Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

April 28 2016 8:22 AM

A New Play Will Scramble Your View of How Language Means, Mystifies, and Falls Short    

How can we come together if all our words are corrupt? Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., by British playwright Alice Birch, poses that question in ways that are fascinating even if you can’t make it to a performance at Soho Rep in Manhattan. (If you can, though, do.) The play, having its U.S. premiere, is a puckish, yet deadly serious meditation on how language molds our experience of sex and gender, a scalding cascade of interconnected vignettes exploring words and their limits.

Start with the script, a flat notation of actors’ voices, a dead thing.

“There should be at least one female character (that should probably be played by a female actor) in every scene,” the first page insists. The instructions march on: A dash indicates a change in speaker (the script refuses to assign particular lines to particular characters), words in square brackets are not spoken. “Most importantly,” Birch writes, “this play should not be well behaved.”

April 26 2016 1:00 PM

Four Femmes on the Thames

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

The Four Femmes on the Thames are a cabaret-style group who specialize in old-style jazz and swing music with a comedy twist. Their song “Woman Up” was described by Holly Brockwell at Gadgette as the sweary feminist anthem of the year. I’m sure you can see the Strong Language angle (and appeal) already.

The title, if you’re wondering, inverts the sexist idiom man up, and instead of grow a pair the Femmes suggest that people grow a twat, recalling a quip (“Grow a vagina—those things can take a pounding”) often misattributed to Betty White. The song is a three-minute NSFW delight; lyrics and more below the fold:

April 26 2016 8:00 AM

We’re Quoting the Wrong Shakespearean Prince to Honor Prince    

Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week prompted an outpouring of responses on social media, with one particularly widespread commemoration taking the form of the quote: “Good night, sweet prince.” While the words make for a pithy and tender remembrance, you’ll agree, if you’re familiar with the source of the saying, that they simply call up the wrong prince for Prince.

Another genius gave us “Good night, sweet prince”: William Shakespeare, who also died at a tragically young age, 52, at least by our modern standards. Like Prince, Shakespeare was an artistic polymath, writing, performing, and producing many of his works. The phrase appears in Hamlet, which features such hits as “to be or not to be,” “infinite jest,” “the lady doth protest too much,” “to sleep, perchance to dream,” “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and “words, words, words.” These lines, and many more, have become so ingrained in the English language that it’s as if they’ve always existed. We can forget Shakespeare even wrote them, just as many of us were surprised to learn Prince, aside from his own hits, authored the Bangles classic “Manic Monday.”

Most of these Hamlet hits are spoken, in the epic guitar solo that is the Shakespearean soliloquy, by the play’s title character. But not, of course, “Good night, sweet prince.” Spoiler alert: After Hamlet dies in the final scene’s bloodbath, his friend Horatio offers: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing these to thy rest.–” (Hamlet 5.2.302-03). These are tender lines, and mellifluous, too. But I think we are hanging too much on surface similarities in this passage.

April 22 2016 10:59 AM

Fat-Shaming in Shakespearean Dialogue

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

Men: How far we haven’t come. 

During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.

Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.

April 22 2016 7:30 AM

The Surreal, Dionysian Poetry of Prince’s Lyrics

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” wrote Walter Pater, and Prince’s lyrics are as hot and dreamlike and weird as his sound. Saturated in color, wild with bizarre imagery, they overload the senses and short-circuit the brain. Rolling Stone described the Purple One’s aesthetic as “sensual anarchy,” a phrase that helps capture the intoxicating drive of his poetry. (What if not poetry would you call these lines from “Raspberry Beret”: “Now, overcast days never turned me on/ But something about the clouds and her mixed.”) Prince told us to move and dance and fuck our way to utopia, to grind “until the castle started spinning/ or maybe it was just my brain.”

He was our Dionysus, and his lyrics were full of beasts. “You’re just as soft as a lion tamed,” he crooned. “Take me to the place where your horses run free,” he begged. And he saw in color: red corvettes, pink cashmere, purple rain, purple everything. Prince understood T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, the concrete object that stands for a chaotic, vibrant mass of emotions. “She wore a raspberry beret,” he sang, and once it was worn he didn’t say much more.

April 18 2016 11:17 AM

From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, the Eerie History of Gaslighting    

In the 1938 play Gas Light, a felonious man seeks to convince his wife that her mind is unraveling. When she notices that he’s dimmed the gaslights in the house, he tells her she is imagining things—they are as bright as they were before. The British play became a 1944 American film starring Ingrid Bergman as the heroine, Paula, and Charles Boyer as Gregory, her abusive, crazy-making husband.

A match struck; a metaphor flickered to life. Gas Light reminded viewers how uniquely terrifying it can be to mistrust the evidence of your senses. Flame made an evocative figure for Paula’s consciousness—her sense of self guttering when Gregory insisted she hadn’t seen what she saw.

Today to gaslight means to overwrite someone’s reality, to manipulate her into believing she’s imagining things. Remember the traveling salesman who bade the common folk marvel at the glamorous weeds of their naked emperor? (If they couldn’t see the clothes, it had to be their fault—they were bad at their jobs.) Prototypical gaslighter. The term can attach to anything surreal enough to make you question your sanity, like the political news cycle, but gaslight arose from psychoanalytic literature, where it described a specific “transfer” of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim. In a 1981 article called “Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting,” psychologist Edward Weinshel sketched out the dysfunctional dance: One person “externalizes and projects,” while the other “incorporates and assimilates.”* Introjection was Weinshel’s Freudian update to the kindergarten song “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” a name for the process by which a single player absorbs all the fault, irrationality, and madness in a relationship.

April 7 2016 3:31 PM

The Alliterative Appeal of the “Flying F--k”

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

What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly? Flying fuck enjoys many fun literal interpretations. Gadget-heads might like the remote-controlled helicopter featured above, craftier folk this flying fuck lovingly fashioned from “wire hate,” both as Nancy Friedman shared with me.

Urban Dictionary offers a number of humorous entries for flying fuck, too, including a rare, African “flightless bird” and a rather acrobatic sex act. Speaking of birds, some do hook up midflight (at least as part of courtship)—not unlike the more adventurous frequent fliers among us. Creativity (and Mother Nature) aside, the earliest record of flying fuck is, in fact, a literal one. But let’s save the best for last.

April 6 2016 9:12 AM

Stop 👏  Emphasizing 👏  Your 👏  Point 👏 by 👏 Putting 👏  Clap 👏  Emojis 👏 After 👏  Every 👏  Word

Sometimes I click over to Twitter and feel great because everyone seems to be clapping for me. I haven’t even done anything! But there’s all this applause. So many of my friends in virtual reality can hardly squeeze a single word out before the urgent desire to thwack their hands together overwhelms them.

Why do you fête me so, Internet? In my quest to get to the bottom of my own praiseworthiness (it’s why Slate pays me the big bucks), I came across some bad news, which is that this particular use of the “clap” emoji doesn’t really pertain to celebration. (It doesn’t pertain to venereal disease either—a silver lining!) Instead, the applause tweets have a simple explanation: They aim to visually represent a conversational gesture known as the emphasis clap.

The emphasis clap (Urban Dictionary has dubbed it the “ratchet clap”) belongs to the toolbox comedian Robin Thede introduced to the world as “Black Lady Sign Language.” It is when you clap on every syllable of a statement you are making in order to underscore the very important content of that statement. Sometimes the claps express excitement; more often, they convey anger. Ariana Grande exhibited perfect form on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, playing a salty version of The Sound of Music’s Maria opposite a flock of smack-talking nuns.

April 5 2016 12:13 PM

The Erotic Rabbits of Easter

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

Easter: It’s a fuckable feast. For its Christian observers, of course, Easter marks the salvific resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A cornerstone of the faith, the holiday teems with symbols of new life and fertility. Celebrants observe it during the flowering of springtime. Related to the word east, Easter etymologically evokes the rebirth of “dawn.” Eggs hatch baby chicks. And rabbits … well, they fuck like rabbits.

Easter is an ancient, complex, and venerable occasion, no doubt, but this is Strong Language. Here, we like to hunt for the sweary Easter eggs scattered throughout the lawn of language. I’ve spotted one in the holiday’s cute and cuddly icon: the bunny. I’m not referencing the Playboy Bunnies. The Oxford English Dictionary cites “bunny girls” in Playboy magazine by 1960. The brand’s founder, Hugh Hefner, attributes the origin of his leporine logo to the rodent’s randy reputation, though he may have also been influenced by Bunny’s Tavern, which he apparently frequented during his school days.

Nor am I referencing fucking like rabbits. The OED attests an example of this characterization of prolific propagation, like rabbits, as early as 1897. For the stronger construction, Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word finds “fuck like a mink” in H.N. Cary’s Sexual Vocabulary as early as 1916. The mink was king of the copulation jungle at least until 1978, when Sheidlower cites “fuck like a bunny” in L. Kramer’s Faggots. I’m not even talking about the Rabbit, the fifth “cast member’” of an early episode of Sex and the City, which popularized this brand-name vibrator. The Rabbit’s clitoral stimulator resembles rabbit ears.

No, I’m talking about the coney (or cony), once a common name for the “rabbit”—until the prudes replaced all our lexical Peeps with carrots.The origins of the words rabbitbunny, and coney are fascinating in their own right. Incredibly, Celtic and Germanic languages have no native term for this creature. For the rabbit was not native to northern Europe, unlike the hare, a species whose biological differences are lost on many of us today, though not on the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors.

April 5 2016 9:00 AM

The Real Reason People Say “I Could Care Less”

Correspondence between state lawmakers and their constituents rarely makes national news, but when Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver sent an email reply to a Gulfport woman in March telling her that he “could care less” about her concerns, it did.

Media scrutiny of Oliver’s remarks was justified. The woman, Becky Guidry, emailed him to express sincere, substantive concerns about a pressing matter of public policy (namely a tax cut bill Oliver supports that Guidry considers fiscally irresponsible). Oliver’s catty response was an unnecessary and unbecoming escalation.

Totally unjustified, however, are comments like this one posted on Talking Points Memo’s coverage of the story by “mombiethezombie”: “It’s ‘...couldn't care less.’ If you’re going to be an [sic] flaming a-hole at least use the correct phrase.”

As peanut gallery grammarians love to point out, the idiom “I could care less” literally means the opposite of what people like Oliver use it to mean. Indeed, if he were capable of caring any less than he does, that would mean he does care about Guidry’s concerns, at least a little. Oliver’s level of caring > zero, according to a literal reading of his words.