PROFANITY IN THE NEW YORKER.

Unfortunately, John McPhee’s New Yorker piece “Editors & Publisher: The name of the subject shall not be the title” is not online (you can read an abstract here)—it’s a delightful reminiscence, and I recommend it if you have access to the physical magazine (July 2, 2012 issue)—but the magazine’s blog has Mary Norris’s “Dropping the F-Bomb,” which points out that McPhee “broke new ground in this piece by using ‘fuck’—as verb, noun, adjective, and interjection—fourteen times in a single paragraph” and discusses other aspects of the magazine’s battle (now, happily, over) against profanity, as well as the proposed “‘activating’ hyphen” in star-fucker (which I would, in any case, write as one word).
And on the Russian front, don’t miss Sashura’s post on the jargon used by Russian office workers, which includes this classic:

Фуй – fui, from FYI (for your information) read phonetically, with the English ‘y’ read as the similarly looking “у” [u, or u:]. This one is wonderful, because ‘fui’ is not only a slightly archaic interjection of disapproval or disgust, but also a mask-word for the very powerful, unprintable swear-word “хуй” (khui – cock). BFM says фуй is widely used in office correspondence.

Comments

  1. i don’t understand of course humor of people finding f words funny, but fui sounds funny, it’s direct meaning in russian, its pretentiousness i mean, i’d recall it every time i get email with fyi i guess
    i’ve learned recently there is a new expression among our young kids, “gugl tsarailax” means ‘be like/have a google face’, and it is said with disapproval about someone pretending to know everything, hope it catches on, but maybe it won’t
    cz google knows really perhaps everything..
    urban dictionary’s definition is different, “the look on someones face when they are on Skype/video chat and they minimize the screen so they can google something. Face is usually blank and staring”

  2. celebrating higgs bosons 🙂
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4XRZIqxiIg

  3. From the blog:

    It no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously, as in “I missed the fucking bus.” I used to be a prude, but now I am a ruined woman.

    The second sentence is funny, but what in the world does she mean by “even when they are used gratuitously” ? It is the very essence of four-letter words that they are gratuitous. They cost nothing, denote nothing, and merely signal various degrees of annoyance.
    Gratuitous fucks make the world go round.

  4. I don’t think the original post in the Russian-language blog got this Фуй even approximately right. They appear to think that it’s exactly how FYI should be pronounced in English, and furthermore, that the Y stands in for “your” as in … “do not share with others, it’s yours and yours only”. As it often happens, when a trendy slang is full of mistakes, I would guess that it isn’t really a common trend, just somebody’s half-baked invention.
    Google-searching Фуй returns abundant references to its traditional meaning, which matches English feh.

  5. Grumbly, I take the opposite point of view. There is nothing the least bit gratuitous in the use of fucking in I missed the fucking bus. It communicates as much or more to the reader as any other word in the sentence: not only the speaker’s emotional state, but something about the speaker’s character, too: blunt, plain-spoken, unwilling to use circumlocutions.

  6. The silly social stigma surrounding the use of profanity and other “dirty” words, yes even around children, needs to fucking die 🙂
    There’s no good reason for it (notice my emphasis on ‘good’: there are a lot of silly, illogical reasons, but no genuinely good ones).
    Good for The New Yorker.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  7. John, that’s a rather starry-eyed take on the use of four-letter words.
    Consider a non-native speaker of a language who learned it from someone whose speech is full of gratuitous obscenities, i.e. the space-filler kind that function as particles. When the speaker realizes what has happened – when a native speaker takes the trouble to explain to him what he is saying – he will probably be embarassed and immediately try to rid his speech of those particles.
    The NY article begins with a reference to “illiterate tweets laced with obscenities”. Are you saying that such tweets reveal their authors to be blunt, plain-spoken and unwilling to use circumlocutions ? The texts may well indicate that their authors like to think of themselves as blunt, plain-spoken etc. But it is consistent with that to make a preliminary assessment of such people as dumb shits incapable or unwilling to express themselves better than they do.

  8. It’s not the “obscenity” of such people that grates on me, but the low signal-to-noise ratio – their lack of wit and their insistence on wasting the hearer’s time with adolescent banalities.

  9. “What does that mean, ‘one man one vote’?”
    “It means, ‘One bloody man, one bloody vote’!”
    “Oh.”

  10. Trond Engen says:

    There’s no such thing as a gratuitious fuck.

    A writer may well reveal herself as a dumb shit by excessive use of obscenities, but that’s not special for swearing. As with any other language, it’s how it’s used. And there’s no way to give a rule. It’s about mastering the style and producing the wanted effect in the context.

  11. There’s no such thing as a gratuitious fuck.
    There is such a thing as a gratuitous fuck, though. It’s the kind where there is no charge.

  12. From the foregoing exchange I conclude that Trond must be at least as old as I am.

  13. It’s about mastering the style and producing the wanted effect in the context.
    Exactly. That’s why I identified the primary problem as “lack of wit and their insistence on wasting the hearer’s time with adolescent banalities”.

  14. mollymooly says:

    Omit needless fucking words.

  15. Treesong says:

    GStu: I’m reminded of a guy I knew in high school who seemed to throw a couple of ‘fuckin’s into most sentences. Low signal-to-noise, as you say. And of the (apocryphal?) guy who got so used to using the word in the army that at dinner when he came home on leave he said ‘Pass the fucking butter.’ Those are gratuitous. Contrary to the blog, I’d say ‘I missed the fucking bus’ is prima facie not gratuitous, though it could be–if spoken, perhaps, by someone who’d say ‘Is this the fucking bus stop?’

  16. rootlesscosmo says:

    “I could hardly believe it–there were two people at the other end of the subway car who were fucking!” Not gratuitous at all. (Heard from a friend many years ago. West Side IRT.)

  17. Not the people who use f-words, but the f-words themselves are blunt. Like pornography they are everywhere nowadays, and have long ago lost any utility or appeal they may have had in particular situations. Discussions about their pros and cons are anachronistic, for the same reasons.
    One hardly knows how to express anger properly these days. I myself rely on biting sarcasm, but this requires more practice and effort than most people are willing to invest. It doesn’t enhance your reputation, but then neither did cussin’.

  18. Google-searching Фуй returns abundant references to its traditional meaning, which matches English feh.
    To me, the matching English is foo or fooey. Feh strikes me as being Yiddish. (I sometimes hear Israeli kids saying “Fooyah”.)
    Interesting that Фуй and foo(ey) are so similar. I wonder if they share a common origin.

  19. PeteMcK says:

    I once flatted with some Thai students who had a limited grasp of English; they knew the swear words but didn’t know how to use them, listening to their attempts was hilarious. They seemed to think that inserting a profanity, uninflected, anywhere in a sentence,combined with repetition, would work. It doesn’t.

  20. “Fooyah!” to me would be the cry of the geek squad of the U.S. Marines.
    Grumbly, I grant that gratuitous swears exist, I just don’t think that I missed the fucking bus is an example thereof. There is also the non-gratuitous non-swear, as when, if the sergeant says “Get your fucking rifles!” it’s a routine order, whereas if he says “Get your rifles!” something is really wrong. Or so I’m told.

  21. he said ‘Pass the fucking butter.’
    This reminded me of a story I read, that mentions the Victorian traditions at a well-known British boarding school:

    at Wellington, if you wanted the butter passed up the table you’d say, “Butter up!” but if you wanted it passed down you just said, “Can you pass the butter, please?”

  22. With a table, which direction is up, and which is down ?

  23. I will have to share that bit about Russian with my former Hebrew teacher. She’s a native of Israel and would occasionally say פויה “fuya.” She was surprised that it’s related to English “phooey.”

  24. I’m guessing that “up” is the end with the older boys. I wonder if they all wear wellingtons. Sweaty on the cricket pitch, wellingtons.

  25. I’m guessing that “up” is the end with the older boys.
    That’s the kind of sociological detail I was hoping to hear. I had imagined there might be a table prefect to supervise manners, who sat at the head of the table, thus defining “up”.
    In the refectory scenes in Harry Potter films, the tables are very long and there doesn’t seem to be much internal structure. Are the older students grouped at the end nearest the high table (?, the raised one where Maggie Smith sits), thus defining “up” ?
    I suppose butter might have been passed “clockwise” or “counterclockwise” at the Round Table. Or did one have to say “back the butter” and “veer the butter” ?
    Since when has a clock-face been used to specify directions instead of time ? When Caesar told his soldiers to attack at two o’clock, did they go in the wrong direction at the right time ?

  26. I missed a trick in a previous comment. I wish I had written: “…the f-words themselves are blunt. Like pornography they are fucking everywhere nowadays, …”

  27. I think all these disgust-indicators are onomatopoiea[*] and Wanderwörter, and it’s hopeless to try to decide which language got them from what. My mother always said “Pfui!” even when speaking English, and it was always clear to me as a child that this was simply her version of the “Fooey!” I heard from others.
    [*] This is one of those few words — Herodotus is another — that I can’t spell without consciously recalling the etymology. It’s probably because in my accent the first four syllables have the same vowel.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    I learn from wikipedia that Hong Kong Phooey (one of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons that brightened my ’70’s childhood) is “Hong Kong Pfui” when dubbed into German (and “Hong Kong Foufou” in French).

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Foufou:
    Foufou is just a childish, affectionate reduplication of fou ‘crazy’ (the feminine equivalent is fofolle from folle).
    ‘To act up, act crazy’ is faire le(s) fou(s), faire la folle/les folles. These phrases usually describe the fun but harmless activities of rambunctious children (jumping on beds, or pillow fights, for instance), which might lead to more serious trouble if not watched carefully and stopped at the right time.

  30. Are the older students grouped at the end nearest the high table (?, the raised one where Maggie Smith sits), thus defining “up” ?
    I think that there is a head of the hall, where the high table is. “Up” is toward the high table. No internal structure is required.

  31. Could it be only me or do some of these remarks appear like they are written by brain dead visitors?
    It’s just you, toots.

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