Search Results for: THE F-WORD


Oxford University Press sent me a copy of the new third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s magnum opus, The F-Word. Before I continue, I should point out that the book, and therefore this post, is chock-full of examples of the most notorious curse word in the English language. You have been warned.
As I say, this is the third edition. Some of you who have acquired one of the earlier editions may be wondering “Do I need the third?” The answer is: Yes, yes you do. If you care enough about the history and use of the word fuck to own the book, you owe it to yourself to get this edition. This is not one of those pro forma “revisions” that correct a few errors, toss in a few added items, and add a new preface; no, the text of the dictionary is twice as large as the second edition, over a hundred new words and senses have been added, and coverage is far wider. The first edition included only American uses; the second added some U.K. and Australian examples, but more as flavoring. This one aims to cover the entire English-speaking world, a project greatly aided by Sheidlower’s having gone to work for Oxford UP and thus getting access to the files of the OED: “uses that are specifically British, Australian, or Irish are included in their own right, and a very large number of quotations have been added from non-American sources to illustrate all entries, not just those associated with a particular national variety. The reader will thus find vastly more British examples (including Welsh and especially Scottish in addition to English), and also quotations from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere.” A word that has circled the globe deserves no less.

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Aramaic, Magical and Naughty.

Aramaist Edward Cook has fun with recent pop-culture uses of Aramaic in his post “You Won’t Believe These Unbelievable Aramaic Expressions!!” (Great title, as is the name of his blog, Ralph the Sacred River.) He gives a noogie to Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, which purports to quote an actual sentence:

I’m not sure if Quentin recited the text from right-to-left, in which case the sentence runs backward (although the words are not backwards), or left-to-right (in which case the words are backwards, but the sentence gives the correct word order). Maybe it’s a Unicode thing, or just a magic thing.

Then he gets into the series Spartacus on the Starz network:

I’ve not found out who did the Aramaic, but I infer from the scripts (which are available here) that the language consultant employed mainly Talmudic Aramaic…

Also interesting are the “four-letter words” (obscene language). We don’t have any obscene language from ancient Aramaic — as far as I know — and it therefore presents a vexing problem in back-translation. I’m not going to go through all of them, lest I arouse distaste in some of my readers. However, the four-letter word par excellence, the F-word, gets a thorough workout in the scripts, and the back-translation is interesting, if not historically valid.

The whole thing is well worth it just for the philological exegesis of “Hare mezayyne. [Fucking shits.]” (Thanks, Paul!)


Geoff Nunberg was kind enough to have his publisher send me a copy of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which I (as a connoisseur of feelthy language) was looking forward to. It turns out to be not as much in my wheelhouse as Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word (see this post), which of course was my automatic point of comparison; most of it is taken up with what you might call the sociological analysis of assholism (puts the anal in analysis!), which is fun and thought-provoking but not really LH material. But there are nice bits of philological investigation as well. Chapter Three, “The Rise of Talking Dirty,” is excellent stuff; it starts off by quoting Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead: “Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole.” Nunberg then writes:

By the time asshole appeared in print, it had undoubtedly been circulating in army slang for quite a while. In fact it doesn’t really make sense to ask when this use of asshole was “coined.” It isn’t one of those items like pizzazz or beatnik that a clever columnist or copywriter can drop into the language some Tuesday morning. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of ingenuity to compare someone you want to disparage to the anus, and it’s fair to assume that people have been doing that from time to time for as long as asshole (or in its older form arsehole) has been around.

Still, it isn’t likely that asshole was a conventional epithet much before the modern period. Even in more straight-laced ages, vulgarities and profanities show up in sources such as diaries, personal letters, pornography, slang dictionaries, and the records of prosecutions for public disorderliness or military insubordination (“Go and f— yourself” made its first print appearance in the proceedings of the Old Bailey in 1901). People have been using arsehole to refer to the anus at least since Chaucer’s time, and there are citations from the 1860s on for the metaphorical use of the word for the most detestable spot in a region, as in “the arse-hole of the universe.” So if asshole had been a routine term of abuse much before World War II, there would most likely be some record of it. Ernest Hemingway didn’t use the word in the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms that he submitted to Scribner’s in 1929, which included shit, fuck, cocksucker, cunt, and balls, none of which made it into the published version. That’s not conclusive, of course, but if asshole had been around then, it’s a fair bet Hemingway would have taken to it (it did show up in Islands in the Stream, written in the early 1950s and set during World War II).

That’s good stuff there! He goes on to discuss the change from profanity proprement dit (damn, God, Jesus, etc.) to our modern secular swearing and the spread of such swearing from the military and other restricted circles into the wider society. And throughout the book he has intriguing charts tracking the ascent of asshole against the parallel ascent of words like empathetic and the descent of words like cad. In short, if the topic of assholes and assholery (or, to use Nunberg’s preferred term, assholism) interests you, this is the book for you.

Oh, and if you’re curious, as I was, about the Russian equivalent of asshole, Anatoly has a thorough discussion; I’m willing to accept his decision that мудак is the best candidate.

Addendum. Clayton Moore interviews Nunberg; a sample:

Why doesn’t this particular pejorative get the respect it deserves?

Vulgarity has a lot to do with it. There was no particular reason why we had to give a vulgar name to the people we used to these people—when you call someone an asshole, you’re not necessarily saying anything about his sex life or personal habits. But the vulgarity of the word marks it as something that grows out of our unreflecting everyday experience, something we all understand without instruction. It’s not a word that anybody ever bothers to look up in a dictionary—and if you did, you’d just find something like “a contemptible person,” which is not very helpful.


The Browser has one of its FiveBooks interviews with Jonathon Green, whose admirable Green’s Dictionary of Slang I wrote about in this post; I especially liked his discussion of the five books he recommends, ending with Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word (which I reviewed here): “Everybody should look at this and see how lexicography should be done, because it is a superb piece of work. It’s not a grubby book, or a meretricious book, it’s an amazing piece of scholarship.” Quite so, and the same is true of Green’s own magnum opus.

WORDS OF 1916.

Having posted on the first two installments of Dave Wilton’s “word of the year” series (words of 1911, words of 1912), I hadn’t been planning to continue, but his latest post, on words first attested in 1916, contains one so dear to my heart I can’t resist: proto-Indo-European, n. and adj. Another striking entry:

fuck-all, n. and adj. The so-called f-bomb may be the most versatile word in the language, appearing in countless forms and contexts. This particular variant, meaning “absolutely nothing,” appears in a British trial transcript from this year, indicating that despite the popular opinion that our use of the language is coarsening, fuck has been in wide and versatile use for a long time, only publishers wouldn’t admit it.

As I did in the related Wordorigins forum thread, I’ll quote the full sentence from the trial transcript to give the flavor of army English of the day: “He then said, ‘You are a fucking coward & you will go to the trenches—I give fuck all for my life & I give fuck all for yours & I’ll get you fucking well shot.'” (From Record of the Trial of H. Farr, quoted in Jesse Sheidlower’s invaluable The F-Word, which I reviewed here.) Some other interesting words first attested in that year: ambivalent, dealership, dysfunction, National Socialist, red giant, and tank.


Geoff Pullum has a post at the Log in which he painstakingly analyzes a sentence uttered at a concert by an exasperated Van Morrison. (I forgive Geoff his lack of appreciation of the great Belfast singer; as I wrote in a comment there, “I am a huge fan of his, but I can easily understand why his voice turns some people off.”) Warning: People offended by the f-word should not click on the link, which blasts it from both barrels in the very title, but they will be missing a fascinating and very funny discussion. Curse words, among their other interesting features, tend to muddy grammatical analysis.
Related only by the most tenuous of threads are the video linked by Dave Wilton at and the cartoon I link in the first comment, but I wanted to share them with you. (Thanks for the cartoon, tanahair!)
Addendum. And it turns out Jesse Sheidlower has a new edition of The F-Word coming out in September—read all about it!


A couple of interesting stories from the New York Times. I can’t get a blogsafe link for the first, so it may disappear in a few days:
Composing the Work an Ill-Fated Poet Never Began, by Alan Riding, describes a new book about (and by) Marina Tsvetayeva:

Now, in a new book published [in Paris], Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian-born French philosopher and literary critic, believes he has found a way of introducing Tsvetayeva to a larger public outside Russia. In “Vivre Dans le Feu: Confessions” (Éditions Robert Laffont), or “Living in Fire: Confessions,” Mr. Todorov has organized extracts from nine volumes of her letters, notes and diaries into what he calls the autobiography she never wrote.
“When I first read the material in Russian, I thought it was amazing, but also a bit difficult to follow,” Mr. Todorov said in an interview, “because when you take all this writing, it’s not a finished work. So I decided to carry out a labor of love, to compose a book that Marina had already written so that anyone could read the confessions of one of the great writers of the past century.”

That’s a book I’d like to read. The other story is about the new breed of young, hip lexicographers: In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word, by Strawberry Saroyan (no, that’s not an April Fool’s joke, it’s her name). It focuses on Erin McKean, 33, editor in chief of the Oxford American Dictionary, but features others as well:

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I cannot resist posting the following links; the second is of obvious linguistic relevance, and the first is just so damn funny I have to share it. But they are rough and knotty and deal with scandalous or salacious material. Readers of delicate sensibilities should pass over this entire entry. You have been warned.
1. A John Dolan review of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, a rehab memoir. Anyone who knows the Exile and its evil ways will not be surprised to hear that it begins “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read” and then takes off the gloves. It gets down and dirty. It may well be unfair. But I really can’t bring myself to care when it includes passages like this:

Walking on a trail outside the clinic, Frey names and capitalizes everything: “Trail,” “Tree,” “Animals.” Then he sees a lower-case “bird.” I was offended for our feathered friend. Why don’t the birds get their caps like everybody else?
But then Frey is no expert observer, as he proves in one of the funniest scenes from his nature walks, when he meets a “fat otter”: “There is an island among the rot, a large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch. There is chatter beneath the pile and a fat brown otter with a flat, armored tail climbs atop and he stares at me.”
Now, can anyone tell me what a “fat otter with a flat, armored tail” actually is? That’s right: a beaver! Now, can anyone guess what the “large, round Pile with monstrous protrusions like the arms of a Witch” would be? Yes indeed: a beaver dam!

I warn you, however, that the review contains Bad Language and Worse Attitudes.

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Subtitling Is a Craft.

Back in 2010 I said “Movie subtitles have been a perennial topic of discussion here at LH (e.g., 1, 2, 3)”; it’s been a while since the subject has come up, so it’s with pleasure that I present Anne Billson’s piece for the Guardian (which, I was glad to read recently, has actually turned a profit for the first time in its history):

The perfect subtitle is one you don’t notice. Occasionally, you might thrill to Anthony Burgess’s English subtitles in alexandrine form for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), or marvel at the bravura way Timur Bekmambetov threads animated subtitles into Night Watch (2004), or chuckle at the gaffes on old Hong Kong movies (“I have captured you by the short rabbits”). But mostly you just speed-read and move on.

This year, however, subtitles have been attracting more attention than usual. In January, Alfonso Cuarón condemned Netflix’s decision to add Castilian-Spanish subs to his film Roma as “parochial, ignorant and offensive to Spaniards”, who presumably couldn’t be trusted to understand the Mexican accent. Two days later, the Castilian subtitles were removed.

But criticism of Roma’s subtitles didn’t stop there. In February, the ATAA (Association des Traducteurs/Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel) pointed out that the film’s French subtitles were full of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and mistranslations. The ATAA’s chairperson, Ian Burley, who has been subtitling French, Belgian and Italian movies for more than 30 years, also took a look at Roma’s English subtitles, and found them riddled with stylistic inconsistencies, sloppy synchronisation and clumsy line breaks or punctuation, all of which are liable to distract or discombobulate the viewer. And in the riot scene, a woman’s desperate exhortation of “Vamos!” (“Come on!”) to a dying man whose head she is cradling is clumsily translated as “Let’s go!” – as though she thinks he is dawdling.

Concerned not just by the problems with Roma, well publicised because of the Oscar-winning film’s high profile, but by a more general decline in subtitling standards, AVTE (AudioVisual Translators Europe) is collaborating with its member associations (including the British Subtitlers’ Association, Subtle) in a call for film-makers to cooperate more closely with professional subtitlers, reminding them that subtitling is a craft – an art, even – that ought not to be left to amateurs or automatic translation software.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the history and technology involved, as well as things I wouldn’t have thought of (“A knowledge of the plot is essential; when space is tight, you can’t cut dialogue about a gun if someone is going to be firing it in the third act”). And I highly recommend Roma, whatever subtitles it’s stuck with. Thanks, Trevor!

Philip Pullman’s Swearwords.

Remember A Child’s Garden of Curses? Here‘s a nice followup in the Guardian by Emma Byrne, an artificial intelligence researcher and the author of Swearing Is Good for You:

“Philip Pullman Litters New Children’s Book With Swear Words.” So ran the Daily Mail’s headline introducing pearl-clutching coverage of his bad language in the newly published La Belle Sauvage. Its 500 words of faux outrage (fauxtrage?) over a novel containing the words “bollocks”, “bastards” and “fuck” began with the stunning news that: “By his own admission, some of [his] fans are as young as seven”, seemingly inviting us to imagine some poor, innocent cherub asking: “Mummy, what is bollocks?”

What’s bollocks is the idea that a seven-year-old doesn’t have a firm grip on at least the rudiments of bad language. This degree of manufactured ire is comical to anyone familiar with the latest research about children and their swearing habits. The vast majority of kids know (and use) taboo language fluently by the time they leave nursery.

In the fantastically named paper A Child’s Garden of Curses, cognitive neuroscientist Kristin Jay and professor of psychology Timothy Jay studied children from one to 12 years old. They found that, aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight. Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words. By the time they are on the verge of their teens, though, boys outstrip girls: 335 recorded incidents of swearing, to girls’ 112.

So Pullman’s audience is definitely familiar with swearing, and it’s doing them no harm. On the contrary, learning to curse is an essential part of development. Children learn which words best express which emotions in exactly the same way that they learn everything: by watching us. Repeatedly attaching the “F-word” to the experience of someone’s poor driving is probably teaching my daughter a lot about both the acceptable expression of one’s emotional state (only with the car windows up) and what constitutes bad road skills. (I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun).

Children also learn, from a surprisingly early age, that swearing isn’t all negative. Research shows that swearing is linked with all kinds of emotional states, including joy, surprise and fear. By learning to swear, children learn to understand other people’s feelings in a more nuanced way. “Children learn that curse words intensify emotions in a manner that non-curse words cannot achieve,” says Professor Jay. But the biggest advantage, from my perspective as a parent, comes from studies dating back as far as the 1930s, which show that swearing quickly replaces biting, hitting, and screaming as children develop. To which I must say, thank fuck for that.

Thanks, Trevor!