“Like I’m talking to a fucking wall.”

To understand the uniqueness of this joke in English, try literally translating it into any other European language. The punch line would make no sense to a Frenchman. Although he does have a respective—or dis-respective—verb “foutre” and the milder “baiser,” he would wonder why someone is referring to intercourse with a wall. “That fucking wall” would be something along the lines of “cette putain de mur” in French, or “that whore of a wall,” and Spanish would be similar. The French are also quite enamored of shit—“vous me faites chier,” which literally means “you make me shit,” but implies that “you bore me.” The sacrosanct “fucking” is reserved for, well, “fucking.” Continue reading

What pleas they may fuck out of such books: Google Ngrams vs Long-S

Ever seen an old printed book with the letter S that looks like an F? This ligature, to the uninitiated, looks like ſ; it’s called the ‘long s’, and it has very much fallen out of use in modern typography. John Bell is widely credited for the demise of the long S, which is why we don’t see it very much any more, but it is often seen in European books printed between the 1400s and 1790s.

The google ngram reader relies heavily on optical character recognition (OCR) software to make their books searchable; OCR software  strives to match each printed character in a text to a recognized typographic character. Even human readers can have difficulty with reading text which heavily use the ſ, as seen from this 1739 printed example of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:

the-alchemist-1739Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist: A Comedy, first performed in 1610 and published 1739, from the Internet Archive

The Google Books Ngram project is a thoroughly imperfect resource for studying linguistic change in English-language print, mostly because out-of-fashion typographic conventions such as long-S completely throw off searches. To the untrained eye, or to a computer doing its very best to apply modern rules to anachronistic text, the word ‘suck’ using the long-S looks an awful lot like “fuck”. Google seems to know about it, too, as they make their default search dates 1800-2000, but you can easily change that to 1500-2000 and observe the differences in uses between ‘suck’ and ‘fuck’. The primary difference is that between 1650 and 1790, ‘fuck’ appears to be printed far more often than than ‘suck’, with a noticeable switch around 1665:

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