Archive for Taboo vocabulary

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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Annals of email porn filtering

I have a German friend who lives amid farmland out east of Edinburgh, and keeps chickens as a hobby. When I visited recently, there was much excitement because one of a clutch of fertile eggs in a small incubator in the living room was beginning to hatch. A tiny beak appeared, and eventually a bedraggled baby bird struggled out and started clambering drunkenly over the shells of its brothers and sisters. Yesterday, after a few weeks had elapsed, my friend wrote to let me know that the tiny creature had been male, and was now an adolescent Cuckoo Maran cockerel. It's the one in the center of the photo he attached:

And as the Subject line for the email enclosing it, he chose… Ah, but I fear that a few of you may be ahead of me, having realized what I'm about to tell you!

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No way to curse in Japanese?

John Berenberg writes:

An article by Joan Acocella in the February 9, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books makes a 'no word for X' claim about Japanese and goes even further by quoting a native speaker who happily reports that learning to swear in English and Spanish allows him to say things he otherwise can't.  The full article is here.

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The perils of punning

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Pick a word, any word

To access an article in the Financial Times yesterday I found myself confronted with a short market-research survey about laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Answer three our four layers of click-the-box questions, and I could get free access to the article I wanted to look at. A reasonable bargain: clearly some company was prepared to pay the FT for access to its online readers' opinions. And at the fourth layer down I faced a question which asked me to choose a single word that comes into my mind when I think of a certain Microsoft product.

My choice, from all the tens of thousands of words at my disposal, and the word I picked would go straight into the market research department of the one corporation, above all others, for whose products I have the greatest degree of contempt. Just choose that one evocative word and type it in, and I would be through to my article. A free choice. Which word to pick?

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