Gentleman cows

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Fifty years ago, my job was to conduct field interviews of older residents in the rural part of the state of Illinois as part of the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada.  The Atlas was trying to document the words, expressions, and pronunciation patterns of older residents who had lived in the same general area all their lives. This proved to be  a fascinating experience for a young man who had lived in large cities all his life. But it actually made me a good field interviewer because I knew nothing about farming and other aspects of rural life and this ignorance actually legitimized my rather mundane questions about such things as what the farmers called the utensil they use to fry eggs with, the machinery they use  to reap their harvests, and what  they call their animals. I haven’t done linguistic geography since those halcyon days, but this New York Times article about the controversy over FCC’s crackdown (the Bono Rule) on the use of dirty words brought back some fond memories.

The article quoted prominent lexicographer, Jesse Sheidlower, who calmly identified as “rubbish” the FCC’s 2007 ruling that one particular word (you can guess which word they meant) invariably evokes a coarse sexual image. Jesse argued that although this word originally referred to a sexual act, it has now taken on an independent emotional nonsexual sense, shown by the example of Vice President Dick Cheney’s admonition that Senator Patrick Leahy could go commit an anatomically impossible act.  The referential function of that word has simply changed, which seems to be hard for many to comprehend.  They ought to read Chris Potts’ Language Log post on expressives.

But let me get back to my Illinois dialect research. When I asked the old farmers what they called the male species of bovine animal, I made good use of my city-bred ignorance by phasing my question, “What do you call a male cow?” That always brought a smile, along with a bit of sympathy for my ignorance. But it yielded a good answer anyway, which was as likely to be “gentleman cow” as “bull.” The Victorian era lingered in the minds of the “gentleman cow” speakers, along with “white meat” for the  breast of chickens, “cut” or “alter” for castrate, and other delicate verbal detours around anything that even hinted of things sexual.

Prescriptivism is alive and well at the FCC, and Justice Scalia firmly asserts that the taboo word most in contention “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image.” I suppose he might argue the same for “bull,” “chicken breast” and “castrate.” Too strong for mixed company.

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