A cussed acrostic

September 4, 2016

One of the more entertaining literary spats of recent times was between two biographers of the poet John Betjeman (1906–84). It kicked off in earnest when A.N. Wilson, in a review at The Spectator in 2002, described Bevis Hillier’s biography of Betjeman as a ‘hopeless mishmash’:

Some reviewers would say that it was badly written, but the trouble is, it isn’t really written at all. It is hurled together, without any apparent distinction between what might or might not interest the reader. . . . Bevis Hillier was simply not up to the task which he set himself.

Hillier’s three-volume authorised work had taken him 25 years, and he was none too pleased to see it dismissed so. Years later he described Wilson as ‘despicable’. But harsh words were not enough: Hillier wanted retribution, and he got his chance when Wilson undertook to write his own biography of Betjeman.

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Strong Language: The return of the ***king

July 26, 2016

It’s over a year since I blogged about Strong Language. Time to recap.

For the uninitiated, Strong Language is a group blog about swearing – the linguistics and culture of taboo language – set up by James Harbeck and me in 2014. It boasts a great team of writers comprising linguists, lexicographers, historians, editors, and other word adepts.

There are swears in this post, so bail out now if they bother you.

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‘Answer’, a swear in plain sight

May 23, 2016

Some familiar words have etymologies right in front of us yet apt to stay hidden. Breakfast breaks a fast, the vowels disguising it well. Remorse is ‘biting back’, your conscience gnawing at you. Semicolon is a folk etymology of samey colon, on account of its resemblance to the other mark.

geoffrey hughes - swearing a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in englishOK, I made that one up.

I read a nice account of another such etymology in Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanities in English (1991). The book packs considerable detail, scholarly insight and amusing lists into its 280 pages, so I’ll follow its lead and keep this post short.1

In a section on ‘numinous words: charms, spells and runes’, Hughes writes:

One of the most dramatic instances of the use of a malign spell in Anglo-Saxon literature is wrought by the monster Grendel [in Beowulf].2 Described as one of the evil tribe of Cain and an enemy of the Lord, he puts a spell on the weapons of his victims, the Scyldings. The key verb in the text at this point is, fascinatingly, forsworen, literally ‘forsworn’, indicating that the verb forswerian could mean ‘to hinder by swearing; to render powerless by incantation; to make useless by magic’.

Hughes goes on to relate other examples of such word-magic from the Life of St Wilfrid and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Then he quotes from The Battle of Maldon and picks up the -swear- thread again:

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The semantic scope of ‘Martian’

June 24, 2015

When the horror comedy film Slither came out in 2006, I thought it far too derivative, with major plot points and big reveals rehashed from ideas I’d seen before – in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid, Brian Yuzna’s Society, and the entire first half of George Romero’s career.

But there were things I liked about it too, so I felt I owed it another look. Second time around I appreciated its queasy charms and lively sense of fun much more, and as an unexpected bonus it contains a brief semantic dispute.

This takes place in a car as our heroes escape from unspeakable weirdness and try to figure out what’s going on. Slight spoilers follow in the subtitled images below. Some dialogue is repeated here to accommodate editing cuts and show who’s speaking. If strong language bothers you, flee now while you can.

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Strong Language 2: Swear Harder

March 29, 2015

Back in December I introduced Strong Language, a new group blog about the use, culture, and linguistics of profanity cooked up by James Harbeck and me. While some of you are now regular readers, others may be unaware of it or glad of a reminder or an update, so this post can address that. The language below may offend, so caveat lector.

Strong Language started well and this year has gone from strength to sweary strength. We’ve redesigned its appearance, partnered with Slate’s Lexicon Valley, and added more writers to the team of regular contributors. The @stronglang Twitter account ties in with the blog but does its own stuff too, such as film stills and swearwords of the day.

I’ve written ten posts for Strong Language and have as many more in various stages of completion or planning. Published posts look at filthy old songs, Irish English shite, multilingual swearing, and Rob Chirico’s book Damn!, among other things. I also compile ‘Sweary links’ – like the ‘Link love’ posts here on Sentence first, but swearing-related.

behold the field in which i grow my fucks - medieval meme

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Literary expletive avoidance

January 23, 2015

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

deirdre madden - molly fox's birthday - faber & faber book coverTake Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.

Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:

‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’

‘It was in the paper.’

‘What! How old did they say I was?’

‘Forty.’

She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’

I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?

It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.

[Cross-posted on Strong Language and Lexicon Valley]

Strong Language: A sweary blog about swearing

December 16, 2014

I rarely post here twice in one day, but I have some news to share: Strong Language is a new group blog about swearing set up by sesquiotic linguist James Harbeck and me. This is how it started.

As James puts it, the blog:

gives a place for professional language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts. It’s a sweary blog about swearing.

At the bottom of the new blog you’ll see some familiar names among the contributors. More will be signing up, and we’re very open to ideas for new material. The associated Twitter account is @stronglang.

Some of you may find the idea unappealing, and will not wish to read further. I won’t hold it against you.

strong language - a sweary blog about swearing

It’s early days, and we’re still figuring out the details, but there are several posts up already on a range of topics, including the phonology of cusswords, whether shit is a contronym, and one from me today on great moments of swearing in the horror film The Thing.

If swearing gives you lalochezia or interests you linguistically, culturally or ineffably, then bookmark, subscribe and follow at will, and spread the word if the notion takes you.

Updates:

My first Strong Language post is featured on the Paris Review blog:

Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity.

Ben Zimmer introduces Strong Language to Language Log readers:

There’s a new linguablog that’s definitely worth your time if you’re not put off by vulgarities. And if you revel in vulgarities, well, you’re in luck. . . . James and Stan have enlisted a great lineup of contributors (I’m happy to be one of them).

Eugene Volokh gives Strong Language his nod of approval at the Washington Post.

Strong Language just got picked up by MetaFilter.

Language Hat is also happy about it.

Dave Wilton spreads the word at Wordorigins.org.

Katy Waldman at Slate‘s Lexicon Valley blog welcomes the “cheerful temple to the vulgar and profane” that is Strong Language.

Jazmine Hughes at The Hairpin praises Strong Language‘s “scholarly, robust, cool-as-shit deep dive into when and why we swear, where our curses come from, and what, exactly, they mean”.

Laura M. Browning selects Strong Language as a staff pick for the A.V. Club:

Although the blog’s authors are serious about language, they don’t take themselves too seriously, so the posts are as hilarious as they are informative. Plus you’ll pick up some language that would make Malcolm Tucker proud.

And here’s a progress report from March 2015: Strong Language 2: Swear harder.