Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

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.

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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.

What diacritical recourse might Kardashian West have sought instead? An ellipsis would have suggested apathy, world-weariness, or perhaps exasperation that others weren’t taking the past seriously. Or it would have implied that Kardashian West had far more to say than she could fit in a tweet. A period would have conveyed solemn, reserved contemplation—an awareness that the hour called for reflection, not emotive excess. It would also have imparted a sense of perspective, even humility. Because the exclam’s role is to add emotional color, it throws the spotlight on the way the speaker is feeling. In Kardashian West’s case, this reads as narcissistic, since how she feels about the genocide is so much less significant than the fact that it happened. (The exclamation-pointed sentence’s Kimcentric follow-up—“I am proud to now say I have been to Armenia”—doesn’t help, nor does a photo of the family posing, solemnly but in glamourwear, at a memorial.)

You can soooorrrrt of understand where Kardashian West went astray, given that exclamation marks have achieved a quasi-mandatory status as politeness indicators online. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile, I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period,” Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty told New York. Or maybe Kardashian West wanted her followers to know she was genuinely moved by the anniversary—in a world where “Thanks!” means “thanks” and “Thanks.” means “I hate you,” perhaps “A lot of people died a hundred years ago today!” means “please do not think I am being ironic about a hideous act of murder.” It is also possible that Kardashian West wished to underline her sense of shock, and to transmit that jolt of painful consciousness to her fans: Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide! Can you believe it? Or, she may have been employing what one of my colleagues has christened the “informative” or “child’s” exclam, which communicates daffy delight at the transmission of knowledge: George Washington was our first president! (FWIW, also totally inappropriate.)

Unlike some writers, I am not a die-hard exclam eschewer, but Kardashian West’s dissonant diacritical gives the whole tribe a bad name. And while it makes sense that we would be eager to inject verve and ginger into our toneless prose, the onslaught of exclamation points in online text can lead to a kind of punctuation arms race, whereby the genuine expression of enthusiasm requires crazy cataracts of marks. My personal bugbear in this vein is “emoji OCD.” That is, the condition in which your correspondent is psychically obligated to stick an emoji at the end of every line, as if no text were complete without a pictorial tag announcing how the sender feels about said text. At least Kardashian West didn’t wrap up her tweet with a cry face. Small blessings!

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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:

April 3 2015 12:29 PM

The World’s Dirtiest Wine Names  

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

Wine brands, especially in the upstart, insecure New World, used to strain to sound serious and Frenchy-fancy. You had your Domains, your Clos, your Chateaus (“Pure Sonoma”!). Even $5 plonk could seem classy if it had a ridge or a mountain or a gate in its name. As James Thurber’s wine snob put it in the famous 1944 New Yorker cartoon, we may have been drinking naive domestic Burgundy, but at least we could be amused by its presumption.

If Thurber were cartooning today, he’d change that last word to presumptuousness. Because inappropriate language—from vulgarity to suggestiveness to scatology—is the hottest trend in wine branding.

Here’s a survey of rude wine names, in alphabetical rude-word order. (And, since you asked, I know a bunch of rude beer brands, too. I’m sticking to wine this time.)

April 1 2015 10:00 AM

Accidental CAPS LOCK and Its Discontents

THE MOST MORTIFYING—

Sorry.

The most mortifying typographical error of our modern digital moment, the bedevilingest faux pas, is of course inadvertent CAPS.  (Followed by autocorrect, which keeps insisting that I mean “bedevil ingest faux pas.” That is NONSENSE, autocorrect.)

As it did there, the intentional use of capital lettering adds vehemence, color, and variety to text. It conveys the intensity of your feelings but injects an underlying playfulness, almost as if you were writing in bubble letters. Caps are often a harbinger of joy (“GREAT NEWS”) or, at least, of the kind of sarcasm that brings fleeting joy to the recipient. (“GREAT NEWS. Wanda canceled again.” “LOL.”) They express outsize emotion, which—given the constraints of polite society—generally means positive emotion, unless it is feigned outsize emotion, often signaling a joke, in which case: also a positive. (Caps of pure rage are so vanishingly rare that it feels dubious, here, to even bring them up. Fact: You are likelier to suffer a shark attack than you are to encounter rage caps in the wild.)

That uppercase letters almost always traipse along under a large ethereal plus sign is what makes them dangerous. They are like a big, exuberant golden retriever, liable to escape and slobber all over somebody if the leash slips from your hand. Think back to the last time you popped a cap at a person by mistake. Maybe a co-worker informed you she had sent over some documents and you replied, “GREAT.” Or maybe a gentleman texted you asking about coffee and you answered, “SOUNDS FUN.” The squickiness of the predicament in which you then found yourself flowed not only from the fact that you came off as unnaturally enthusiastic. It also inhered in how correcting the error required, or would have required, you to communicate something like, “Oh, I’m sorry! I’m actually not as excited about the topic we’re discussing as I previously suggested.”

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?

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.

Smegma.

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“Ewww”?

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.

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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.

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