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25 posts categorized "Language "

February 13, 2007

Quote of the day: Gov. Eliot Spitzer on etiquette

NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

“I was told by Senator Bruno and others it violates the rules of etiquette to get involved in Senate races,” the governor said, referring to his campaigning in the recent special election in Nassau County, where Democrat Craig Johnson prevailed.

“I said, you know, sometimes the rules of etiquette are designed to maintain a status quo that isn’t quite right for the public,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to worry about challenging those rules of etiquette when I think the public interest demands it and requires it.”

Words to live by.

December 03, 2006

Sexual metaphors and profanity

Neil the Ethical Werewolf has an excellent post about the connotations of sexual obscenities. I can relate to Neil's tendency to analyze foul language.

Swearing is a fascinating empirical and philosophical topic. Why is it that people reflexively scream taboo words in non-sensical contexts when they're angry, scared, astonished, or otherwise riled up?

One interesting thing about "swear words" is that they're conventionalized. You can't paraphrase expletives, except by substituting a culturally approved euphemism. For example, you can't use "sexual congress" in place of "fuck" in real swearing situations. "Screw you!" will work as a substitute for "Fuck you!", but "Get laid!" just won't get your point across.

Only certain words can be used to telegraph that kind of raw emotion. Kids are very interested in figuring out exactly which words are on the list. Do you remember intense debates on the playground whether some racy word was "a swear" or not?

Pure expletives seem to work independently of the nominal cognitive content of the expression. When someone bangs their thumb with a hammer and yells, "Fuck!", chances are that sexual intercourse is the furthest thing from their mind.

It's surely not coincidental that our culture's forbidden words usually have to do with sex and bodily functions. In Quebec, where the Catholic Church has historically cast a long shadow over daily life, the offensive expressions tend to be blasphemous rather sexual or scatological.

Interestingly, Quebec's atheists and agnostics use these blasphemous epithets with just as much gusto as believers. "Sacre!" still works, even if you aren't Catholic and couldn't care less about the church. English has a few blasphemous expressions, but "damn it" just doesn't pack the punch of "fuck it." "Bloody" and "hell" are hardly even rude anymore. ("Bloody" is a reference to the blood of Christ.)

Gutter insults are a little different from pure expletives. Most taboo names are actually similes. You can insult someone by directly accusing them of being stupid, lazy, inept, sexually unattractive, dishonest, or whatever. Or, you can use a curseword that stands in for the particular set of bad qualities you want to attribute to someone.

If you call someone "a pussy" you're imputing stereotypically feminine faults to them: namely being weak, squeamish, and cowardly. If you call someone "a prick" or a "dickhead" you're delivering a very different insult. By calling someone "a whore" you're attributing characteristics that our society normally associates with prostitutes: either a willingness to debase oneself for money, or sexual promiscuity. As Neil, Amanda, and zuzu observe, that elision only works because it piggybacks on our society's contempt for sex workers and sexually active women in general.

By contrast, there's no difference in the meaning of "Fuck!" vs. "Shit!" as a pure expletive, even though the two words refer to totally different things.

Some abusive taboo words function more as similes than others. "Bastard" used to be tied to the stigma of illegitimacy, but not any more. I remember being puzzled as a child when I found out that "bastard" literally meant someone whose parents weren't married when the were born. "Why would real bastards be more likely to be backstabbing or obstreperous?" I wondered. "Idiot" used to be a direct allusion to mental retardation. Nowadays, most people consider it an interesting bit of trivia that the term was originally a legitimate medical classification for developmental disability. To most people, "idiotic" is just another synonym for stupid.

Maybe taboo words have a life-cycle. They start out as ordinary words for taboo things. For whatever reason, some of them get picked up and conventionalized as expletives and/or terms of personal abuse. As language and norms change, the insulting connotation can remain long after the original taboo has eased.

It's interesting to contrast the status of the word "cunt" in British English vs. North American English. In the UK, the "cunt" seems to be going the way of "fuck" and "shit"--a general-purpose epithet that nobody particularly associates with female genitalia in the context of cursing. "Cunt" has even become a verb, as in "cunt off" and an adjective, as in "The cunting boiler is broken again." Whereas in the US and Canada, you can't use the word "cunt" without triggering associations with female genitals.

If taboo words have life-cycles, that might help explain why there are such vehement disagreements within the progressive community about the appropriateness of certain insults. Swear words reflect traditional values, that is, traditional in the sense of being widely held for a very long time. Our taboo vocabulary is a legacy of our actual taboos and hang ups.

When you use a word like "cunt" to mean a disgusting, immoral, or dissolute person, it's hard to escape the implication that cunts themselves are disgusting.

Notice that "dick," "prick," "dickhead," and "schmuck" are much milder insults than "cunt." What do you think that says about our society's attitudes, past or present, towards the female genitalia? However, you can instantly up the ante for male-genital-based insults if you add an implication of gayness, i.e., "cocksucker."

Most insults are somewhere between a live simile and a dead metaphor. People who speak the same language can disagree about where a particular insult falls on the continuum. At a certain point, "bastard" ceases to be a dig at a person's parentage and becomes the industrial-strength counterpart of "jerk." I don't hesitate to use the word "lame" to describe something inane, but I won't use the word "gimped" to indicate that something's broken. I don't use the word "cunt" as an insult, but I occasionally call wimps "pussies." For some reason, "gimped" and "cunt" just feel too closely tied to values that I reject. I don't have an argument for drawing the line exactly where I do.

Why are progressives, myself included, sometimes tempted to use insults that have sexist connotations? There's the lure of the forbidden, I suppose. There's also the desire to throw out the word you know to be the most offensive, literal denotation be damned. If you think that Michelle Malkin is the most contemptible person in the media, it's tempting to deploy the c-word simply because it's the rudest one-word thing you can call her. Some philosophers would argue that to you "cunt" just means the most despicable kind of person. (A lot of words we now consider to be homonyms started out with the same or similar meanings and drifted apart over the years.)

Most importantly, if you're going to insult someone, it's important that you pick an insult that will actually shock and hurt them. If you're trying to insult someone who's sexist and homophobic, it's probably more effective to call them "a pussy" than "a wimp." Maybe this is also the best reason to stay away from these kinds of words--they force you to play within your opponent's value system. As such, they are the consummate failure of framing.

Calling Michelle Malkin "a cunt" is the equivalent of calling the Republicans "the party of big government"--a terrible rhetorical move whether it's deserved or not. "Big government" is a Republican frame that Democrats have to counter with a better frame of their own. Fighting about who's really the party of big government just helps the Republicans by reinforcing their way of looking at taxes and the state. Likewise, "cunt" and "fag" originated in a conceptual scheme where vulvas are gross and gay people are subhuman. It's very difficult to use those insults without reinforcing the values that made the epithets make sense in the first place. An individual can sever the tie between the word "cunt" and cunt-hatred, but that doesn't mean that word has lost its associations for its audience.

Neil says that he doesn't use words like "cunt" very much because the negative connotation of the word is at odds with the positive associations he has with actual female genitalia. That's more or less how I feel about it. If a metaphor is live for you, and you disagree with what you take to be the underlying value judgment, it's less satisfying to use that phrase as a term of abuse.

[Mandatory context disclaimer: I'm not saying any word should be off-limits. Context is everything. Obviously, the standards are different for using a word in fiction, satire, direct quotation, etc. The appropriateness of the term also depends on who uses it, and for which audience.]

November 27, 2006

What American accent do you have?

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: North Central

"North Central" is what professional linguists call the Minnesota accent. If you saw "Fargo" you probably didn't think the characters sounded very out of the ordinary. Outsiders probably mistake you for a Canadian a lot.

The West
The Midland
The Inland North
The Northeast
The South
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

HT to Amanda.

August 18, 2005


Amanda argues that we should call Bush's Crawford estate a ranch.

The problem is that the word "ranch" is used in Texas to describe any plot of land where you can't see your neighbor's house. We only use words like "manor" or "estate" with our tongues firmly in cheek, such as when I describe my 1100 sq. ft. home as Mouse Manor. When you describe something as a "ranch" here, your audience doesn't assume you actually work the land until you say so. Granted, a number of non-working ranches have a stray cow or sheep or some goats for tax reasons or so the owners don't have to mow the lawn, but that's beside the point. Ranches don't have to be agriculturally useful to be considered ranches in the local parlance. [...] But leave the word "ranch" alone, because otherwise, it makes it sound just a little like you're picking on the local dialect.

Bush's ranch is also an estate. When the media describe things, they're supposed to use terms that will convey an accurate impression to the audience. To most people, ranches are agricultural operations. Bush's set-up in Crawford is a cushy modern house with extensive grounds. So, if you say "estate" you'll convey a more accurate impression of Bush's vacation home. Maybe we could compromise and call it a compound. In some variants of English, cafeterias are called "canteens." If a speaker of my dialect calls something "a canteen" instead of "a cafeteria," my mental image of the place is going to be decidedly more rustic or military than it otherwise would have been.  Bush only bought the estate a few years ago as a propaganda ploy. He wanted something to call a ranch. I won't criticize anyone who calls the place a ranch because it's legally accurate and faithful to local usage. However, I'm going to keep describing it as an estate, because that's equally accurate and avoids misleading cowboy connotations.

March 19, 2005


At Language Log a Arnold Zwicky explores the mutation of a favorite slang term.

Uh oh. I'm probably violating the use/mention distinction. I don't care about the word, really.

October 25, 2004

Swedish idioms in painfully literal translation

Quine would have enjoyed this page. Here are just a few examples:

That was that that
Det var det det
That's it!

Here he got figs!
Där fick han fikon!
The outcome was disappointing/not quite what he expected. Synonymous of: "Han fick stå där med lång näsa", which would translate as "He had to stand there with a long nose".

Geneways are tendonways.
Genvägar är senvägar.
Shortcuts are much not always the best way.

The taste is like the bum - divided
Smaken är som baken - delad
Tastes differ

It shrieks to clear one self out of the road with the waist intact.
Det gäller att klara sig undan med livet i behåll
The important thing [here] is to get away alive.
Greger Wikstrand

Click for many, many more Swedish idioms

September 23, 2004

Lakoff framing and reciprocity

Siris wonders if the liberal fascination with framing is misplaced. He writes:

What I wonder is why Lakoff always focuses on taxation. There's an equally good set of frames in the case of welfare -- e.g., the fact that we talk about 'health care' rather than 'emergency medical subsidies' or, for that matter, about 'welfare' rather than about 'poor law' and 'the dole', and about 'welfare recipients' rather than 'charity cases'. Since Lakoff is a la mode for liberals these days, perhaps they would do well to keep in mind that conservatives can turn the matter around just as easily as liberals can. If people really want to make political discourse a war for names, it's a game that can be played by anyone. My own view is that this is all playing with fire -- and you know what you risk when you play with fire.

This is part of what I think might be a serious flaw in our political reasoning, namely, a failure to think long-term. [...]

Conservatives have been winning the framing game by acclamation for decades. Lakoff is simply arguing that liberals need to devote more effort to packaging their ideas into attractive rhetorical/metaphorical soundbites. He got tired of watching conservatives win media debates by saying "I'm for tax relief." and "My opponent supports the death tax." It's a clever way to defang your opponent before they say a word. Nobody wants to be against relief, nobody wants to be seen as a wannabe death profiteer. Or, to use another example, "partial birth abortion" isn't a piece of genuine medical jargon, it's a smart marketing buzzword. Conservative propagandists coined it. The medical term for the procedure is "dilation and extraction." People won't go to marches against D&E's, but they'll turn out en masse to assail "parital birth abortion."

Lakoff realizes that frames set the terms of a debate. Liberals need vigorous counter-framing to highlight our beliefs and values. Framing doesn't have to be deceptive or simplistic. I happen to believe that taxes are more like the dues of an exclusive club than like a disease from which one deserves relief. Two old but good examples of liberal framing are "pro-choice" and "Planned Parenthood." "Pro-choice" is a brilliant frame because it is both more compelling and accurate than "pro-abortion." Likewise, "Planned Parenthood" was a brilliant name for a reproductive health organization because it highlighted the real mission of this organization--not just to provide birth control and abortion, but to help people acheive maximum wellbeing and autonomy in their reproductive lives.

Ironically, I think "welfare" was a great liberal frame back in the day. Eventually, even the best frames become dead metaphors. Nowadays, "welfare" is losing its original positive connotation and even becoming perjorative (eg "welfare bum". "welfare queen"). That's why we have to keep thinking up new frames.

September 03, 2004

Tim McGraw: shit kickin' language maven

Tim McGraw, the William Safire of Country music:


I'm readin' Street Slang For Dummies
Cause they put pop in my country
I want more for my money
The way it was back then

Back when a hoe was a hoe
Coke was a coke
And crack's what you were doing
When you were cracking jokes
Back when a screw was a screw
The wind was all that blew
And when you said I'm down with that
Well it meant you had the flu....

--I Miss Back When

August 12, 2004


Thad asked what "roshambo" means. Cf. "roshambo" at Urban Dictionary.

Here's something else that came up on Google, a link to the Roshambo Winery.

What liberals can learn from Alan Keyes

Alan Keyes just snowed Dave Davies on Fresh Air [Click for NPR audio.] Fresh Air broadcast an Obama interview and a Keyes interview in succession. Listening to the two interviews makes for a fascinating contrast in political style.

Keyes has an interesting strategy. He confuses interviewers by loudly insisting that he is making arguments and that reason is on his side. It's embarrassing and illuminating to see how easily his rhetoric cows Dave Davies. Davies just hasn't thought enough about the abortion issue to ask the right questions. Keyes' flimsy equivalence between abortion rights and slaveholding could have been deflated with a single well-placed query about the whether fetuses are persons. Davies held back, apparently intimidated by Keyes' self-proclaimed rigor.

On the gay marriage issue. Davies has no idea what to say when Keyes starts pontificating about the moral difference between the inability of gay couples to procreate in principle and the incidental barrenness of old, sick or uninterested heteros. A simple "Why is that important?" would have gone a long way.

Contemporary liberalism has an uneasy relationship with objectivity and reason. Even liberals who uphold these ideals often feel uncomfortable espousing them in public. Left wing critics are quick to acknowledge their own biases. Some attempt to make their epistemic vices into virtues by challenging the very idea of objectivity. This ambivalence is ironic given that relativism is utterly self-defeating for any progressive. As social critics, liberals need to convince others that we have good reasons, that facts and logic are on our side. Ironically, liberal pundits are more comfortable giving reasons than congratulating themselves for being on the side of reason. Perhaps liberals can learn something from Alan Keyes willingness to identify himself with objectivity and rigor.