A Blog About Language

Jan. 26 2015 9:30 AM

The Art of Literary Expletive Avoidance

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

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend color and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

Take Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, “clear and sweet” and at times “infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful.”

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Jan. 22 2015 3:02 PM

The Baest Bae to Ever Bae: Bae Isn’t Just a Noun Anymore

Over the past couple of years, the term bae has achieved widespread usage. While the noun form has been around for more than 10 years, adjectival and verbal uses, along with other related forms, have more recently started popping up to describe the people and things we love, or at least like-like. Twitter, in particular, is rife with interesting new uses of the term. The popular social media platform has been used to mine language change for years and has inspired some recent linguistic scholarly research.

Dictionary.com defines the noun bae as: "Slang. an affectionate term used to address or refer to one’s girlfriend, boyfriend, etc." Many have debated the etymology of bae, some insisting that it derives from the acronym "Before Anyone Else." The earliest evidence of this connection on Twitter is from a July 19, 2011, tweet, making "Before Anyone Else" a backronym of bae, which first surfaced in rap music and on Urban Dictionary in the early- to mid-2000s. A much more likely etymological explanation is that bae is a shortening of baby or babe.

When bae appears as a noun, its meaning is relatively set: It’s a term of endearment. However possibilities abound as bae moves into to other parts of speech. These days bae has gotten a lot of mileage out of its robust use as an adjective.

Jan. 20 2015 12:54 PM

The Thing About Ping

One paradox of the smart-tech age is that our devices are, when you think about them, kind of scary, and yet they make cute noises. They beep and chime and gurgle and hiccup, as if guided by some focus group’s conclusion that nothing makes us smile quite like a toy piano whose tummy is rumbling. This means, for one, that certain adorable sounds have accrued an aura of dread, like dolls in a horror movie. (Chime! It’s your boss. Beep! Time for your colonoscopy!) It also gets at something true about human interaction in general: Because contact can be so scary, we often find ways to wrap it in self-deprecation, courtesy, and cuteness. We’ve been doing it forever (“Why don’t I just give you a buzz and we can chat about your performance review?”), but the word ping encapsulates the dynamic particularly well.

Ping—ubiquitous but modest, a friendly verb with a stressful, insistent undertone—echoes with contradictions. It belongs to business jargon, but it’s playfully onomatopoetic, which implies a kind of babbling pleasure in noise for its own sake. The word makes you think of ping-pong and (perhaps) Mulan’s male disguise in the Disney movie. But it also has serious applications: It cropped up in discussions of the cell tower records on Serial and in coverage of 2014’s missing planes, with their lost black boxes. And of course it’s serious: Its origins lie in war.

Jan. 19 2015 10:00 AM

A Bunch of Stupid Buffalo Reveal the Versatility of Swearwords

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

Buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo fuckers buffalo.

The above expression is a coherent, grammatical sentence.

If you like having fun with English, you will sooner or later meet several versions of a long sentence made entirely of the word buffalo that show four facts of English:

  1. We can often convert words from one class to another—noun to verb or vice versa, for example—without changing them, as in converting the noun buffalo to the verb buffalo (linguists call this zero derivation);
  2. We can use nouns as modifiers in place of adjectives without changing them, as in using the place name Buffalo to mean ‘from Buffalo’;
  3. Some nouns don’t change form in the plural, either (buffalo being one);
  4. We can omit relativizers such as that, as in “buffalo buffalo buffalo” in place of “buffalo that buffalo buffalo.”

Jan. 16 2015 2:48 PM

“What Do Cows Drink?” Trick Questions That Show How Your Brain Organizes Language.

What do cows drink?

Your first intuition was probably to answer "milk." And then, depending on how familiar you are with bovine diets, you realized that, wait, it's the calves that drink milk—adult cows drink water. What’s going on that makes it so hard to respond correctly? And what does it tell us about how our brains store and process language?

Jan. 8 2015 12:37 PM

Great Moments in Swearing: The “GD Big Car” Edition

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

I recently viewed for the first time Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, a rather Shakespearean tale of Jordan Belfort’s excess in money, sex, drugs, and swears, inter alia. The film, you may recall, grabbed a lot of headlines for its record-breaking number of fucks in a nondocumentary film. (The all-time title goes to Steve Anderson’s 2005 documentary, Fuck.)

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I suppose it’s hard to argue against such gratuitousness in a story all about it, but I did have to resist the urge to keep a tally during my viewing. Quantity aside, there were some truly memorable swears in the film. My personal favorite? “The book, motherfucker, from the book” (about 0:45 into the clip). That’s good shit. Ironically, during a fuck-filled argument with his wife later in the film, Belfort pleads: “Let’s use our words.” In so many ways, this sums up one of the story’s central theme: Rags to riches is the great sales pitch. (I’m still rooting for you, though, Mr. Bookman.)

That said, I found myself thirsty for a tonic when the credits rolled. Immediately, I jumped to Robert Creeley‘s iconic “I Know a Man.” It’s a staple of anthologies, but it remains fresh 61 years after initial publication and stands as an incredible example of using words, particularly swear words. Creeley’s poetry is sparing without being sparse, emotive without being emotional, spontaneous without being uncontrolled. Not uncontrolled, to be litotic—that’s how I’d characterize the form, content, and, yes, swears in “I Know a Man”:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,–John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

The poem is often described as a drunken poem written in the vein of the beats, with whom and whose poetry Creeley was well familiar. It’s erratic and hesitant, and these qualities play out in Creeley’s syntax and enjambment, as so much of the great work of his poetry did. It stammers and hiccups like a drunk, drunk in spite of and due to the “darkness” (5). In my opinion, no poetry gropes with and through language as exquisitely as Creeley’s does. He is so deliberate in his diction: Not only is that darkness palpable, but, as an abstract noun, it is also almost conspicuous in a poem written in such an otherwise ordinary register.

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Creeley's big car both flees and speeds into the darkness.

Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

Ordinary: That’s precisely what I love about the swear words in the third and final tercets of the poem. The speaker’s “goddamn” (9) and “for / christ’s sake” (11) are spoken as if drunk but not too fucked up. Too fucked up yet, because we have always got to pull ourselves together even in the face of the void else we’ll wreck. The syntax of his noun phrase “goddamn big car,” compared with a more natural-sounding “big, goddamn car,” has the sound of a drunken epiphany, as if the speaker is saying, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s get a big car.” This makes “big car” grammatically and conceptually immediate, a getaway car fleeing from yet also speeding into the darkness. Perhaps his “goddamn” is cursing postwar commercialism and escapism—or, conversely, the freedom—symbolized by the car. At the same, the “goddamn” is offhand, asking us not to take it too seriously. Like his words, the speaker’s meanings are conflicted and unstable and happen fast. Yet the spondaic phrase “goddamn big car” does slow us down just for a moment, with the end-stopped comma serving as an additional pump on the brake, else the speaker gets too reckless existentially and the poet, formally and linguistically.

Along with the percussive K‘s of “christ’s sake,” the swears are perfectly intoned when you listen to Creeley read the poem. His swears may be mild, but, goddamn, are they choice.

Creeley’s poetry is not one generally given to swearing, making “I Know a Man” proof that there is truly an art to it.

Jan. 7 2015 11:56 AM

Why We Should Declare an Emoticon of the Year

You've heard about the Words of the Year—Oxford's vape, Merriam-Webster's culture, and Dictionary.com's exposure, to name a few. And perhaps you're even eagerly awaiting the American Dialect Society's own WotY vote, which will take place this coming weekend (I'll be livetweeting from it!). But in 2014 we didn't just communicate with words—we also typed, texted, and tweeted to each other using another set of meaningful (though not pronounceable) symbols. So here's why we should declare an Emoticon of the Year, every year.

Jan. 5 2015 12:41 PM

How Stuart Scott Made Booyah His Own

The obituaries for ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott have inevitably focused on one word as an emblem of his exuberantly slangy style: Booyah!

Scott peppered his SportsCenter highlight rundowns with many signature catchphrases, from the admiring "cool as the other side of the pillow" to the preacherly "Can I get a witness from the congregation?" But within a few years of debuting on ESPN in 1993, "Booyah!" had become Scott’s calling card, his joyful punctuation mark for a particularly dramatic slam-dunk, homer, or touchdown.

Jan. 4 2015 8:32 PM

The Thing About “Bright Young Things”

I remember the first time someone called me a “bright young thing.” I was an intern, seeking more stable employment, and one of my bosses (a great guy, whom I like and respect tremendously) said he’d poke around his network to see if anyone had an opening for a bright young thing like me. I felt flattered—at first. But the phrase also foregrounded the power differential between us, an older man and a younger woman. The effect was almost similar to that of being “politely” catcalled—I felt not like a serious writer, but like a luminous flibbertigibbet, an enchanting yet trivial object to be passed around the grown-up table.

There’s a whole category of designations like this. They aren’t exactly negs. As often as not, they seem to be meant sincerely as compliments. But using them can enforce a hierarchy that subtly undermines the recipient of the praise in ways that pertain to youth and, often, gender. Bright young thing. Whip-smart. A real firecracker. These are descriptions full of evanescence—a flash in the pan, a crack of the whip, a dazzle of light—and of a condescending visual appreciation that feels beside the point. They are hard to parse, harder to formulate a coherent emotional response to. While a part of me luxuriated in the image of myself as a lissome creature ribbon-dancing through journalism, another part wanted to respond to the bright young thing comment by roaring HULK SMASH while overturning a desk.

Dec. 30 2014 4:30 PM

When Brands Cry “Bae,” This Twitter Account Is on It

Here is a confession: IHOP knew about fleek before I did. “Our pancakes stay on fleek,” the corporation tweeted in November. And on Halloween: “How fleek are they?” (the pancakes). And a week earlier: “We StAy On FLeEk, bb.”

A brilliant Twitter account named @BrandsSayingBae has done us all the courtesy of rounding up these tweets so that we might ask, from deep within the crevasses on our wrinkled faces, what is fleek, and, more existentially, why is fleek, and, perhaps more hungrily, what has fleek to do with IHOP? (Is it some kind of gluten substitute?) A machine, Google, can call forth these answers and make them appear before us like my pinkly gleaming scalp through the few straggling gray hairs that remain to me in my senescence, and so: Fleek means “smooth, nice, sweet, or awesome.” The “why” has something to do with a Vine artist named Peaches Monroe, whose eyebrows were “on fleek”—on point—for a few moments of June 21, 2014. And, in a righteous world, fleek would have nothing to do with IHOP. Just as the word bae would have nothing to do with Pizza Hut, or Chili’s, or Mountain Dew. Just as Whole Foods and #swag would never appear in a sentence together. And yet. 

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