Category Archives: grammar

the f word

Selfies and F-bombs: The F Word edited by Jesse Sheidlower

This review is dedicated to my friend Eh!

Updating this review after Alexis and I had a selfie-off with books about cussing. She began with a photo of herself with the Encyclopedia of Swearing; I countered with one of me holding up this book. So, who (s)wore it better?

Two women in selfies with books on cussing


Original review: I have a love affair with the f-bomb, so much so that my mother gave me this as a birthssdayyy pressenttt, my preciousss. This is pretty much the best book ever written, at least for me, because it combines my love of the dictionary with my love of cussing. And not just any cussing – there are plenty of curse-words in the sea of profanity, all of them fine words in their own rights, but none of them roll off of my tongue with the same regularity and fervor as the venerable eff. It sounds good; it has punch; it’s volatile, useful, emotive. But more than that, the effenheimer is so explosive, so everywhere. It’s one of the few words in English that can used as all parts of speech, up to and including the infix, a bit dropped between syllables, as in absofreakinglutely, which one almost never finds in English. These four letters go where no word has gone before.

The intro to this book is a piece of scholarly beauty. Sheidlower begins by exploding the myth that the f-word begins life as an acronym, usually “Fornication Under Consent of the King” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. (This last one was used as by Van Halen as an album title, natch.) I was told this as a teen by other credulously whispering teens, and I didn’t believe it then. Given how completely illiterate most of history is, the acronym-word is something of a modern invention, one that our four-lettered friend is happy to be a part of in new coinages like OMFG and MILF.

He chit-chats a bit about early usages, winding toward the pretty well-supported theory that probably frak didn’t evolve from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you want to get into a big fighting match about what to call these languages). Frig was probably was a later borrowing from various Low Germans, and the earliest reference in writing is in the mid-1400s in…get this…a cipher. There’s good evidence that Shakespeare is making a coded reference to the f-bomb in the funny French-talk scene in Henry V, along with…get this…the c-bomb. The difficulty in charting the history of forbidden speech is that it’s forbidden of course, and while everyone may be saying it, no one writes it down.

Here’s where I freak out, of course. (You knew I was going to.) The history of profanity is so incredibly fascinating to me because it’s this incredibly common thing, and I mean that with all of the double-ententes. It’s not that classes of people don’t swear – they pretty much all do – but they swear only when with specific people. You can see this in the copious amount of military f-slang in this book – men will swear with other men, but not with women or men of the wrong class. (Actually, not everyone swears: there’s a really funny reference to a Browning poem where he misuses the word twat, thinking it’s a kind of hat. Muhahahaha.)

There’s a whole twin history of c**t and f**k though, culminating in the legal wranglings over the the publications of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And I think the basis of the upset, on some level, was that Joyce and Lawrence were writing about the elevation of everyday experience, in Joyce’s case, and a love affair between people of different classes, in Lawrence’s case. Each in their own way, they were reworking what kinds of stories were acceptable, valorous, important. I can just see the monocles pop. “You there, Joyce, you’ve mired the Epic in the street-filth of everyday life; put it down now and back away. You there, Lawrence, it’s bad enough that you describe the possibility of female pleasure, and with someone outside her class, but did you actually have to go and name the dreaded thing? Eeeek!” The profane words – often coded themselves, pushed down so that they squish out into all kinds of codes, ciphers, and allusions – become a kind of cultural metaphor for unspeakable people, unspoken lives and stories, the word that cannot be named as a sign for people who should not be mentioned. Joyce and Lawrence couldn’t be taken to court for their filthy ideas, but they could be taken to court for using bad words. The great benefit of learning language, for the slave Caliban, was in his ability to curse.

Whoa, that got a little heavy. Seriously though, I think maybe part of the reason I love swearing so very much is that I can’t figure out whom I’m hurting by doing so, and if I am indeed hurting someone, I would like to know why. I have plenty of words that I feel are taboo, something I cannot speak aloud, and in some cases can’t even type out: retard, kike, the n-word. Much of this is based on identity, because these words are meant to slur and smear. They use marginalized identities as their own insult. (And honestly, I’ve heard all the arguments about retard being just a funny word and non-threatening – and/or “medically accurate”; fools – and this is all b.s. that continues to discount the disability community because disabled is disarmed. But whatever, say what you will, of course.)

Now that I’ve slipped into arguing against the usage of certain words, I’m all in love with this book again. Words have power, yes indeedy they do. Say it with me now: fuck you.

 

P.S. Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote this book, is incredibly adorable.

 

Jesse Sheilower sitting in a chair

 

Screenshot 2013-11-13 23.09.19

Palimpsests and Turing Tests: Cool Things on the Internet Today

I found two things that made me freak out today, and for entirely different reasons. First, I saw this post from Themis-Athena with a link to a post about a medieval palimpsest that had been analysed using some kind of scientific devilry, and the palimpsest gave up classical commentary about Aristotle and some fragments of Euripides. My post to her was ZOMG. When I posted somewhere else, the reaction was ZOMG. It’s pretty ZOMG all around.

A million years ago, when I was a teen going to the Minneapolis public schools, I ended up getting a bunch of free tickets to the Guthrie theater for their season of classics. They ran all of the Oresteia, I think, though maybe it was just the trajectory of Oedipus Rex —> Oedipus at Colonus —> Antigone. For sure Medea was in there too – I can still see the bloody tableau of Medea rising with her murdered children off the thrust stage and into the rafters. It was a great season to watch at 17, all these crazy powerful classics from a million years ago staged with a minimum of fuss. I cried a lot at people so dead they were dead beyond the telling of it, or so non-existent they didn’t rightly make sense in the world anymore. In our crappy, ugly school building, we talked about what I had seen, the fact that so much is lost. Whenever someone unearths just a bit of those old, crusty words, my 17 year old self rejoices. Plus, scientific deviltry is hot.

But then the other thing I found today was what would I say, which is one of those Turing Test things that burns through facebook every now and then. Basically, this app takes all of your facebook posts and chops them up and spits them out in something resembling grammar. Generally my posts on facebook only resemble grammar, so it’s kind of perfect. For example:

Watching the “Divergent” casting by claiming that the credits rolled in it.

Just out their bs, the dinosaurs wouldn’t let you, and every one of the backhanded compliment.

And they sting you! No, more potential for Grandma Dory. Perfect.

30 Day Book Challenge Day 24 hours to accomplish for the Constitution forbids the endless descriptions of bookstores gauzy and dreamy, yet I want some of the execution of spoilers.

At least not until much harder core than I.

Certainly, this is all stuff I would say if I were high as fuck and posting on facebook. Which has happened a couple of times, but totally legally and due to illness/medication, FBI, fyi. Gosh, is this app fun to play with though, this post-modern mirror on all the stupid stuff I say all the time, and in public.

So, thanks Internet. Today was a blast.

 

Stephen Fry, Lynne Truss & Grammar

I just ran across this video done by Stephen Fry and Matthew Rogers about grammar. I started it expecting one of those “ho ho, look at the philistines” tidbits, but it ended up being a sweeter, more compassionate entreaty to be mindful of how strict adherence can destroy a joy in language. I interact with people in a text-based medium all the time – probably more than when I actually talk out loud to humans, sadly – and I know I cringe and want to drop a *you’re when I see the possessive substituted for the contraction. But, unless I’m dealing with a troll, that is an uncharitable thing to do. Let’s just have a good time, slash be inventive.

(More videos can be found at RogersCreations)
(And if the embed is jacked, which it always is, link here.)

Fry’s sexy little ramble hits the ambivalence I felt when reviewing Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves – he name-checks her as well at some point – which is about punctuation, an even more abstruse subset of grammatical rules than your usual split infinitive nonsense. Typographical rules tend to be scattershot and local, and many of them are in place because of physical limitations of typesetting machines that no longer factor. Sure, the grocer’s comma makes me laugh a lot of the time, like a sign hanging in the hospital coffee room when my son was hospitalized that managed to put an apostrophe in every word that didn’t need one, and removed them from the ones that did. Which, thank the signifier for that badly needed laugh. The original review of Truss’s book is below.

Recently, the boy made a sign for the door of his bedroom that reads “Keep Out. Not for baby’s.” His spelling is largely self-taught, as he is not yet in kindergarten and I am a somewhat lazy parent-educator. This made me have a Noam Chomsky-ish melt-down about the concept of generative punctuation. Lord, is the grocer’s comma innate? Is it mapped on our brains like the double negative? Am I really his mother?

This book has been sitting on my bedside table for no less than two years. I read it only when I can’t be bothered to go in search of my real book or the book with which I’m cheating on my real book. For some reason, I don’t think of this book that fondly when I’m not reading it, and then I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I pick it up again. But I have this jarring sensation when I read it, akin to the feeling I get when I read articles about neuroscience: holy buckets, I’m using my brain to think about my brain! She’s using punctuation in a book about punctuation. Hey, don’t bogart that. 

This book makes me feel weird because I don’t think of myself as a stickler. I am both lazy and exuberant when it comes to punctuation. I have an unfortunate love affair with the semi-colon; it cannot be helped. I also overuse parentheses because I think they are funny. (I tried, and failed, to not type a parenthetical comment here; oh crap, and there’s the semi-colon.) My comma use borders on the Henry Jamesish. Why make simple declarative statements when things can be jammed together into one enormous run-on sentence, comma splices everywhere, and…my word, what has she done with the verb? This is the kind of writing this book provokes from me, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. 

When I was living in a dorm my first year of school, the housekeeper would put up missives with the most tortured punctuation all over the building. She was a kindly women, older, and cleaned up our crap for probably not much more year than was required for tuition. (Unsurprisingly, I only spent a year at this institution.) Regularly, jerk students would correct her signs and laugh about how bad the punctuation was – and it truly was bad. This has always bothered me. Of course good punctuation provides a clarity of expression when attempting to convey a clarity of ideas. Of course. But sometimes you should just pick up your fucking towel’s, jackholes, regardless of whether they possess anything. 

It was a relatively painless way to brush up on the punctuation rules I’ve now largely forgotten, and will no doubt forget again in roughly fifteen seconds. I usually have the attention span of a very distracted raccoon when it comes to non-fiction, so it is saying something that I finished this book at all, even if it took two years. Oh, look! something shiny! And that does it for my three exclamation points for the year, alas.