Taboo mystification

« previous post | next post »

This one is beyond me (Stuart Elliott, "Speaking Profanglish",NYT 5/16/2008):

People who attended the Univision presentation were buzzing about a closing remark made by Joe Uva, chief executive at Univision Communications. He wrapped up the event with a jocular, four-word question that ended with the phrase “Are you in?”

The first word of the question was a colloquial expression familiar to Puerto Ricans, which Spanish speakers at the presentation likened to the word bomb unleashed this week on WNBC-TV by the anchor Sue Simmons.

The remark by Mr. Uva was greeted with nervous laughter from the audience members, either because they did not understand what he said — or because they did.

I can guess a few Spanish words that the NYT would view as unfit to print, but none of those that come to mind would fit in the frame "__ are you in?"

The NYT Sue Simmons story is equally allusive — in fact two words are left out, and we're not told where they go in the quoted string of four words, but the solution is easy to guess (James Barron, "When an Anchor Curses on the Air, She Bcomes the Night's Top Story", 5/14/2008):

Each night around 10:25, the anchors on Channel 4 tape a 15-second spot promoting the 11 p.m. newscast. Occasionally, it has to be done live.

On Monday night, according to someone who works at Channel 4 and has direct knowledge of the situation, Ms. Simmons and Mr. Scarborough thought the spot was being taped. When they were cued, Ms. Simmons read her line: “At 11, paying more at the grocer, but getting less. We’ll tell you how to get the most.”

The station then cut to images for an upcoming story about a cruise ship, without any narrative from the two anchors.

At that point, Ms. Simmons says, basically, What are you doing?

But her question had two extra words.

If you know what one-word "colloquial expression familiar to Puerto Ricans" Joe Uva used, please enlighten the rest of us. (Your contribution will be joining a long line of distinguished Language Log commentary on taboo vocabulary, some of which are linked here.)

[Please *don't* tell us what Sue Simmons said; we all know that already, I think.]


  1. Hot Tramp said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

    I don't know the expression Uva used, but I'm guessing it didn't take the form "___ are you in," but "____; are you in?" instead. As in, "I'm going to Vegas this weekend; are you in?" And of course Spanish can convey subject and predicate in one word. Alternately, it could have been a noun, an address to his audience, like "Guys, are you in?"

  2. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    I'm guessing "coño."

  3. jasonp said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

    I'd say the taboo word was most likely 'cabro'n'. I believe that is the word I've heard peurto rican friends use the most. It is used an an interjection, like 'damn', or to address someone. I don't think i could distinguish which use would have been intended in the quote the times avoided printing, not having any punctuation or cadence to go on.

  4. Maria said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

    I've been equally mystified since I read that same item, and haven't been able to come up with anything in Google.

  5. Freddy Hill said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:04 am

    "The first word of the question was a colloquial expression familiar to Puerto Ricans, which Spanish speakers at the presentation likened to the word bomb unleashed this week on WNBC-TV by the anchor Sue Simmons."

    If this is a real clue, and assuming that the "simmons bomb" was "fuck," then the equivalent word in Spanish would be "joder."

  6. Freddy Hill said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:09 am

    I should add that "joder, are you in?" would be perfectly proper Spanglish, so to speak.

  7. WindowlessMonad said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 3:10 am

    As in 'joder, what can the matter be?'

  8. Gustaf Redemo said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 3:56 am

    I'm very amused by the American shyness when it comes to cuss words. Actually I don't get it. I'm a Swede and although we don't swear as much as Mexicans and Spanish, don't know about the Puerto Ricans, in Guatemala they're really lame though and the worst swear word is gusano (worm) and I nearly got in to a fight with a tuk tuk driver for saying No me digas esa mierda when he tried to cheat me on the price. In Spain I remember a father calling his kids coños, which made me laugh but nobody else reacted. Anyway, swearing for us Swedes isn't such a big deal. How could it be? We can even say that the food was shit good without nobody getting offended.

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 4:27 am

    Speaking of Spanglish, my favorite coinage is "hasta you later".

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

    Are the Spanish coño, joder as rude as the English "equivalents"?

    In French, "con" and "foutre" are nowhere near equivalent to English "cunt" and "fuck" in offence-causing capability; indeed the real equivalent of "fuck" is quite a different word.

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    In my experience, Cubans and Puerto Ricans use "¡coño!" as an exclamation, sometimes of surprise, sometimes of irritation; I can imagine someone walking into a bank, seeing a long line, and muttering "¡coño!" I've never heard infinitive "joder" used in a similar way, though I've heard "jodao" (= "jodado") used where English speakers might say "fucked" to mean "defeated, overwhelmed."

  12. marie-lucie said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    Although raised in France, and attending a school there with a majority of boys, it was not until I was almost an adult that I realized that the very common (if coarse) word "con" could mean something other than "idiot" or "idiotic" (in which sense it has a feminine "conne"). Similarly, I grew up thinking that "foutre" was just a much coarser equivalent of "faire" and a few other everyday, colorless verbs. The past participle "foutu" usually means something like "kaput" for things, and "defeated, overwhelmed" and similar meanings, for persons (borrowing rootlesscosmo's translation of Spanish "jodao"). As far as I know, the English etymological equivalents never have these fairly innocuous meanings, hence their much stronger "offence-causing capability" (as David Eddyshaw said).

  13. Michael said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    It wouldn't be "joder" (nobody says that). Probably "coño", yeah.

    On "joder" — that's not really a good translation of "fuck", when a twelve-year-old kid can tell me he and his friends are just going to be "jodiendo" this weekend and it means "screwing around" in the sense of doing nothing. (Although his mother was rather incensed and told him to clean up his language, ha.)

  14. Freddy Hill said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    Michael, nobody says that where? I'd accept it if you said "nobody says that in Puerto Rico" because I don't know.

  15. Martyn Cornell said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

    Marie-Lucie, "fucked" can mean "kaput", so that it's certainly possible to say in English of something that's broken or not working: "The fucking fucker's fucked", although this wouyld not be what you would say to the shop assistant if you were bringing it in to be repaired … similarly it would be possible, looking at Mrs Clinton's number of delegates to the Democratic Convention, to say: "She's fucked", although I doubt that even a Fox News commentator would say that on air.

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    I've seen hints that "cunt" isn't even as bad in BrE as in AmE–things like the "what a silly bunt" in the Python sketch about the man with the "c"->"b" shift, people jocularly telling each other "don't be such a cunt" w/o any sign of the sort of mortal offense that would taken in America. Can any transpondians confirm or deny this?

  17. Nicholas Waller said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 6:37 am

    "Cunt" is still generally taboo on British TV, though Germaine Greer expicitly looked into the history of the word* on the BBC's "Balderdash and Piffle" series (a wordhunt programme that was mainly about helping the OED find the earliest written examples of various words) without civilisation collapsing. Jonathan Ross on his BBC chat show is able to tell Gwyneth Paltrow to her face that he'd like to fuck her without getting bleeped, but his deployment of "cunt" is still bleeped.

    People do use the word in conversation, and in jocularly telling each other not to be such a cunt, but generally among friends and peer groups rather than in business meetings or multi-generational family gatherings, I'd say.

    The word still has power when used aggressively by street louts, and can be deployed very effectively in drama, such as the BBC's political drama "The Thick Of It". My favourite drama example is in the movie "Withnail and I", when our heroes, terrified they're about to be murdered by a burglar, are surprised by Uncle Monty arriving late at his own house: "Monty, you terrible cunt!" shouts Richard E Grant's character in fear and relief.

    * discusses all this and says the first scripted use on British TV was in 1979.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 1:13 pm


  19. marie-lucie said,

    May 18, 2008 @ 1:29 pm

    Martin, (sorry for the unintended interruption)

    OK, I have heard examples such as your English ones, but it seems to me that there is no real disconnection in English between the concrete and the figurative uses of the f-word, as there is in French. My mother – a very proper lady and a schoolteacher – often quoted the saying "café bouillu, café foutu" ("boiled coffee, ruined coffee" – this was before the advent of automatic coffee makers) and would certainly not have done so if she had had in her mind the old, original meaning of "foutu".

  20. Lane said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    Is my instinct shared by anyone else (I"m a non-native Spanish-speaker) that the interjection "joder!" is European Spanish, and not common in LatAm Spanish?

    Anyway, it's certainly true that Spanish words for this concept vary by region/country quite a bit. Mexico has "chingar", unused, as far as I know, in many other countries. "Coger" means to grab or catch in some LatAm countries and is unprintable in others.

    So what we need is the best Puerto Rican equivalent of what Sue Simmons said, and I don't think "joder" is it.

  21. Andrew said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    I took a camera into a camera shop and explained that it was coming up with an error code. The assistant called to his colleague in the back room "What does it mean when a Minolta has error code XYZ (or whatever it was?" His assistant called back "It means it's fucked".

    That was in England so yes, it's widely used as a technical term to mean "beyond economic repair". Martyn, no, I wouldn't have used in in the shop, but it was their territory so it was OK for them to.

  22. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    "I've seen hints that "cunt" isn't even as bad in BrE as in AmE–things like the "what a silly bunt" in the Python sketch about the man with the "c"->"b" shift, people jocularly telling each other "don't be such a cunt" w/o any sign of the sort of mortal offense that would taken in America. Can any transpondians confirm or deny this?"

    It's definitely true – the best example apart from its reasonably widespread appearance on "network" TV comedy and drama would be when the Guardian put an artist's rendition of the word on the cover of its tabloid section. You wouldn't see the New York Times doing that. If you were to ask me, I think a lot of the reason (apart from Brits generally being less prudish about swearing) is that its usage is very different and stripped of most of its misogyny. In the UK it's almost always directed at men, and generally denotes boorish or otherwise unsavoury stereotypical male behaviour. In the US, from what I understand, it's very often directed at women and denotes supposed bad female qualities (most typically connivance). I believe, though I don't have any evidence, the differing levels of misogyny implied by the two usages account for its greater taboo value in the US.

  23. Steve said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    Well, I don't know how offensive 'cunt' is in the US, but it's still by far the strongest word available in British English – a lot stronger than 'fuck'. It is true that it is used more often about males in male company and it used to be fairly common in the barracks or on the factory floor (although it may not be as common now that these environments are not as exclusively male as they used to be). There may be some people who use it 'jocularly' but it still packs a punch – put it this way: it's the only word I hardly ever use. My impression is that over the last twenty years 'fuck' has become much more acceptable, but 'cunt' much less so, especially if a woman is present. This is, surely, a sign that the word is certainly seen as implying misogyny or worse, but possibly to a lesser degree than in the US.

    On the other hand, jocular reference to it on the lines of Monty Python's 'bunt' is conceivably more acceptable in the UK. I once translated a line from a Goldoni play, a literal translation of which would have been 'This Count is a very silly fellow' as 'What a silly Count'. It always got a laugh, and nobody seemed offended, even when there were chidren in the audience. When the actual word is used in the theatre I have seen people walk out.

  24. Arthur Crown said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

    marie-lucie's mother said,"café bouillu, café foutu"

    "Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled", is what my mother says.

    An equivalent English f-word that is not connected to its real meaning is "bugger" (=anal sex — it's not used as a swear-word in USA). My English great-aunt used it in old age (the swear word). It is quite mild, she would never in a million years have said 'fuck'.

  25. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    I'd agree that 'cunt' is still the strongest conventional swearword in the UK – it's at the top of the infamous BBC list of naughty words. I'd also acknowledge that there are quite a few people find it just as offensive as in the US, but in general the disparity between it and 'fuck' is much less than in the US. In my personal experience it's used just as often by women as men (then again, I'm a journalist and we're notoriously sweary), which argues against the strong misogynistic connotation, but, again, there are definitely people I know who refuse to use it for the same reasons as Steve.

    Moreover, I think most British people would find racial slurs more offensive or taboo, whereas I don't think that's necessarily the case in the US. Even euphemised, Americans are more likely to say "the n-word" than "the c-word". All this is a fairly recent development in the UK, however.

  26. Bryn LaFollette said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    As a native speaker of American English and a resident of the US, I just thought I'd give my two cents on the facts of the c-word's connotations in the American English. Now, being a native Californian I can't see my views accurately reflect the broader scope of usage in the US at large, but generally speaking I would say that the c-word exclusively has a powerfully misogynistic connation, to the extant that I cannot bring myself to utter it (and this is as a linguist by training, fully intellectually aware of taboo stigmata). To the best of my knowledge, the British non-misogynistic usage is completely non-existent in the US, and I've never heard anyone here, male or female, use the term in reference to a male.

    Further, though, as far as racial slurs, I would say that in my experience, the n-word is just as taboo, and I think even moreso, than the c-word. I again, of course, cannot speak for all regions, and I think there's clearly a wide range of attitudes across the country when it comes to taboo terms. However, the one area that I have seen a difference is when the person using the term is a member of the group that the term is a slur against. I am a caucasian male, but my female friends feel much less negative pressure against using the c-word and likewise my Black friends feel much less reluctance in using the n-word.

    In general, though, I would say there is clearly much more public tolerance in the US for prejudice against women and misogynistic speech than there is tolerance for racist speech. This was most clearly illustrated to me in a story a professor of mine in University told of an administrative meeting he attended where one of the speakers was discussing a vote that had taken place and in relation to that made a joke about how giving women the right to vote had been a mistake, and was met with genuine laughter. He noted, truthfully I think, that this would have been met with awkward incredulity if it were instead about African Americans or some other racial group.

    Anyhow, I think this has all strayed far enough away from the original point of Mark's post, and since I don't have an answer to it (I'm only really familiar with Mexican Spanish), I'm going to leave it here.

  27. ajay said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    Ginger is right; in the UK it's not nearly so much of a taboo word, and it's applied mainly to men, denoting either stupidity (in this case generally prefixed with "daft", "stupid" etc) or a sort of wilfully stupid obstructive unpleasantness. eg: "The guard said I had to go round to the main doors and check in properly there. He could have let me in right then, but he just felt like being a c."

  28. Dr Benway said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    Bryn LaFollette said: "To the best of my knowledge, the British non-misogynistic usage is completely non-existent in the US, and I've never heard anyone here, male or female, use the term in reference to a male."

    You hear more Brit slang on the east coast as compared to the west coast. I live in the greater Boston area and I hear "what a twat" to refer to a person, male or female, who is being self-indulgent at the expense of others and "cunt" in nearly the same way, although it expresses a stronger antipathy.

    The homogenizing force of television has blunted regional language differences. Perhaps it has less impact upon phrases it can't air.

  29. vergueishon said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    It's very likely coño. In fact, coño is one of the most common interjections in places like Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela. Most of my experience comes from Venezuelan Spanish, this being my mother tongue. But suffice to say that it is roughly equivalent in versatility to fuck in American English. So, coño can convey surprise, dismay, pain, awe, frustration, etc.

    The peninsular Spanish equivalent is in fact joder, which as an exclamation in the infinitive form is not common in the Americas.

  30. vergueishon said,

    August 8, 2008 @ 10:59 am

    Addendum: I just wanted to add that while joder as an exclamation is not as common in the infinitive form in American Spanish, in the central Venezuelan, near-coastal region you can find the formation no joda in place of coño. These terms are roughly synonymous, with the former appearing less so a singular or isolated (sic?) interjection, and more as an interjectory modifier. I admit that I am employing terms here perhaps incorrectly, but what I mean to say is that no joda would be used to add emphasis to an exclamatory expression. So, for example, you will often hear people interject with the phrase "¡coño, no joda!", or even use the expression in the following manner, "¿no joda, chamo, pero tu eres bruto?" ('What the fuck, dude, are you stupid?'). I should also add that its applications generally convey negative connotations, and it is synonymous with coño in this regard.

RSS feed for comments on this post