Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

May 25 2015 10:15 AM

Sacré Bleu! Why Is Blue the Most Profane Color?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Blue humour, blue movies, blue talk—what’s so obscene about the colour blue?


Nobody really knows, as it turns out. The origin of blue in the sense of lewd, coarse, orpornographic has been tough to pin down: etymologists have put forward a bunch of theories but haven’t found anything conclusive.

What's so offensive about blue, anyway?

Photo by Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of this usage dates back to 1818, in John Mitford’s The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy, in which Mitford (under pseudonym Alfred Burton) wrote, “Blush, Pluto! Blush as brimstone blue! This bluer Town can boast like you A ‘facilis descensus’ too.” I can’t find evidence that this blue-as-brimstone metaphor for sin really caught on, though. John Mactaggart’s Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopediafrom 1824, lists “Thread o’Blue” to mean “any little smutty touch in song-singing, chatting, or piece of writing,” which sounds more like the bluewe’re after, but the encyclopedia doesn’t give any hints about its origins. In Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1890), John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley proposed that blue might refer to the blue gown worn by a convicted prostitute in a house of correction, although that usage dates from the sixteenth century and doesn’t seem to have endured into the early 1800s. A related source for the crass blue is the colour’s association in Britain with uniforms worn by servants and licensed beggars, who were not necessarily smutty but were certainly considered coarse and unrefined, paralleling the evolution of the term blue collar, which popped up in North America in the twentieth century.

Slang authority John Camden Hotten, in his 1859 publication, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, suggested that the base or indecent connotation of bluehad its origins in the French Bibliothèque bleue, popular literature published between the early-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries on low-quality paper with a blue cover and read by the lower classes. The OED disputes this conjecture, “since such material appears in general to have been highly moral in tone”—unlike, say, the blue books that emerged in Storyville, New Orleans’s red-light district, which were directories of the area’s prostitution services.

Whether swearing a blue streak has different origins compared with blue talk or blue language (not to be confused with Léon Bollack’s constructed language) is also up for debate. Blue streak may originally have simply meant fast or vivid, like a flash of lightning: an issue of The Kentuckian from 1830 featured the sentence “To pass…with such rapidity as not even to leave a ‘blue streak’ behind him.” Swearing had wormed its way into the expression by 1847, as in “a ‘blue streak’ of oaths,” possibly independently of other sweary instances of blue.

Blue laws, which began in 1755 as puritanical restrictions on the activities of New England residents on Sundays, are unconnected with the obscene sense of blue. Contrary to popular belief, blue laws were never printed on blue paper and so the origin of their name also remains a mystery.

The term off-colour evolved separately, appearing in the mid-nineteenth century. According to the OED, it was first used to describe diamonds of lower clarity and thus took on the connotation of impure. I can’t find anything to suggest that off-colour = blue.

While we’re at it, I should also mention that sacré bleu (or sacrebleu) isn’t an oath French speakers use (anymore). And even this interjection has a murky etymology. Depending on whom you ask, bleu might refer to the Virgin Mary, often depicted wearing a blue dress or sash, or it might be a mincing of dieu (God). I’m inclined to believe the latter, because other dieu → bleu minced oaths—including corbleu (for corps de dieu, or God’s body) and morbleu (for mort de dieu, or God’s death)—can be found in medieval French records.

The ribald blue is a bit of idiomatic language with a squishy, sordid history that I can’t offer you in a neat package—and is a great example of how equivocal etymology can be. If you’ve come across other theories about its origins, let us know in the comments.

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May 22 2015 11:23 AM

The Kick-Butt World of Cutthroat Compounds

The following post was excerpted from Sentence First: An Irishman's blog about the English language.

A houseboat is a type of boat; a boathouse is a type of house.

This illustrates a common pattern in English morphology: the rightmost part of a compound (houseboat) is usually the ‘head’. In other words it’s the centre or larger category, functionally equivalent to the overall compound, and what precedes it (houseboat) modifies or specifies it. So we say English is ‘right-headed’.

But the semantic relationship between the parts can’t be inferred automatically from their arrangement, as this charming/disarming Bizarro cartoon by Dan Piraro shows:

Bizarro Comics by Dan Piraro - water truck fire truck

Right-headedness is a feature of Germanic languages. Romance languages tend to reverse the order: chaise longue is a type of chaise,lingua franca a type of lingua. Either way, when a compound includes the head it is called endocentric – the centre is internal. In exocentriccompounds the head is missing or external: a bigmouth is not a type of mouth and an egghead is not a type of head – both refer to people.

Editor and historical linguist Brianne Hughes studies a remarkable subset of exocentric compounds called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun (V-N) compounds. Mercifully, and memorably, she calls them cutthroat compounds, or cutthroats for short. These are rare in English word-formation but have a long, colourful history and constitute a very interesting category.

Cutthroat compounds name things or people by describing what they do. A cutthroat cuts throats, a telltale tells tales, a wagtail wags its tail, akilljoy kills joy, a scarecrow scares crows, a turncoat turns their coat,rotgut rots the gut, a pickpocket picks pockets, a sawbones saws bones (one of the few plural by default), and breakfast – lest you miss its etymology, hidden in plain sight – breaks a fast. The verb is always transitive, the noun its direct object.

Despite the familiarity of these examples, only a few dozen are current in modern English. It’s because they conflict with the right-headedness of English, Brianne writes in her master’s thesis (‘From Turncoats To Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English’), that cutthroats’ productivity will never surpass that of ‘backstabber’ compounds, which use the far more usual N-V-er pattern. We’re ‘book readers’, not ‘readbooks’; ‘word lovers’, not ‘lovewords’.

Cutthroats largely constitute ‘a treasury of nonce words’, having peaked centuries ago. Survivors tend to be peripheral, found in slang, regional dialects, and children’s short-lived innovations. But Brianne is on a mission to catalogue them and has recorded several hundred, including such malicious archaic marvels as want-wit (stupid person), spoil-paper (bad writer), whiparse (abusive teacher), eat-bee (bird), lacklooks (unattractive person), stretchgut (glutton), clutchfist (miser), and catch-fart (servant who walks behind their master).

One I’ve always liked is smell-feast, meaning someone who sniffs out a feast and comes uninvited to share in it. The OED’s first citation for this word, from 1519, refers to ‘smellefyestes, lycke dysshes, and franchars [who] come vncalled’. Franchars derives from franch, an obsolete word meaning ‘feed greedily’, while the more transparent ‘lycke dysshes’ counts as another cutthroat. Here is Brianne on their general status:

Cutthroats are freely productive in Romance languages, which have a V.O. (verb-object) structure and are left-headed. English, which is V.O. and right-headed, has slight native productivity (Clark et al, 1986) that has been amplified and augmented by French borrowings (e.g., coupe-gorge[cutthroat] and wardecorps [bodyguard]). English has been slowly producing new cutthroats since the 1200s up through 2015, mainly in the form of nonce personal insults. Most cutthroats are obsolete slang, but about 40, including ​pickpocket​, pinchpennyrotgut​ and​ spitfire, are commonly known in Modern English.

Hunting them down and determining their cutthroat status can be tricky, since there’s no formula to determine how a compound’s parts relate to each other. This is the subject of a presentation Brianne will give at the SHEL/DSNA conference in Vancouver in June (‘Does a Slingshot Sling Shots? Difficulties in Identifying English Cutthroat Compounds’), from whose Abstract the quotation above is taken. For more on this see Laurie Bauer, ‘English Exocentric Compounds’ (PDF).

Finding them is aggravated by the fact that they tend not to appear in standard dictionaries or well-documented areas. But they do clump semantically: mainly as insults, occupational names, and provincial nature-words. Brianne divides them into six categories: people (insults, occupations, insulted occupations – sometimes as surnames); games; tools; food and drink; plants and animals (including twitchbell, which James Joyce incorporated into Finnegans Wake); and adjectives such aslacklustrebreakneck, and breakteeth (= ‘difficult to pronounce’).

So far she has identified 846 cutthroats, and maybe more by the time you read this. Finding one can lead to another, thus kill-priest (port wine) → strangle-priest → strangle-goose​ →​ saddle-goose →​ saddle-nag. Some verbs recur: break, turn, lack and pick all appear in over a dozen, chokein at least five: chokepriest (thick Italian soup), choke-sparrow (bearded wheat), choke-dog (hard cheese), choke-children (bony fish), and choke-jade (a place in England).

The pattern, though rare nowadays, is not completely unproductive in English. Children go through a phase of compound acquisition in which they invent cutthroats spontaneously before dropping the habit again. By email Brianne shared a few modern ones she has spotted in comics and other pop cultural domains, such as Princess TinglepantsProfessor Stealwater, and pesterchum (a messaging app). Among her vintage favourites, complete with her glosses, are:

Kick-shins: a children’s game Swingebreech: a haughty swaggerer (who swings their hips while walking); related: shit-breech, quakebreech, shuffle-breeches Fuckbottere: occupational last name where fuck means ‘strike’ and bottereis butter – an agrarian worker. (I believe one of the earliest instances of fuck.)

The insulting kinds, Brianne says, ‘cut right to what makes people unlikeable’. She loves their brutal honesty and finds that they tend to stand out and endure despite their low productivity. She feels cutthroats of all kinds have been unjustly overlooked, only ever ‘briefly mentioned in English compounding chapters, with the same examples over and over. Why aren’t there more? Why do they exist at all?’ These questions she addressed in some detail in her thesis.

I salute her quest to shine a light on what she calls a shadowy footnote of English morphology, and I highly recommend this short talk she gave in 2013, which offers more examples of cutthroats both contemporary and archaic, celebrates their curious nature, and briefly documents their shifting popularity over the centuries.

Finally, if you want yet more exocentric pleasure, watch Chris Magyar’s half-hour comic talk where he riffs on why exocentric compounds appeal to him and why twinkletoes most of all.


May 12 2015 9:58 AM

Mother Love: The Many Euphemisms for Our Most Obscene Polysyllable

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

By their euphemisms shall ye know them.

I am hardened—how not?—but I gather that motherfucker, that “Oedipal polysyllable,” remains the most (least?) popular of all the so-called “obscenities.” The dirtiest of the dirty, the least permissible among all the tabooed. Rivaled only by cunt, and of course far, far younger as a coinage, it is presumably the innate incestuousness that gets everyone’s knickers in a twist. This is not just to have sex, but to have sex with your, omigod, mother. It seems to have been an African-American coinage, of the 1890s, and it may even be that the extra distaste it elicits offers a smidgeon of racism. Like the impetus for America’s earliest cannonades in its war on drugs—the fact that cannabis was linked to Mexicans and cocaine to blacks was justification enough to condemn the products—the word may be double-damned by association.

May 11 2015 6:22 PM

Will Words Soon Be Replaced by GIFs? A Debate in Words and GIFs.

Recently Adam Leibsohn, the COO of the GIF platform Giphy, made his case that GIFs are superior to words as a medium of communication. Could this possibly be true? Slate asked words correspondent Katy Waldman and Internet correspondent Amanda Hess to debate. The rules: Waldman could only use words, and Hess could only use GIFs. Ready … set … GO!

Waldman: Hello, Amanda.

May 11 2015 10:16 AM

Did Bill Simmons Get Fired for “Testicular Fortitude”? Where Does the Phrase Come From?

The long and contentious relationship between Bill Simmons and his employer, ESPN, came to an end on Friday, and the last straw may have been his use of a two-word phrase: testicular fortitude.

On Thursday, Simmons blasted NFL commssioner Roger Goodell on The Dan Patrick Show over the release of the Deflategate report. “He knows the results before the report is released to the public,” Simmons said, “and yet he doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to do anything until he gauges public reaction.”

May 5 2015 9:59 AM

Bitch, I’ll Tell You Why This Sentence Construction Is So Effective

Here’s the setup for the one indelible line in the so-so Tina Fey–Amy Poehler comedy Baby Mama. Fey’s uptight yuppie confronts Poehler’s South Philly bigmouth with evidence of her habit of depositing used chewing gum on the furniture. The exec begins sarcastically spinning out a fantasy in which she, the exec, comes home from work, chews “a big wad of Bubblicious gum and stick[s] it under my reclaimed barn-wood coffee table,” because, ho ho, that would never happen in the real world. At which point Poehler ricochets up from the designer couch and yells: “Bitch, I don’t know your life!” 

It’s a mic drop: The conversation, and the scene, is over. But in 2008, Baby Mama was the first flowering of a linguistic trend now in full bloom across all media: that of prefacing a statement with bitch for rhetorical effect. These days, proemial bitches have staked out turf with Rihanna’s new single “Bitch Better Have My Money” Kendrick Lamar’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and the Nicki Minaj–Madonna collaboration “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” They’ve inspired two songs called “Bitch Please,” the first, by Snoop Dogg, addressed to a female bitch, and the second, by Jessi Smiles, pitched at a male bitch, as the prefatory bitch transcends gender. They frequent hip-hop lyrics, equally adroit at conveying playful hubris (“bitch, I’m a don”), unhinged menace (“bitch, I’m a monster, a no-good bloodsucker”), and scoffing antagonism (“bitch, you wasn’t with me shooting in the gym”). And then there’s the meme-osphere, aswirl with such bitch-headed catchphrases as “Bitch, I’m fabulous,” “Bitch, you guessed it,” and—because such things are not always obvious to bitches—“Bitch, I’m a bus.”

April 29 2015 5:01 PM

Is Baltimore Beset by Protests, Riots, or an Uprising?

What do you call the situation in Baltimore this week? Riots? Protests? An uprising? As the city responds to the death of Freddie Gray, and the police respond to the city, the hashtag #BaltimoreUprising is ascendant among those with a left-leaning point of view. For these participants and onlookers, it is starting to replace #BaltimoreRiots as the verbal symbol of the past few days’ unrest. On Twitter, the #BaltimoreRiots feed contains a lot of “rule of law”–themed tweets:

April 27 2015 10:00 AM

OMFG! Sweary Abbreviations FTFW!

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

That’s Oh my fucking god and for the fucking win, for the uninitiated. Sweary acronyms and initialisms are a BFD (big fucking deal) on the Internet. It’s hard to imagine everyday online discourse—especially on social media—without frequent encounters with, or use of, WTF (what the fuck)FFS (for fuck’s sake), and their semi-encoded ilk.

Concision is an obvious advantage: STFU and GTFO take far fewer keystrokes than the full phrases shut the fuck up and get the fuck out, saving the (ab)user time, effort, and—perhaps most importantly—the appearance of giving a shit. Sweary abbreviations also play a role in signaling group identity, expressing personal style, and so on, FYFI (for your fucking information). And they are extremely meme-friendly:

April 24 2015 1:46 PM

That Is Not How You Use An Exclamation Mark, Kim Kardashian  

On Friday morning, Kim Kardashian West tweeted the following:

Kardashian West, who has an Armenian father, surely meant to use her platform to honor the more than 800,000 political minorities who died in an Ottoman purge in 1915. And good for her. But the tweet makes “Armenian Genocide” sound like a novel published in the early 1900s, or a clothes-swap nonprofit celebrating its centenary. Her noble intentions were ill served by her terrible use of an exclamation point.

The exclamation point has come a long way from just expressing emphatic feeling or punctuating a command. Its informality (“Do not use in a business letter,” instruct the style guides, nor in “academic prose”) has made it joyous. It signals enthusiasm, bubbly excitement, and positivity, as in: Hey, check this out! or Here’s a cool thing! or I’m happy about this thing! Basically, if there is a category of sentiments that are as wildly incongruous as possible with the notion of historico-politically treacherous mass murder, it is the category for which you would use exclamation points.

April 13 2015 10:00 AM

How the F-Word Became Our Least Sexual Swear Word

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Plenty has been penned about the history, derivation, and usage of the word fuck, so there is no need to rehash it here. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of it that while mentioned is mostly glossed over. In English, at least, fuck is the most mercurial of swear words because it has escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root. While every other European language has its own word for fuck, English appears to be unique in its more universal application. Let’s take the following joke as an example: