Archive for Taboo vocabulary

The curious case of "dillweed"

On The Awl, Samantha Sanders has a wonderful piece on "Dillweed (As An Insult)." (This is part of The Awl's "holiday series on flavors and spices," naturally enough.) She muses on how dillweed has been used as a pejorative since it was popularized by the show "Beavis and Butt-Head" back in the early '90s and considers how this mild-mannered herb got pressed into service as a minced oath. On Twitter, I responded with some more ruminations on the history of dillweed, as well as other insults from the same family, including dickweed, dinkweed, and dickwad (with input from slangologist Jonathon Green and others). I've compiled the Twitter thread as a Storify story, embedded below.

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Applied Quadrophobia

Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong entrepreneur, is one of the wealthiest persons in the world.  Around the beginning of this month, he sold the famous Hong Kong skyscraper known as The Center to a Chinese Communist Party-backed firm for over $5 billion, making it the most expensive commercial building ever sold.

Here's the WSJ report on the transaction:

"China’s Communist Party Has Ties to $5.15 Billion Hong Kong Property Deal:  The Center was featured in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight'", by Wenxin Fan and Natasha Khan, WSJ (11/2/17)

What's interesting is that some websites claim that The Center is a "73 story building", while others describe it as having "80 floors". Apparently they're both correct … depending on what is counted.  This blog post explains why:  "Five Billion Dollar Office Tower Missing A Few Floors", by Nathaniel Taplin, WSJ (11/8/17).

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Forbidden terms

Xinhua News Agency has published another list of banned words:

Xīnhuá shè xīnwén bàodào zhōng de jìnyòng cí 新华社新闻报道中的禁用词 ("Forbidden words in news reports of Xinhua News Agency").

Since it is designated as 第一批 ("first batch"), we can expect that more batches will be issued in the future.

You can find versions of the current list circulating all over the internet.  Here's one from a WeChat (Weixin.qq.com) post that I have relied on for the following account.  The proscriptions may also be found here.

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Has the style book changed?

Reading Remy Tumin's article today discussing Stephen Colbert's guest appearance in Michael Moore's Broadway play ("Stephen Colbert Uses Profanity to Describe President Trump’s ‘Soul’", NYT 10/5/2017), I was struck by this passage:

“Trump keeps summoning monsters of abstraction — things that aren’t real — they’re extensions of the ordinary, fears that you have that he plays on,” Mr. Colbert said. “

He wants to brush people into a corner where he can shine his feeble, fucking anemic firefly of a soul,” Mr. Colbert continued, inching his two pointer fingers close together.

What struck me was not my failure to understand Colbert's metaphor — perhaps someone will explain it to me in the comments — but the fact that the NYT chose to quote it.

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Asses and asterisks

When The Sun, a famously prurient UK tabloid newspaper, chose the headlines for its coverage of the Taylor Swift case in Denver, the editors made a curious choice. They used asterisk masking on the American English word ass ("buttocks area"), printing it as "a**" as if it would be unthinkably offensive for the readers to also see the "ss" (unless it were in a reference to a stupid person, or to the animal on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, where the same letter sequence would be fine). But they did not do the same to the familiar British English 3-letter synonym bum (which has only the meaning "buttocks area" and never means "hobo" in British).

British English has a descendant of the same Old English root as ass, but it is spelled arse, and is pronounced [ɑːs] rather than [æːs]. British arse is considered just as coarse as American ass, but The Sun has printed it thousands of times (try the Google search: {arse site:www.thesun.co.uk}). Quoting ass couldn't possibly be judged gratuitous, as it was uttered in court many times during the legal proceedings being reported.

What this says to me is that the idea of asterisk masking for taboo words is an incoherent mess even in the practice of those who favor it.

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Taking @*#$%! from the WH Communications Director

Another milestone in the history of NYT editorial policy: Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, "Anthony Scaramucci’s Uncensored Rant: Foul Words and Threats to Have Priebus Fired", 7/27/2017:

Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” he said. […]

“I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” he said.

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Response to Pullum on slurs

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

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Polysemous Pejoratives

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

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The N-word Yet Again

The following is a guest post by Tony Thorne of King's College London, originally appearing on his blog. It provides an alternative view to that expressed by Geoff Pullum in his post, "Tory uses N-word… not."


On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: "Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people 'picaninnies' our foreign secretary?"

Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot's use of the phrase 'nigger in the woodpile' provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records.

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Tory uses N-word… not

"Tory MP suspended for racist remark" says the Financial Times headline, just two hours ago as I write this. A Conservative member of parliament suspended from the party within hours after being recorded making a racist remark in a public meeting! A remark involving "the N-word", too! As an anti-racist with no love for the Tories, I was eager to find out the details of this latest embarrassment. But in seconds after I turned to the first newspaper account I realized I was in for a disappointment. It turns out to be fake news. Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.

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Ask Language Log: cow evolution in Hong Kong

From Hwa Shi-Hsia:

I have a question for Language Log. My sister in Malaysia recently bought an MP3 player with a feature listed as "The fire cow charging". My father figured out that it meant a transformer or power adapter, but he couldn't come up with a plausible explanation. An acquaintance from Hong Kong responded that:

"It's actually a transformer. Of course, transformer is too long to say so it was shortened to 'former', or 火馬. That became 火牛 because that's just how Hong Kong Cantonese evolves."

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Use of the I-word

Trevor Noah explains the cultural constraints:

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Or the arbitrary cat, horse, or pig

I think Mark Liberman may have been concerned that perhaps my post "Pronominal reference to the arbitrary dog" hinted at being tempted toward the Recency Illusion. Not true, of course: even when surprised by some point of usage that I notice, I never conclude I must therefore be the first to have encountered it. On encountering the use of singular they for a dog, I didn't say "This has never happened before"; I said "we should expect this sort of use to increase in frequency." But anyway, just in case, Mark sent me some other cases of animals being referred to with singular they. They presumably indicate that where sex is irrelevant, the use of it should nonetheless be avoided, because it might offend the animal.

https://www.bengalcats.co/why-do-cats-knead/
You see, the repetitive movement is not only serving as a way to promote milk flow, it also encourages maternal instinct and establishes a bond between a cat and their kittens.

http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/cat.html
When a cat died, their human family would go into a deep mourning and shave their eyebrows.

[By the way, notice that the foregoing example is ambiguous (cat's eyebrows vs. family members' eyebrows), and the ambiguity is caused solely by the refusal to use it for the arbitrary cat. People will risk being incomprehensible rather than change their mind about whether they could compromise on a pronoun gender choice. Or maybe the point is just that people do not avoid, and do not know to avoid, or even notice, dangers of ambiguity for the hearer or reader.]

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