Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

March 20 2015 4:31 PM

Are You a John Q. Public or a Joe Blow?

Meet John Q. Public. He also goes by John Q. Citizen and John Q. Taxpayer. He’s an upstanding sort who shovels the ice off his stretch of sidewalk, writes a check to his local ASPCA, and tries to be a loving dad to his 2½ kids. He sits in traffic. He has a particular order in which he reads the newspaper. Pace Hollywood, he looks nothing like Denzel Washington, though occasionally in the morning, freshly shaven, adjusting his tie in front of the mirror, he thinks to himself that he’s not too bad.  

A few miles away lives Joe Blow. His friends sometimes call him Joe Schmoe, Joe the Plumber, Joe Doakes, and Joe Six-Pack. He likes to unwind with a High Life or three after work, especially if there’s a game on, and he’s kept in touch with a few high school buddies who root for the same teams. Sometimes he finds a smushed piece of candy in his jacket pocket (score); sometimes he arrives at the bank after it closes (dang). Money’s tight but he and his wife, a self-described “Hockey Mom,” get by OK.

We know these Everymen by their names, because they have no faces. Generic and nondescript, they’re the “bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen the martyrs call the world.” But where do their monikers come from, and what happens when they go abroad?

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March 19 2015 11:02 AM

Why Do We Call a Dongle a Dongle?

We are all adults, so I am sure nobody is already giggling at the headline to this post. Right? Oh, come on. Control yourself! Dongle is a useful word with a fascinating history, and … OK, OK. I’ll wait.

A Martian anthropologist would wonder what is so funny about “a small piece of hardware that attaches to a computer, TV, or other electronic device in order to enable additional functions.” First linked exclusively to software protection, now dongledom includes any “module that plugs in and sticks out of a socket.” Here is a dongle in a recent Google press release, describing a doohickey that converts a dumb TV into a smart one. On a technology blog, to denote a “port replicator” providing “HDMI, USB, and an additional USB type-C connector in a single adaptor.” In the illustrious archives of Slate, referring to Google’s Chromecast. (It’s “a little device you might call a dongle if your mother didn’t teach you manners,” says Farhad Manjoo.) Air cards, memory sticks, Bluetooth enablers—the doors of dongle open for them all.

March 16 2015 11:23 AM

Artificial Belligerence

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

What makes us human? Our innate curiosity? Our mastery of language? Or is it our astounding ability to be complete assholes to one another?

As an undergraduate student in the late 1980s, computer scientist Mark Humphrys programmed an ELIZA-like chatterbot and discovered that it could pass as human when he gave it a mean streak:

March 11 2015 10:46 AM

Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit!

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

Southern dialect abounds with colorful expressions, most rooted in rural life and relationships. Some, like “bless her heart,” sound benign but have a darker edge to them (she’s an idiot, but lovably so).

Others, like “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while,” and “Even a blind mule doesn’t trip over the same rock twice” have a bit of flexibility in them, such that other animals can be substituted for the usual ones, or they’ll overcome a different kind of obstacle. Regardless, the point will be similar to “Even a broken watch is right twice a day.”

Feb. 27 2015 10:00 AM

The Totally Adorable History of Cute

There are times when describing something as cute just isn’t. For example, when appraising a seminar classmate’s argument with the adjective, as a friend once did—especially when you are a man and she is a woman. My well-intentioned pal had meant cute as a compliment; he says he found his colleague’s take neat and pleasing. But he knew the second he said it that he’d screwed up. Even before his co-students excoriated him for sexism and condescension, he knew. But he maintains that his word choice, at least by his meaning, was appropriate. Did he deserve the public drumming?

Cute’s history argues for leniency. When the word first appeared in English in 1731, it was a shortened form of acute, the adjective meaning “shrewd,” “keen,” or “clever.” It even had its own opening apostrophe—‘cute—to let you know it had been clipped. (Whether all abbreviations are somewhat cute, as in “heartwarmingly diminutive,” is a question for minds cuter, as in “more cunning,” than mine.) A “cute remark” back in Victorian England was a quick-witted one. So was the “cute man” in Dickens’ 1841 book Barnaby Rudge. And so was a cute girl. In 1882, the Manchester Evening Mail ran a piece defending the typical American young woman as being just “as cute as the masculine Yankee,” by which it meant she was equally sharp and spirited. 

Feb. 23 2015 8:15 AM

Smeg: The Most Disgusting Word You’ve Never Heard Of

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




I hope so. Smegma isn’t a very common word, perhaps partly because so many of us are circumcised. But what it names (a cheeselike secretion that accumulates under the foreskin and around the clitoris—it’s also called dick cheese) is disgusting and prurient.

The disgust is something that gets worn off with repeated use, however; words lose their vividness as they become fixed idioms. Here, compare these two:

Fuck your mother.
Lick your mother’s pussy lips.

Strictly speaking, the second one shouldn’t be any more offensive than the first. But it’s not a cliché form, so it’s much more vivid. A person might wave off the first one, but might redo your dentition after the second.

Ironically, smegma comes from the Greek word for soap.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Smegma likewise maintains its vividness by being infrequently used. I’m sure it also helps that it has some phonaesthetics on its side. The sm onset may make you think of smear (which, by the way, it’s related to way back in Proto-Indo-European) or smell or smelt, or perhaps of Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee or Tolkien’s Smeagol (Gollum’s real name) and Smaug (the dragon), and maybe less of something smooth or lip-smacking like s’mores. It’s hard to say what effect may come from the sound of magma or fainter hints of muggy, gummy, amalgam, and dogma. But it’s hard not to speculate whether the tactility of the lips coming together twice with the /m/ sounds might have some proprioceptive hint of those skin folds in the genital areas where smegma accumulates.

Is smegma a vulgarity? A profanity? A dirty word? I just looked in the indexes of five books on vulgarity and taboo language, and it wasn’t in any of them. Dictionaries don’t flag it as offensive or taboo. It comes from Greek (for “soap”) via Latin, after all! Our Latinate vocabulary is clinical! Vagina, penis, feces? Big deal. But when you’re faced with something that we really just do not talk about, it still has some effect.

Here, try swapping smegma for shit in common expressions.

Get this shit off my lawn!
Get this smegma off my lawn!
Well, that’s just bullshit.
Well, that’s just bull smegma.
You’re a real piece of shit, you know that?
You’re a real piece of smegma, you know that?

It may be less officially vulgar, but ewww.

But it can lose its effect fairly quickly too. The truncated form of smegmasmeg (no relation to Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalia)—was used in the comedy sci-fi series Red Dwarf as a handy televisable expletive. Some industrious soul collected every single utterance of smeg on the show in one video. Watch it, and tell me whether it hasn’t had its edges worn off by the end:

And so it is. Marx said that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. In language, all metaphors show up first as vivid images, and then as hackneyed references that bring no image to mind anymore. With vulgar imagery, let us call it the smeg effect: All disgusting images appear first as smegma, then later as smeg, smeg, smeg, smeg.

Thanks to Nancy Friedman and Stan Carey for useful information, without which this article would have been a mere smear of smegma.

Feb. 20 2015 12:58 PM

How Does a Celebrity Become a “Spirit Animal”?

I’m starting to suspect that the engine of the Internet runs not on outrage or FOMO but animal souls. Twitter and Tumblr in particular swarm with spirit animals, the disembodied essences once associated with shamanism and Native Americans, now linked to youngish people who want to manage their images ever more precisely. The new breed of spirit animal is an identity marker, a person or thing with which someone wishes to claim kinship. It can be a peanut butter sandwich. Or a farting hart. During a random midmorning hour this week, the following celebrities were claimed on Twitter as spirit animals: Taylor Swift, Johnny Weir, Dolly Parton, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Sad Drake, and Dwight Schrute. Before them, Seth Cohen provided ghostly guidance to a generation of sensitive Jewish men. Mayor Bill de Blasio did it for PETA. Spirit animals have even leapt offline (like spirit ticks!): Women at Cosmo’s “Fun Fearless Life” conference were asked to write their celebrity Patronus shapes on their nametags. (Joanna Coles told fans hers was Tilda Swinton, but in fact, she confessed to reporter Noreen Malone, it’s actually John Oliver.)

Feb. 18 2015 1:14 PM

How OK Became Our One True Universal Colloquialism 

Excerpted from Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, by Michael Rosen, out now from Counterpoint.

Is it OK to write OK, Ok, Okay, and ok? And should people who say, “Okily-dokily” be given a custodial sentence?

When zoologists looked at the duck-billed platypus, they had problems. They had their way of classifying animals, but this beast didn’t fit. What’s more, it looked like a hoax. The duck-billed platypus was fine—it’s still fine; it just goes on being a duck-billed platypus. It doesn’t wonder what kind of animal it is.

OK is a duck-billed platypus.

Feb. 16 2015 9:30 AM

The Winding Circumlocutions of Schitt’s Creek Reviews

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

Schitt's Creek. There. I said it. Which is more than David Bianculli, TV critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, was able to do on Tuesday in his review of this new sitcom. It’s a show about a rich family, the Roses, that loses everything except the deed to a town purchased decades earlier as a joke. Here’s Bianculli twisting himself into Federal Communications Commission–approved knots:

The name of the town also is the name of this TV series, and there’s a reason the deed to the town was bought as a joke. It’s a joke I can’t say on the radio, but the second word is creek. The first is spelled S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S and rhymes with spits. From now on, I’ll just call it Creek.

Schitt’s Creek had its debut last month in Canada, on the CBC, and made its U.S. debut Wednesday on the cable channel Pop, which is what the TV Guide Network has renamed itself. The famously taboo-averse New York Times took a bold stance and printed the title of the series in its (lukewarm) review. But on the primly and grimly patrolled airwaves no one can hear that expletive-sparing C.

Feb. 13 2015 8:28 PM

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

If a tree falls in the forest in a comic book, but no one is around to write <krrrASH>, does it make a sound?

Comics are a visual medium, but sound is an essential element of the "imaginary space" its creators are building, at least according to Lee Marrs, author of the Pudge, Girl Blimp series and a "founding mommy" of Wimmen’s Comix. A comic with the sound effects removed might be a significantly different reading experience, almost as though a central character had been excised.

Marrs notes that representations of sound in comics are emblematic of the art form, and over time, a canon of onomatopoeia has developed. As with any transcription, these spellings are constrained by a language’s sounds and its writing system(s), so onomatopoeic words for the same sound, a barking dog or creaking floorboard, often differ from language to language. When comics are translated, the sound effects are usually converted as well.