Cunctation for Titivating.

Mark Liberman has a funny post at the Log, quoting “FLM”:

A colleague (who has requested anonymity) and I have developed a fondness for perfectly innocuous words which, to the linguistically unwashed masses, sound sexual. My colleague’s example sentence is

Because her husband was intestate, she sought to dilate her fungible assets; despite cunctation for titivating, she managed to masticate and lucubrate far into the night.

A website of possible interest: Chuck Lorre Productions — words that confuse the CBS censor

There is more amusement in the comment thread (“Not only is my opponent a thespian, but she has actually performed the act on stage in front of paying customers!”).


  1. My own favourite is quincunx.

  2. Yes, that’s an excellent one.

  3. This brought to mind the Guaranteed Effective All-Occasion Non-Slanderous Political Smear Speech from the MAD magazine of my youth.

    Damned if it isn’t online and in full.

  4. There’s a long discussion of the classic Thespian speech (and other good stuff) in the Bonnie’s (possibly this Bonnie?) comment here..

    For those pressed for time, there is, among the other good stuff is this:

    “A dying Irishman who has become rich, though uneducated, leaves half his fortune to the church, intending to leave the other half to the state coeducational college. “Devil’s work!” cries the priest. “They take decent boys and girls and make them matriculate together. They even have to use the same curriculum!” The bequest to the college is cancelled.”

  5. BWA: Now THAT speech brings back some memories! Yes, in my misspent adolescence and childhood MAD magazine was a major source of my knowledge (such as it is) of American culture (I believe a majority of the American movies I saw before turning fifteen or so were ones of which I had read a MAD parody beforehand: an interesting experience), and this fine specimen of a political speech is not easily forgotten. Thanks for the link.

  6. Yvy tyvy says

    I’ve been trying to find out where the word “ballcock” comes from, but I’ve turned up nothing.

  7. Ball is no mystery. The OED says under this sense of cock:

    A spout or short pipe serving as a channel for passing liquids through, and having an appliance for regulating or stopping the flow; a tap.

    The origin of the name in this sense is not very clear: the resemblance of some stop-cocks to a cock’s head with its comb, readily suggests itself; but some of the earlier quotations seem to imply that the power of closing the ‘cock’ was no essential feature, i.e. that a cock was not necessarily a stop-cock, but that the word simply meant a short spout for the emission of fluid; in others it appears to be = nozzle or mouthpiece. But in German, hahn has been used in the same sense for an equally long period, and an example of 1503 in Grimm has ‘wenn es (ein kind) einen hän ufgewint, so louft der wein aller aus’ (if the child turns a cock, all the wine runs out), clearly referring to a stop-cock.

  8. This sort of things works for mean children, too. Many years ago I told my little sister “You’re a sibling” in a totally contemptuous tone of voice, and she ran off shouting “No, I’m not! Mother! Michael called me a sibling!” Mother calmly told her something along the lines of “You are a sibling and so is he. Siblings are brothers and sisters.” I don’t recall how old we were (12 and 10?) or how satisfied she was with the explanation.

  9. Ha!

  10. Also the classic “Your epidermis is showing!”

  11. David Marjanović says
  12. Some movie, I don’t remember which, had the insult “your momma’s an astronaut.”

  13. marie-lucie says

    Subteens, having mastered the everyday grammar and vocabulary of their native tongue, like to play with it (secret languages, unusual words, inventive insults). Once when my daughter was about nine or ten she said to me as she was upset at something: T’es bilingue! (‘You’re bilingual!’). The tone of voice conveys the intent, but you can’t really object to the word.

    I think that this feature of a developmental stage explains the extensive insulting vocabulary of Tintin’s sidekick le capitaine Haddock, whose impulsive personality and accident proneness are similar to those of a child that age.

    Talking about le capitaine, I am reminded of an interview I heard once with the British actor Rowan Atkinson, whose speechless character “Mr Bean” is otherwise much like Haddock. He said that he thought of Mr Bean as a nine-year-old boy.

  14. Bruce H. says

    Viz epidermis: “You have garments on your back.” “You eat victuals.”

    Some time ago I noticed that nearly any verb noun pair sounds lewd when appended to “Hey, baby! Wanna …” Hey, baby! Wanna digitize my sample?” Hey, baby! Wanna calibrate my probe?”

    Then my brother in law pointed out that the French can do it without even using words, nasalized “Uh huh huh.”

  15. marie-lucie says

    BH: the French can do it without even using words, nasalized “Uh huh huh.”

    I don’t remember this in my youth. I think that it is a relatively recent borrowing from American speech.

    When I first came to the US as a student, I was confused with the nasalized “uh uh” I heard everywhere, not knowing if it was meant to be positive or negative. Then I realized that the tone (rising or falling) was the clue. When I went back home after two years in the US, my family commented on this peculiarity of my speech, which I had adopted unconsciously.

  16. That, and the medial consonant. The positive one tends to have [h], and the negative one [ʔ].

  17. David Marjanović says

    German distinguishes open-mouth aha “oh, OK, I’ve learned something” from closed-mouth mhm “yes”. “No” is strictly [ʔḿʔm̀] (high and low tone in this order).

    I think that this feature of a developmental stage explains the extensive insulting vocabulary of Tintin’s sidekick le capitaine Haddock, whose impulsive personality and accident proneness are similar to those of a child that age.

    That, of course, and the fact that more realistic insults (“cursing like a sailor”) wouldn’t have been remotely printable.

  18. marie-lucie says

    David, more realistic insults (“cursing like a sailor”) wouldn’t have been remotely printable.

    Of course not, but le capitaine is not a realistic character (and neither are the others). Hergé’s works are not novels, they are comic strips, originally meant for children. Tintin, the role model, is a rather bland character physically and emotionally. Haddock supplies the antithesis, he looks like a middle-aged man but reacts mostly like a child. Children reading the insults have no more idea than Haddock about what the words actually mean, but they can identify with the mixed emotional reactions that provoke the outbursts.

    German: “No” is strictly [ʔḿʔm̀] (high and low tone in this order).

    Isn’t it the same in North American English?

    While perusing a dictionary of a North American language (I forget which) not too long ago, I was surprised to encounter approximately the same notation for the word meaning “no” in that language. I wonder if that is where the now apparently ubiquitous interjection comes from? (rather than a borrowing from English) After all, in (older) cartoons, Indians are often saying “ugh”, which could well be a transcription of an actual utterance, later adopted by the conquerors into their own speech.

  19. Yeah, I’d say that they can have both open- and closed-mouth versions. Affirmative [ʔm̩̀m̥ḿ̩] or [ʔʌ̃̀hʌ̃́]; negative [ʔḿ̩ʔm̩̀] or [ʔʌ̃́ʔʌ̃̀]. Childish [nʌʔʌ], unnasalized, can occur too.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Affirmative [ʔm̩̀m̥ḿ̩] or [ʔʌ̃̀hʌ̃́]

    Is this tone contour fixed? Over here, this is a word stressed on the second syllable and receives ordinary intonation: the pitch of the stressed syllable is higher except when it’s not, as when meaning “Oh. OK. Well. In that case…”

  21. Is this tone contour fixed?

    Yes and no. Here’s as precise a description as I can give of my own usage: YMMV.

    The truly fixed part is the consonantal skeleton: the affirmative requires that there be no ̂initial glottal stop and a period of devoicing in the middle, whereas the negative has both initial and medial glottal stops. The mouth may be anything from fully closed [m] to fully open [ɑ], with [ə̃], [ə], and [ɑ̃] as common intermediate stages. When the vowel is /m/, the “period of devoicing” is realized as [m̥], otherwise as [h]. The two syllables may have different vowels.

    The greater the semantic emphasis, the more likely the mouth is to be open (unless an object is in it, of course, making “yes” and “no” among the few things communicable by the voice when the mouth is otherwise fully occupied) and the greater the length of the vowels. However, superimposed on this is a binary distinction whereby low-emphasis forms are initially stressed with a tone contour (low-high in the affirmative, high-low in the negative), but high-emphasis forms are finally stressed and toneless. The maximally stressed affirmative, therefore, is toneless [ɑhˈɑ], normally treated as a separate word written aha!, and expressing (as you say) discovery.

  22. Buchan had a short story about a by-election in Scotland in which one candidate appealed to the Protestant electorate by using ominous sounding ecclesiastical terms: “Men of Kilclavers, will you endure to see a chasuble erected in your market place? Will you see your daughters sold into simony? Will you see celibacy openly practised in your streets?” By George, I had them all on their feet roaring “Never!”

  23. Despite the similar reference to Kipling, commenters at ATL seem to have missed (the equally ancient):

    Do you like Dickens?

    I don’t know, I’ve never been to one.

  24. Animal husbandry.

  25. I was reminded of this thread by this .

  26. January First-of-May says

    To clarify, the reference is presumably to this strip (though really almost the entire comic is worth reading, and IMHO this is one of the worst strips).

    Incidentally, this, like a lot of other subjects, is on TV Tropes – specifically, under the name Calling Me A Logarithm (a reference to another classic story).

  27. Very apposite!

  28. This reminds me of a sentence purporting to prove that grammaticality judgments can depend on general beliefs: “John called Mary a Republican/virgin/lexicalist, and then she insulted him“. The idea is that the contrastive focus is only usable by people who believe that “Republican”, “virgin”, or “lexicalist” are insults.

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