A word so dreadful and rotten

February 16, 2020

Antonia White’s coming-of-age novel Frost in May, published in 1933, became Virago Press’s first Modern Classic in 1978, which is the edition I recently read. It tells the story of Fernanda (‘Nanda’) as she progresses through the Convent of the Five Wounds, coming to terms with its norms and her evolving relationship with religion.

The top quarter of the book cover is dark green, with the text "Virago Modern Classics" in yellow, then, in larger white text, the author's name and the book title. Below them is a detail from Adolf Dietrich's painting "Mädchen mit Schürze", showing a young girl in three-quarter profile, with fair hair tied back with a black bow. She faces left and has an expression that could be either concentrating or absent-minded.Frost in May is apparently based on White’s own experiences in Catholic boarding school. Tessa Hadley describes it in the Guardian as ‘exquisitely poised between a condemnation of the school and a love letter to it’. The convent applies a severe form of discipline, which now and then encompasses language use:

Nanda dropped her lily with awe. It stood, she knew, for some mysterious possession . . . her Purity. What Purity was she was still uncertain, being too shy to ask, but she realised it was something very important. St. Aloysius Gonzaga had fainted when he heard an impure word. What could the word have been? Perhaps it was “___,” a word so dreadful that she only whispered it in her very worst, most defiant moments. She blushed and passionately begged Our Lady’s pardon for even having thought of such a word in her presence.

In the book, the unspeakable word appears within the quotation marks. I’ve removed it to see if you can guess what it is. The answer appears further down. I’ll give you a clue: it begins with ‘b’, and it’s not a slur or swear word.

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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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The place for toilet euphemisms

August 27, 2015

Molly Keane’s exceptional and darkly comic novel Good Behaviour (1981) has a telling passage on euphemisms for toilet in upper-class Anglo-Irish society a century or so ago. The first paragraph below is not of immediate linguistic interest but supplies context for what follows and no little amusement in its own right.

The narrator, a memorably antisocial creation, reports on her brother’s visit to the hospital when they were both children:

molly keane - good behaviour - abacus book coverThey took Hubert off to Cork that same night, and he had an appendix and tubes and nearly died. I prayed night and day for his recovery and that he might get a reprieve from pain. Constantly with me was the thought of his black hair, peaked on his forehead, smooth on his head as if painted on an egg. As I cleaned out his budgies and his mice his eyes haunted my work – his eyes that never lit and sparkled as blue eyes should, as I knew mine would, if only they were big and blue.

When at last he came home he was a very great disappointment to me. The nuns in the nursing home had spoiled him so that he was really unbearably demanding, sending me in all directions and inventing tasks for me while he lay on a chaise longue under the cedar tree with lemonade constantly at his elbow. In those days thrombosis had not been heard of, and invalids, young and old, were allowed a comfortable rest after their operations. Hubert even had a po in the bushes “in case.” Another thing these kind nuns had done was to teach him to say “the toilet” when he meant the po or the lavatory, which was a vulgarity no one seemed able to straighten out. If circumstances forced Mrs. Brock to mention it she called it the Place. “Have you been to the Place, dear?” or “Have you been?” Or else “Hubert, shouldn’t you run along the passage?” when Hubert was fidgeting frighteningly from foot to foot.

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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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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.


He cursed the curse that would not come

April 14, 2014

Language is a recurring theme in The Reawakening, Primo Levi’s account of his life in the months immediately after liberation from Auschwitz. In particular, the book describes many encounters with people of different tongues and how he and they find ways to communicate based on second, third, or no languages in common.

Other features of language emerge in the book’s frequently wonderful characterisations. A description of the foul-mouthed “Moor from Verona”, for instance, begins with physical detail:

There were about twenty others in my dormitory, including Leonardo and Cesare; but the most outstanding personality, of more than human stature, was the oldest among them, the Moor from Verona. . . . He was over seventy, and showed all his years; he was a great gnarled old man with huge bones like a dinosaur, tall and upright on his haunches, still as strong as a horse, although age and fatigue had deprived his bony joints of their suppleness. His bald cranium, nobly convex, was encircled at its base with a crown of white hair; but his lean, wrinkled face was of a jaundice-like colour, while his eyes, beneath enormous brows like ferocious dogs lurking at the back of a den, flashed yellow and bloodshot.

And from there builds a picture of a man at once enigmatic and larger than life yet who is accommodated comfortably in the expansive pages of Levi’s memoir.

In the Moor’s chest, skeletal yet powerful, a gigantic but indeterminate anger raged ceaselessly; a senseless anger against everybody and everything, against the Russians and the Germans, against Italy and the Italians, against God and mankind, against himself and us, against day when it was day, and against night when it was night, against his destiny and all destinies, against his trade, even though it was a trade that ran in his blood. He was a bricklayer; for fifty years, in Italy, America, France, then again in Italy, and finally in Germany, he had laid bricks, and every brick had been cemented with curses. He cursed continuously, but not mechanically; he cursed with method and care, acrimoniously, pausing to find the right word, frequently correcting himself and losing his temper when unable to find the word he wanted; then he cursed the curse that would not come.

While it’s admirable to take such care over swearing practices, it may be better to just unleash any expletive at all than to compound the frustration in a vain search for the perfect curse. But to each their own.


Book review: ‘Odd Job Man’ by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green

March 19, 2014

Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green is my usual first stop for slang queries and browsing, because it’s the biggest such book on my shelf – size matters in lexicography – and also the best. A quote on the spine says, “Dr. Johnson would have moaned with delight”, and while I could live without the thought of Samuel Johnson making pleasure-noises on my shelf, the sentiment holds.

2010 saw publication of the eponymous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume behemoth based like the OED on historical principles, giving slang the deep scholarship it deserves – and more than it has ever received before. Green has since updated thousands of its entries in his database, but since GDoS might not see a revised print edition, I only hope it goes online. [Edit: it has done, for subscribers.]

Green’s life and work are the twin topics of his new book Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, kindly sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape in London. It aims “both to demystify ‘the dictionary’ and to give some glory to slang, one of language’s most disdained of subsets.” These modest aims it achieves, and then some: this is a belter of a book.*

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