Johnson and Fully (sic)

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I've added two new sites to our blogroll, both well worth regular visits:

The Economist has launched Johnson:

In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, our correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world

And Crikey has launched Fully (sic) — or perhaps I should write .au/fully (sic):

Crikey’s very own language blog for discerning word nerds. Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Australian linguists getting all hot and bothered about the way we communicate.

I can't resist joining language hat in reprinting this post about Johnson's name (G.L., "No Fowler than Johnson", 6/15/2010:

Last week A.T., an American colleague, tackled me, a Brit, about the title of this blog. Never has the nostrum about Britain and America being "two countries separated by a common language" seemed truer:

A.T.: I don't like the name Johnson.
G.L.: What would you suggest?
A.T.: Well, for instance, Fowler, who wrote the great guide to English usage.
G.L.: What's the advantage of Fowler over Johnson?
A.T.: Well, it doesn't mean dick.
G.L.: Hold on—are you saying you prefer Fowler, or Johnson?
A.T.: Fowler.
G.L.: But is Fowler well-known in America?
A.T.: No, but nor is Johnson.
G.L.: So if Fowler doesn't mean dick to Americans and nor does Johnson, why is Fowler better?
A.T.: But it does mean dick.
G.L.: Fowler does?
A.T.: No, Johnson.

At this point light dawned, and I realised that A.T. was trying to communicate one problem, while I, thinking myself a connoisseur of American slang, had understood another. In fact both were true: the trouble with "Johnson" is that while Brits know the name well, to Americans it both doesn't mean dick and does mean "dick". Fowler, on the other hand, may not mean "dick" to Americans, but to my mind it doesn't really mean dick to anybody. So I proposed that we stop dicking around and simply explain, at the top right of the page, who Johnson was, so that even if it still means "dick", at least it no longer doesn't mean dick. I hope that's now clear to everyone.

Note that this illustrates the role of dick as a "minimal object", which can become a negative particle through the process that John Lawler has called "negation by association" (see e.g. "Most of the people in the world could care less", 7/16/2004).  As a result, the reported conversation might have become even more confusing, since in general to VERB MINIMAL-OBJECT means not to VERB MINIMAL-OBJECT.

Thus the page "Fashion tips for women from a guy who knows dick about fashion"; or this quote from James Cayne, reported in William Cohan's House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street:

Managing partner of the firm means dick to me. I didn't take any orders from him. I had nothing to do with the guy.

In fact, in this particular case, I think that "doesn't mean dick" would count as a double negative, and therefore would be a non-standard form unlikely to be used either by Cohan's I-banker or The Economist's American colleague.

Fully (sic) is written by a bunch of linguistics grad students from Oz — can they match this subtle mix of politics, language, and culture? Well, here's the start of Piers Kelly's 6/9/2010 post "Rats from a sinking summit":

David Marr is probably spewing that almost all the attention on his Quarterly Essay is focused on Rudd’s flamboyant obscenities at the Copenhagen summit. What was it that our sombre and mealy mouthed PM was alleged to have said? (I’m quoting here from the extract because I don’t yet have access to the original):

“Those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck us,” declared Kevin Rudd.

In this mood, he’d been talking about countries “rat-fucking” each other for days. Was a deal still possible, asked one of the Australians.

“Depends whether those rat-fucking Chinese want to fuck us.”

So far as I can recall I have never heard rat-fuck or rat-fucking before and I immediately assumed that K-Rudd had thought it up on the spot – a surreal obscenity from a tired and frustrated leader who’d staked his reputation on climate action and a new relationship with China.

But dictionaries have more to say on the dubious practice of rat-fucking. The OED locates the first printed use of ‘rat-fuck’ in 1920s America, and it's been spotted in published US sources right up until the present decade. The F Word, a 1995 reference work on “the most controversial word in the English language”, has even more examples. My agents behind the apple-pie curtain have observed its continued use in spoken American English. So what exactly does it mean?

You'll have to read the rest of Piers Kelly's post to learn the answer. (And even those of us behind the apple-pie curtain may learn something about the origins and progress of rat-fucking.)

But this reminds me of different sort of speech, in a different language, by a different politician, without any rats, but with a… well, anyhow, take a look at "Begin arming Israel", 12/17/2004.


  1. vanya said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    I think that "doesn't mean dick" would count as a double negative, and therefore would be a non-standard form unlikely to be used either by Cohan's I-banker or The Economist's American colleague.

    That seems like an odd assumption. "Means dick" is already very informal, and also juvenile. In my experience it would ONLY be used with a double negative – "it doesn't mean dick", or, probably more commonly "it don't mean dick", analogous to "it don't mean shit". To an American, anyway, "it means dick" sounds faintly ludicrous, like singing a blues song "there is no one who will do me wrong".

    [(myl) I was commenting specifically about two contexts — the line in the Johnson blog post ("A.T.: Well, it doesn't mean dick."), and the quote from James Cayne ("Managing partner of the firm means dick to me.").

    In the first case, if I wanted to say "it means nothing" (as G.L. understood the comment), I think I'd need to say either "Well, it means dick", or "Well, it don't mean dick". I couldn't use doesn't, my intution tells me, unless I wanted to say "it's not the case that it means nothing". (Which is why this would lead to further levels of interpretive confusion, as I suggested.)

    And in the second case, I can imagine Cayne saying "Managing partner of the firm don't mean dick to me" (in the same interpretation, "[the fact that he's a] managing partner of the firm means nothing to me") — but that would imply a significantly more vulgar tone, and I think it would be a somewhat surprising thing to hear from a high-level Wall Street I-banker, though my experience of their conversational style is limited. But I find it completely implausible that he would have said "Managing partner of the firm doesn't mean dick to me", with the intended interpretion of "…means nothing to me." No way, no how.

    Hope that helps.]

  2. John S. Wilkins said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    In case you do not already know (I haven't seen you mention it), the expression "fully sick" means excellent, or really great, usually as applied to hotted up cars, in Australia. It's usually an expression by those of Greek extraction (at one point, Melbourne was the second biggest Greek speaking city in the world after Athens), and has been popularised by a number of self-parodying Greek-Australian comedians, who call themselves "wogs" (which is what we Anglo-Australians, who they call "skips" after a 60s TV show, used to call them before they took it over).

    [(myl) This is news to me. Thanks!]

  3. HECK said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    When I was in college, we played a card game called rat-fuck (rat-fink for the squeamish). It was a trick-taking game similar to spades, except that the bidding could never come out even, so in every hand someone always got, well, rat-fucked.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    The producer/actor John Houseman, in his memoir "Run-Through" (1972), used "rat fuck" to mean an enjoyably raucous, uninhibited party, though not specifically an orgy. He was a member, along with Humphrey Bogart, of a pre-Sinatra social circle who called themselves the Holmby Hills Rat Pack. In a curious connection to the Economist blog, his first movie was called "Too Much Johnson."

  5. John Lawler said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    @vanya, myl: The "dick" in the expression "doesn't mean dick" is an example of what Haj Ross and Paul Postal call squatitives, from the expression "doesn't know squat". Larry Horn has a paper on them, too. (I have never heard "doesn't mean Johnson", however) They are a species of Negative Polarity, and are often vulgar or obscene, i.e, "informal".

    As for the "minimal direct object", I am immediately reminded of the lead article in the copy of Language I got in the mail yesterday ("The ass camouflage construction: Masks as parasitic heads", by Robert D. Levine), on AAVE expressions like examples (1)a-e in the paper

    a. My ass musta been crazy.
    b. I don't even know her pregnant ass and I'm mad at her.
    c. That other woman done lived with his ass 12 years.
    d. Ain' nobody told his ass that.
    e. She know that the chaplain ain' gon let her little ass run the streets.

  6. Ed Cormany said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    i'd never heard of the "apple pie curtain" before, but i like it. it sounds…delicious.

  7. Amy Stoller said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    The first time I heard the expression "rat-fuck" was in connection with Richard Nixon and Watergate. (Now I can go read the article and see if that is mentioned.)

    No Fowler than Johnson is of course a variant of Who's on First.

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    I seem to recall the non-Big yet abiding Lebowski being bemused by an attempt to use "Johnson" in this way on the part of Maude, daughter of the Big Lebowski. His reaction suggested to me as a non-American that the usage might not be up-to-the-minute.

  9. George Amis said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    Jon Stewart's Daily Show segments on Vice President Cheney's peculiarities were called "You Don't Know Dick," adding an extra level of pun to the fun.

  10. Josh said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    My only experience with rat-fuck is like HECK, with the card game. We always called it Russian rat-fuck or Egyptian rat-fuck. I'm not sure why it was those two countries in particular.

  11. Yuval said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    I've played this card game (I'm assuming it is the same game) as "Egyptian Corkscrew" (English) or "Crooked Egyptian Thumb" (Hebrew). Never heard of the ratfuck variant.

  12. John Cowan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    Roger Shuy talked about knows jack and doesn't know jack here on Language Log.

    His ass and friends are spreading into colloquial standard use, though it'll be a while before we see it in print (note the hoo-ha mentioned in Johnson about Obama's kick his ass, which is clearly standard). My daughter, who is 22 and bi-dialectal, freely uses it (along with homie as a 3rd-person masculine pronoun) not only when talking to her friends in AAVE, but also when talking to her mother and me in the standard dialect.

  13. Lazar said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    @John Lawler: I've been struggling to find a name for the, um, "ass camouflage construction", and had settled on "assification".

    In light of the phenomenon, I feel obliged to share this masterful sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie:

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    I'm astonished to find "doesn't know/mean dick/squat/jack/shit" taken as a double negative. It has a simple, straightforward interpretation as "knows less than dick" (etc.), the same less as in "couldn't care less". I expect the latter to be mistook in places, but not here.

  15. Lane said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    I also take "dick", "squat" and so on to mean "very little of value", not "nothing", so "you know Jack shit about X" means you don't know very much, and "you don't know Jack shit about X" means you know even less than Jack shit. I don't process it as a double negative at all.

    [(myl) For me at least, there's a difference here between know and mean.

    I can certainly get "you don't know jack shit", etc. (Though I think that in context, this is ambiguous between "you don't know anything" and "it's not the case that you don't know anything".)

    But inserting "doesn't" into Mr. Cayne's remark, turning "Managing partner of the firm means dick to me" into "??Managing partner of the firm doesn't mean dick to me", makes it either ungrammatical or a double negative.]

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    inserting "doesn't" into Mr. Cayne's remark, turning "Managing partner of the firm means dick to me" into "??Managing partner of the firm doesn't mean dick to me", makes it either ungrammatical or a double negative.

    Again, straightforward: "Means dick" = "means epsilon"; "doesn't mean dick" = "means even less than epsilon".

  17. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    Looking through my own current list of language-related blogs, I find seven that are not on Language Log's blogroll at all, two that are on both our blogrolls but with mine having more up-to-date links, and twenty-three which are on both blogrolls no qualifications required. Oh, and one blog which is Language Log.

    The seven that are on my blogroll but not on Language Log's are: Arrant Pedantry (, Babel's Dawn (, Babelstone (, Language Geek (, Language Trainers UK (, The Adventures of Auck (, and Voices of the UK (

  18. Peter said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    I've recently learned the card game (I assume it's the same one) but, since we're playing at work, it's going by the name Nominations.

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

    … So, still astonished.

  20. Will Steed said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 12:05 am

    The same game has a number of names I've used, including Up and Down the River, Oh Hell and Silly Buggers.

    Thanks for the mention of Fully (sic)!

    Will Steed (occasional Fully (sic) blogger).

  21. Matthew Kehrt said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:40 am

    I've never heard this game called anything other than "Egyptian rat-screw." The fact that this could be a euphemism never even crossed my mind.

  22. Piers Kelly said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    "fully sick" explained at Fully (sic):

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