Bryson-Swearing

Bryson-Swearing - I 4. SWEARING AMONG THE CHINESE, TO BE...

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Unformatted text preview: I 4. SWEARING AMONG THE CHINESE, TO BE CALLED A turtle is the worst possible taunt. In Norwegian, devil is highly taboo—roughly equivalent to ourfuck. Among the Xoxu tribe of South Africa the most provocative possible remark is hlebeshako— “your mother's ‘ZlI‘S.” In French it is a grave insult to call someone a cow or a camel and the effect is considerably intensified if you precede it with cspécc do (“kind of") so that it is worse in French to be called a kind of a cow than to be called just a cow. The worst insult among Australian aborigines is to suggest that the target have intercourse with his mother. Incest is in fact so serious in many cultures that often it need be implied in only the vaguest terms, as with tu madre in Spanish and your mama among blacks in America. Often national terms of abuse are nonsensical, as in the German scluueinehund, which means "pig-dog." Some cultures don't swear at all. The Japanese, IVlalayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words. The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly udOpted the word ravintolassa. It means “in the restaurant." But most cultures swear and have been doing so for a very long time. Dr. J. N. Adams of Manchester University in England stud- ied swearing by Itomzms and found that they had 800 "dirty" words (for want ofa better expression). We, by contrast, have only about tWenty or 50. depending on how you define the term. The Rating Code Ollice of Hollywood has a list of seventeen seriously objec- tionable words that will earn a motion picture a mandatory R Fat- 214 S\\'E.-\Hi.\'C mg, Ifyou add in all the words that are not explicitly taboo but are still socially doubtful—words like crap and boobs—the number rises to perhaps fifty or sixty words in common use. Once there were many more More than 1,200 words just for sexual intcr- course have been counted. According to Dr. Adams’s findings, certain things have not changed in 1,500 years. most notably a preoccupation with the size of the male member, for which the Romans provided many names, among them too], dagger. sickle. Iii/er, stake, sword, and (a little oddly perhaps) worm. Even more oddly, the two most common Roman slang words for the penis were both feminine, while the most common word for female genitalia was masculine. Swearing seems to have some nearouniversal qualities. In almost all cultures, swearing involves one or more of the following: filth, the forbidden (particularly incest), and the sacred, and usually all three. Most cultures have two levels ol‘ swearing—relatively mild and highly profane. Ashley iVIontagu, in The A natomy OfSucaring, cites a study of Swearing, among the \Vik Monk-an natives of the Cape York Peninsula. They have many insults which are generally regarded as harmless teasing—big head, long nose, skinny arms— and a whole body of very much more serious ones, which are uttered only in Circumstances of high emotion. Among the latter are big penis, plenty urine, and vagina woman mad. English is unusual in including the impossible and the pleasur— able in its litany of profanities. It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncrasy of our tongue that when we wish to express extreme fury we entreat the object of our rage to undertake an anatmnical impossibility or, stranger still, to engage in the one activity that is hound to give him more pleasure than almost anything else. Can there be, when you think about it. a more improbable sentiment than “(let fuckedl" We might as well snarl, “Make a lot ofmoneyl" or “Have a nice day!" Most of our swear words have considerable antiquity. Modern English contains few words that would be unhesitatingly under— stood hy an Anglo-Saxon peasant of, say, the tenth century A.l). but tits is One oi'them. SO isfant, believe it or not. The Anglo-Saxons used the word scitan, which became shite by the 13005 and shit by 215 THE MOTHER TONGUE the 1500s. Shite is used as a variant oils/1i! in England to this day. Fuck, it has been suggested. may have sprung from the Latin futuo, the Frenchfimlrn, or the Germanfickcn. all of which have the same meaning. According to Montagu the word first appears in print in 1503 in a poem by the Scottish poet William Dunbar. Although fuck has been around for centuries. possibly millennia, for a long period it fell out of general use. Before 1503, the vulgar word for sex was to .su‘it‘c. Pussy, for the vagina, goes back at least to the 16005. Arse is Old English. Common names for the penis, such as dick, peter, and percy (used variously throughout the Englislrspeaking world), go back at least 150 years, though they may be very much older. jock was once also common in this respect, but it died out, though it survives injockstrap. It is often hard to trace such terms reliably because they weren't generally recorded and because they have, for obvious reasons. seldom attracted scholarly investigation. Buttocks, for instance, goes back to at least the thirteenth century, but butt, its slangy diminutive form, is not recorded until 1859 in America. As Stuart Berg l’lexner observes, it seems higth unlikely that it took 600 years for anyone to think of converting the fonner into the latter. Similarly, although shit has been around in various forms since before the Norman Conquest, Imrscshit does not appear before. the 19303. Again, this seems improbable. The lack of authoritative guidance has sometimes encouraged people to come up with fan- ciful explanations for profanities. Fuck, it was suggested, was orig- inally a police blotter acronym standing for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge." It is nothing of the sort. After O.K. , fuck must be. about the most versatile of all English words. It can be used to describe a multitude of conditions and phenomena, from making a mess of something (fuck up) to being casual or provocative (fuck around), to inviting or announcing a departure (fuck off), to being estimable (fucking-A), to being baf- fled (I’m fucked if! know). to being disgusted (fuck this), and SO 0n and on and on. Fuck probably reached its zenith during the Second \‘Vorld W’ar. Most people are familiar with the army term snafu all lucked up"), but there were many (short {or “situation normal 216 t, others in common currency then, among,r them fubar (“fucked up beyond all recognition”) and fubb (“fucked up beyond belief"). Piss goes bac ’ at least to the tl'iirteenth century, but may be even older. It has been traced to the Vulgar Latin pissiare and thus could conceivably date from the Roman occupation of Britain. As piss became considered indecent, the euphemism pee evolved. based simply on the promuu’jation of the first letter ofthe word. In America, piss has been documented since 1760 and pee since 1788. The emotional charge attached to words can change dramatically over time. Cunt was once relatively harmless. Chaucer dropped it casually and severally into The Canterbury Tales, spelling, it vari— ously queynm, queinte, and even Kent. The City of London ()nCt' had an alley favored by prostitutes called Cropecuntlane. It was not until the early eighteenth century that the word became inde— cent. Shit was considered acceptable until as recently as the early nineteenth century. Prick was standard until the eighteenth cen- tury. Piss was an unexceptionable word from about 1250 to 175o, a fact still reflected in the common French name for urinals: pissoirs. On the other hand, words that seem entirely harmless now were once capable of exciting considerable passion. In sixteenthecentury England, zooterkins was a pretty lively word. In nineteenth- Century England puppy and cad were highly risque. Today the worst swear words in English are probably fuck, shit, and cunt. But until about the 18705 it was much more oilensive to be profane. (10d damn, jesus, and even Hell were worse than fuck and shit (insofar as these things are quantifiable). In early swearing religion played a much more prominent role—so much so that in the fifteenth century a common tag for Englishmen in France was goddams. Swearing, by saints was also common. A relic of this is our epithet by George, which is a contraction of “by St. Ceorge"and has been around for centuries. Cock was for a long time not only a slang term for penis but also a euphemism for God. Thus in Ham/e! Ophelia could pun: "Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame." Some of these were surprisingly explicit—"by (lod’s bones,n uby Cod's body”—but as time went on they were increasingly blurred into more harmless forms, such as zounds (for “God's wounds"), gadzooks (for "God's hooks," the "1'7 ~ A THE MOTHER TONGUE significance otwhich is Obscure). and (iod’s bodkins or other vari- ants like odshodikins and gadsbmllikins, all formed from "Cod’s body." This tendency to translorm profanities into harmless expressions is a particular Characteristit: ol' English 5\\'eariug. Most languages employ euplnanism (from the Creek, meaning "to speak well olm) in some measure. Cermans say the meaningless Pot: hlit: rather than Collins Blitz and the French say par bleu for par Dion and Ventre Saint Gris instead of. Ventre Saint Christ. But no other language approaches linglish for the number of delicate expletives of the sort that you could safely say in front ol‘a maiden aunt: darn. darn, (Irat, gosh. gully, goodness gracious, gee whiz, jcepers, shacks, and so on. We have scores. ifnot hundreds, ofthese terms. However, sometimes even these words are regarded as exception- able. particularly when they are new. Blooming and blasted, orig- inally devised as mild epithets, were in ninetecuth‘century England considered nearly as oliensive as the more venerable ex- pletives they were meant to replace. But then of course the gravity of swear words in any language has little to do with the words themselves and much more to do with the fact that they are forbidden. It is a circular effect. Forbidden words are emotive because they are. forbidden and they are. for- bidden because they are emotive. A remarkable example of this is bloody in England, which to most Britons is at least as objectionable a word as shit and yet it is meaningless. A number of explanations have been suggested. gen- erally involving either a contraction of an oath such as "by Christ’s blood" or "by our Lady” or else something to do with menstrua- tion. But there is no historical evidence to favor one view over the other. The fact is that sometime around the sixteenth century peo— ple began to say bloody and to mean a curse by it. It's now often hard to tell when they meant it as a curse and when they meant it to be taken literally, as when in Richard 11 Richmond says, “The bloody dog is dead." Although Shakespeare had a weakness for double entendre puns. on the whole he was a fairly restrained and not terribly inventive swearer. Damned appears 105 times in his thirty-seven plays, but 218 S‘VEARINC for the rest he was content to insert the odd "for God's sake," “a pox on't," “God’s bread." and one “whoreson jackauapes." julius Caesar, unusually for the period, has not a single instance ofswear- ing. By contrast, in the same year that julius Caesar was first performed, Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour offered such n u colorl‘ul phrases as "\‘Vhoroson base fellow, whoreson coney» catching rascal" (concy being a synonym for pudendum), “by my fackins faith," and “I am the rankcst cow that ever pissed.” ()ther ofhis plays contain even richer expressions: "1 fart at thee,” "Shit 0' your head," “Turd i' your teeth." Another play of the period. Cammer (.‘urton’s Need/c, first peIforined about 1550, contained literally dozens of instances of swearing: “By Jesus." “dirty bas» tard" “ vein. It even had a parsou describing someone as "that shitteu n u bawdy bitch, for (Iod's sake," and many more in the same lout." Other oaths of the period included such memorable expres- sions as "kiss my blindcheeks" and "stap my Vitals." Soon after Shakespeare's death, Britain went through a period ol' prudery ol'the sort with which all countries are periodically seized. In 1623 an Act of Parliament was passed making it illegal to swear. People Were fined for such mild oaths as “upon my life" and “by my troth"—mild utterances indeed compared with the “Gods poxes"and "lackins faiths" of a generation before. In 1649 the laws were tightened even further—to the extent that swearing at a par— ent became punishable by death. But the greatest outburst ol‘ prudery came in the nineteenth century when it swept through the world like a lever. It was an age when sensibilities grew so delicate that one lady was reported to have dressed her goldfish in miniature suits for the sake of propri» ety and a certain Madame de la Bresse left her fortune to provide clothing for the snowmen of Paris. Pmdery, so often associated with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837—1903), actually consider- ably predated it. One of the. great names in the. field was that ol‘ Thomas Bowdler, an Edinburgh physician who purilied the works of writers such as Shakespeare and Cibhon, boasting that it was his practice to add nothing new to the work, but simply to remove those words that “cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." His ten-volume Family Shakespeare appeared in 1816, a year be- 219 TH E MOTHER TONCUI'I tore \“"ictoria was born. so it is clear the queen didn't establish the trend, but simply helped to prolong it. in fact. almost a century before she reigned Samuel Johnson was congratulated by a woman for leaving indecent words out of his dictionary. To which he dew astatingly replied: “So you’ve been looking tor them. have you. Madam?" It has sometimes been said that prudery reached such a height in the nineteenth century that people took to dressing their piano legs in little. skirts lest they rouse anyone to untimely passion. Thomas l’yles in his outstanding Words and \vVui/s (y‘Azncrican English tracked the story to a book called Diary in America, writ ten in 1837 by an linglish traveler, Captain Frederick Marryat, and concluded that the Story was told for comic cited and almost cer- tainly was untrue. Rather more plausible was the anecdote re— corded in the same book in which Marryat made the serious galtc of asking a young lady it‘she had lmrt her leg in a fall. The woman blushineg averted her gaze and told him that people did not use a that word in America. I apologized for my want of refinement, which was attributable to having been accustomed only to English society," h‘larryat drolly remarked and asked the lady what was the acceptable term for "such articles." Limbs. he. was told. It was an age in which the most innocuous words became. unac— ceptable at a rate that must have been dizzying. Stomach became a euphemism for belly and in its turn was considered too graphic and was replaced by tummy, midrifl, and even breadhaskct. The conventional terms for the parts ol~ a chicken, such as breast, leg. and thigh, caused particular anxiety and had to be replaced with terms like (Irmnstick, first joint, and white meat. The names for male animals, such as hack and stallion, were never used in mixed company. Bulls Were called sires, male animals, and, in a truly inspired burst ofridicuhmsness, gentleman cows. But it didn't stop there. Euphemisms had to be devised for any word that had cock in it—haycock became haystack, cockerel became rooster—and for the better part ot‘a century people with cock in their names, such as Hitchcock or Peacock, suiiered unspeakable embarrassurent when they were required to make introductions. Americans were 220 S\VEARI.\’C R rather more squeamish in the-Se matters than the British. going so far as to change the old English titbit to tidbit. Against such a background one can easily imagine the shock that must havc gripped readers of The Tunes of London, who turned to their paper one mornng in January 1582 and found a lengthy report on a parliamentary speech by the attorney general conclud— ing with the unexpectedly forthright statement: "The speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking." Not surprisingly, it caused a sensation. The executives of The Times were so dumhstruck by this outrage against common decency that four full days passed before they could bring themselves to acknowledge the offense. After what was doubtless the most exhaustive internal investigation ever undertaken at the newspaper, it issued this apology: “No pains havc been spared by the management of this journal to dis- cover the author of a gross outragc committed by the interpolation ofa line in the spccch by Sir \Villiam Harcourt reported in our issue of Monday last. This malicious fabrication was surreptitiously introduced before the paper went to press. The matter is now under legal investigation, and it is to be hoped that the perpctrator will be brought to punishment." But ifthey hadn't caught him after four days I doubt if thcy ever did. In any case, he or someone of like sensibilities struck again six months later when an advertise~ ment ap]_)care.d promoting a book about "livery-d3) Life in our Public Schools. Sketchcd by Head Scholars. \Vith a Glossary of Some \Vords used by Henry lrviug in his disquisition upon fuck- ing.” Whatever soul or souls were responsible for this sequel, they kept their peace thereafter—though I have been told that when Queen Victoria opened the Clifton Suspension Bridge the sen— tence “Her Majesty then passed over the bridge" came out in The Times as “Her Majesty then pissed over the bridge." \thther this embellishment of the facts was intentional or fortuitous (or even possibly apocryphal) I could not say. The Victorian horror at the thought of wearing, in print has lingered up to our own day. According to Ashley Montagu, as recently as 1947 Technology Review», a publication of the Massa- chusetts Institute of 'l‘cchnology rcad almost exclusively by scien~ 221 TIIF. MUTHER'I()\C[’E tists and technocrats. changed the expression "doing his damncdest" to “doing intensely his very best. " Ten years later the same author used the sann- plu'aSe in a book and again had it cut. Montagu also cites the instance in 1941 ol~ a It‘deral judge threat- eningT a lawyer with contempt for using a base and indecent word in his court. The word was darn. In 1948. Borges johnson actually managed to write a book on swearing, The Lost Art ofPro/anity. without once mentioning any oi the tour—letter words. He would not have gotten it published otherwiSe. And as late as 1949, the Hollywood Production Code banned the word (/anu’s. In that year, as Mario Pei notes, a movie called Dames Don‘t Talk had its title Changed to Smart Cirls Don‘t Talk The editors oi the Random House Dictionary of 1966 decided, alter considerable, agonizing, not to insert any four-letter words. They (lid not appear until the. publication of R111)” in 1987. The original Oxford English Dictionary, despite its determination to chart every word in the language, contained none ol‘thc tour-letter words, though they did appear in the supplements to the ()ED, which began to appear in 1972. They also appeared in the. Concise Oxford Dictionary from about the same time. [n 1988, \Villiam Satirc managed to write a column in The New York Times Magazine about the expression the shit hi! the fan without actually mentioning shit. The Closest he came was to talk about the use. 0f"a scatological noun just before the familiar hi! the fan." During, the \Vatcrgatc hearings, the 'l'imes did print the term candy/ass, used by Richard Nixon, but did so only reluctantly. The paper's stylebook continues to say that goddamn "should not be used at all unless there. is a compelling reason." And the National Transportation Safety Board displayed extraordinary delicacy when it published a transcript of cockpit voiCe recordings during the crash oil a United Airlines jet in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. An example: "\Ve’re not going to make the runway, fellows. We’re going to have. to ditch this son of a [word deleted] and hope for the. best."* The British are relatively broad-minded about language, even in ‘ Published in The New York Times, September 19. 1989. 222 S‘VEARINC I their advertisements. In 1989 ISpson, the printer company, ran a lighthearted ad in British newspapers about the history of printing, Which contained the statcment that "a Chinese eunuch called Cai Lun, with no balls but one hell ()l‘an imagination, invented paper." I doubt very much that any American newspaper would accept an ad referring explicitly to the testicular condition of the inventor oi paper. Most of the quality newspapers in Britain have in:er admitted expletives to their pages when the circumstances wure deemed to warrant it. Their Iirst opportunity to do so was in 1960 when a court decided that Lady Chutli’rley’s Lover could be printed in hill with‘ out risk oil doing irreversible damage to society"s well-being. Three British publications, the Observer, the Guardian, and the Spec- tator, took the opportunity to print fuck themselves and were promptly censured by the Press Council for doing so. But the word has appeared many times in the British press since then, generally without any murmur of complaint. (Ironically, the tabloid news- papers, though usually specializing in matters ofscx and pruriencc, are far more skittish when it comes to printing swear words.) In 1988 British papers were given an outstanding opportunity to update their position on Obscenities when the captain of the Eu— gland cricket team, Mike Gatting, reportedly called the umpire of an important match “a tucking. Cheating cunt." Only one newspa— per, The Independent, printed all the words without asterisks. It was the first time that cunt had appeared in a British newspaper. Some words are less innocent than they seem. Bollix is com- monly used in America to describe a confused situation, as in this quotation from the Philadelphia Inquirer [October 7, 1987]: "It was the winless Giants” third loss ol‘ the bollixed strike-torn sea- son." Or this one from American Airlines inilight magazine, Amer- ican Way [May 1, 1988]: "Our fans pas oIthe month for February was the crossword puzzle titled Heavy Stuff, which was all bollixed up." It is probably sale to assume that ncither writer was aware that bollix is a direct adaptation of bollocks- (or ballocks), meaning "tes— ticles." It is still used in England to describe the testicles and also as a cry to express disbelief, similar to bullshit in American usage. As Pylcs notes, Barnacle Bill the. Sailor was originally Ballocky Bill 22:3 'I‘ It I: M U 'I' II E R 'l‘ O .'\' C U [i and the original words ol'liis hallad were considerably more graphic and sexual than the innoccnt phrases heloved by gcnerations of children. 'I‘hc American slang word nuts also means "testicles"— though ()(l(ll_\' when ltSt,‘(l as an cxclamation it becomes wholly in- uoccnt. ()ther words concealing unsavory origins inclmlc bumf, which is short tor [Jillllfuddt’lt or "toilet paper" in German, and poppycot‘k, an adaptation of a Dutch word meaning “solt dung." (In answer to the olwious question, yes, they also have a word for lirm (lung—in tact two: poop and siront.) A lew swear words haw- evolved (lili‘ercnt connotations in Britain antl Americh In America, a person who is pissed is angry; in Britain he's drunk. Bugger. a wholly innocent word in America, is not at all welcome in polite conversation in Britain. As Pylcs notes, until 193.; you could be lined or imprisoned for writing or saying it. A hugger in Britain is a sodomite. Although bugger is unaccept- able, buggery is quite all right: It is the term used by both the legal profession and newspapers when someone is accused of criminal sodomy. 224 WWW,- t“ t t ...
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Bryson-Swearing - I 4. SWEARING AMONG THE CHINESE, TO BE...

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