The scansion of disapprobation expressions

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In case you missed it — Ben Zimmer recently turned his meticulous scholarly attention to the lexicographical and metrical analysis of shit-gibbon: "The Surprising Rise of the 'S—gibbon'", Slate 2/9/2017.

The metrical part:

Shitgibbon has a lot going for it, with the same punchy meter as other Trumpian epithets popularized last summer like cockwomble, fucknugget, and jizztrumpet. (Metrically speaking, these words are compounds consisting of one element with a single stressed syllable and a second disyllabic element with a trochaic pattern, i.e., stressed-unstressed. As a metrical foot in poetry, the whole stressed-stressed-unstressed pattern is known as antibacchius.)

Ben cited some historical research by Hugo van Kemenade, and adds "some insults in the same vein as shitgibbon, as collected by the indefatigable Hugo", many of which are also prosodically antibacchiac:

wankpuffin, cockwomble, fucktrumpet, dickbiscuit, twatwaffle, turdweasel, bunglecunt, shitehawk

cuntpuffin, spunkpuffin, shitpuffin; fuckwomble, twatwomble; jizztrumpet, spunktrumpet; shitbiscuit, arsebiscuits, douchebiscuit; douchewaffle, cockwaffle, fartwaffle, cuntwaffle, shitwaffle (lots of –waffles); crapweasel, fuckweasel, pissweasel, doucheweasel

He omit some old antibacchiac favorites like cocksucker, as well as up-and-coming insults like douche-nozzle.

There is a small but interesting scholarly literature on the syntax of disapprobation expressions, e.g. Quang Phuc Dong, "English sentences without overt grammatical subject", Studies out in Left Field, 1971; Boban Arsenijević, "Disapprobation expressions are vocative epithets", ACLC Working Papers 2007.  But with the exception of the related problem of expletive infixation, there's little or no research on the cross-linguistic prosody of insults.

Are certain metrical patterns really favored in English-language disapprobation expressions? Or is the apparent antibacchiacity of Hugo's lists just an artefact of the associative accumulation of examples on the basis of a striking instance like shitgibbon?

And what are the prosodic patterns of negative-valence vocative epithets in Italian, Russian, Persian, French, Mandarin, Turkish, Hebrew, Swahili, … ? This is a massively interdisciplinary problem, involving not only lexicography and metrics but also psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, and data science.

Update — More coverage by Taylor Jones: "Linguists have been discussion 'shit gibbon.' I argue it's not entirely about gibbons", Language Jones 2/92/2017.



  1. Robert said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    And there are the non-epithet antibacchiac phrases, like stud muffin and eye candy.

  2. Eric TF Bat said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    I noticed that the antibacchian pejoratives fit the scansion of Titwillow from the Mikado, so it inspired me to write this: Three Syllable Slogans, a song about three Australian politicians.

    Explaining the references: the first verse refers to our Immigration Minister, who presides over the nation's offshore concentration camps; the second is about a senator with deeply homophobic views, now thankfully irrelevant after a dummy-spit and flounce; and the third is the Prime Minister, a man who disappointed those who saw his early promise by becoming, basically, just another politician.

  3. Merlebird said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 8:54 am

    Am I missing something? You've listed "shitehawk" as an example of an antibacchiac prosodic pattern, but unless I'm mistaken that's only two syllables. Wouldn't that make it spondaic?

  4. Merlebird said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    Or rather, I guess Ben Zimmer listed it as antibacchiac, but the point stands: I think one of these things is not like the other.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 9:35 am

    Is there a single vulgar insulting noun in English whose first syllable is unstressed? (I added "vulgar" to rule out "illiterate", "incompetent", etc., which seem to me to represent a whole different class from "jizztrumpet".)

    By the way, I don't think "shitehawk" belongs on the list, unless I'm completely mistaken about its pronunciation.

  6. Merlebird said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 9:59 am

    @Jerry: I hesitate to spitball on that point without a firmer grasp on what you'd consider "vulgar." Generally speaking, American English seems to confine lexical "vulgarity" to a relatively small class of brusque, usually Germanic monosyllables. We can probably all agree that George Carlin's "seven words you can't say on television" are "vulgar," as popularly construed; but what about anatomical terms one might find in a medical textbook? I'm loath to say "penis" and "vagina" are vulgar in and of themselves, but when (for example) calls Donald Trump an "appleheaded vagina-mouth," I'd be equally hard-pressed to say how that differs qualitatively from the list above.

    If you're willing to grant the Wonkette epithet is vulgar, then the latter half of it, at least, is one insult whose first syllable is unstressed.

  7. Bloix said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    Puffin? Really? Weasel, waffle, biscuit and gibbon, I get, but puffin?

  8. Toma said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:27 am

    There's nice assonance in ones like dickbiscuit and twatwaffle. Something like shitpuffin might be useful for a similar reason. "Turdweasel" is just plain awesome.

  9. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I don't think "titwillow" matches the antibacchian model; as the musical setting makes clear, the stress falls on the second syllable, not the first. (Al Grant's Yiddish version uses "oy vey'z mir," which similarly puts the stress on "vey'z.")

  10. Milan said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    It's not only that these insults are all antibacchii (??), they follow the pattern of "[vulgar noun]+[innocuous noun]", where the first element is a stressed monosyllabic and the second one a trochee. Maybe the overall stress pattern just results from the abundance of one-syllable obscenities in English together with the general stress pattern of disyllabic nouns. This only leaves us to explain why disyllabic innocuous nouns might be preferred over monosyllabic ones.

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:55 am

    Jerry Friedman – I think historically Germanic words tend to have their stress on the first syllable, while historically French or Latin words tend to have their stress on a later syllable (though if they were borrowed into English early enough they may have been restressed on the first syllable – cf. parley, damage, etc.) Vulgar words tend to be from the Germanic part of the vocabulary (because borrowed words started out sounding technical or jargony, which gets in the way of seeing them as vulgar), so they tend to be stressed on the first syllable.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:57 am

    I was going g to make the same comment as @rootlesscosmo about the scansion of "titwillow", but after reading Eric's parody I think the problem might be that he hears the antibacchic insults as having the primary stress on the second syllable as well.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    Subject to the possible Titwillow Exception noted above, I wonder if this is a more general issue about noun-noun compounds (which most/all of the vulgar epithets above are*). "Illiterate" (or "deplorable" to take an epithet that surfaced in last year's campaign) aren't only non-vulgar, they're not that sort of compound (and perhaps not coincidentally are Latinate). Might it just be the case that noun-noun compounds (esp with non-Latinate components) with an unstressed first syllable are quite rare in English even in a non-vulgar register?

    Maybe the compounding process itself can affect stress patterns. Possible example: for at least some Anglophones in some contexts, "champagne" as a freestanding word has or at least can have second-syllable stress. But put in into a compound (like the pejorative but non-vulgar "champagne socialist") and the stress moves to the first syllable.

    *Extra credit assignment for an undergraduate class in morphology: Is "piss" as used in the compound word "pissweasel" the verb "piss" or the noun "piss"? Explain your answer.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    @Jerry Friedman re "shitehawk": Mark says that "many" (not "all") of the listed items are antibacchic.

  15. Martin Ball said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

    I have a copy of Studies out in Left Field.
    If anyone wants it, you only need to cough up the postage from Sweden and I'm happy to pass it on.
    Email me at martin dot j dot ball at-sign liu dot se

  16. Adam Roberts said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

    This maybe of only glancing relevance, but I read a review of Atwood's Oryx and Crake that suggested the linkage of two surnames in a single syntactic unit was made more memorable if the two names formed a quartus paeon, 'unstressed-unstressed-unstressed-stressed': Oryx and Crake; Morecambe and Wise; Watson and Crick; Goffin and King; Jekyll and Hyde and so on. I wonder if such a rhythm leads us into the phrase, and so cements it, as it were; where the examples quoted in the OP, by starting with a stressed first syllable which, by virtue of being an obscenity ('cock', 'jizz' etc), work as more of a metaphorical slap in the face.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    Is there a technical name in prosody for the dactyl-and-spondee (or perhaps dactyl-and-trochee?) combination seen in e.g. "Clownface von Fuckstick" or "Boaty McBoatface"? Because that seems to be a rhythm with a certain appeal to The Young People when engaged in internet-based vituperation.

  18. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

    The list of items "in the same vein" as shitgibbon was from Hugo, who wasn't strictly focusing on the antibacchic pattern.

    More on the productivity of this pattern from Taylor Jones on his Language Jones blog here.

  19. Belial Issimo said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

    @Adam Roberts: One thinks also of the Greek lexicon, beloved of generations of frustrated classicists, known as Liddell & Scott (in its three manifestations Little Liddell, Middle Liddell, and Great Scott). Also Beavis and Butthead.

    But then there is Smith & Wollensky's… clearly further research is indicated.

  20. Yuval said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

    Upon few minutes of self-reflection, I propose that Hebrew epithets like having two unstressed syllables between the stressed ones, for a Waltz-meter effect. Cases in point:
    1) The most common open-space insult is בן זונה /BEN zoNA/ "whore's son". Through some semantic process or other, the fused version /BENzona/ has become a positive adjective/interjection ("excellent") and as a result the insult is either pronounced with an observable pause at the word boundary, or with an intrusive, stressless "of": /BEN šel zoNA/, "son of a whore".
    2) זבל /ZEvel/ "manure" is another epithet. My personal favorite variant for pleasing my prosodic organ is זבל עופות /ZEvel oFOT/ "chicken manure", again with the Waltz.

  21. Bloix said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

    A prominent trial attorney I used to know would refer to jurors as "the undershirted beersuckers."

  22. Robert Davis said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

    When I am weary from reading about Trumpism, I am rarely disappointed at Language Log. Who knew about the metrical analysis of shit-gibbon? Thank you.

  23. Rubrick said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 6:24 pm

    This whole discussion is pure flapdoodle.

  24. Terry Hunt said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 7:15 pm

    The inclusion of "shitehawk" seems to me anomalous, not because of its metricity, but because unlike all the other coinages. which appear to be very recent neologisms, "shitehawk" is a well established English word used to refer to various raptors, such as buzzards, which sometimes arouse ire because of their penchant for snatching food – sometimes actually out of the hand – of al fresco diners.
    I can find no entry for the word in my copy of the OED, so cannot attest its antiquity, but I have occasionally encountered it in speech and print over a period stretching back 50 years (beyond which my memory does not extend).

  25. Gwen Katz said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    I can't think of any with an unstressed first syllable, but the disyllabic element does sometimes come first, leading to a stressed-unstressed-stressed pattern, as in "chucklefuck."

  26. Jim Shapiro said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 7:42 pm

    Not entirely unrelated: Playing in a rock band in the U.S. midwest in the early/mid-1990s meant appearing on bills with (what I found to be) an unusually high incidence of bands whose names were antibacchian compounds—usually spelled closed rather than open or hyphenated, not typically vulgar but generally evoking some at least moderately unappetizing image, and often containing the STRUT vowel in each of the first two syllables; thus: Lungmustard, Rustbucket, Buzzmuscle, etc. Dozens and dozens of them, seemingly; no theory for why the zeitgeist was then producing these in such numbers, nor for why it stopped

  27. AG said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

    @ Jim Shapiro – this is a rich area for speculation and research. Pawing through the racks of used CD stores in the 90s, I used to marvel at the astonishing number of band names that fit a certain three-syllable pattern of (mostly) nonsense compound words – Soundgarden, Sparklehorse, Jawbreaker, Superchunk, King Missile, Dishwalla, (not compound words but – Sneaker Pimps, Limp Bizkit, Blind Melon, and… going back a bit, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard?)

  28. AG said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

    (… addendum, I realize all those band name examples don't strictly fit the meter and/or other criteria… it was a list I typed very quickly and without a lot of thought, so I hope the main point comes across even if some of the names are not 100% antibacchic or whatever)

  29. Y said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

    The Imperial Butt Wizards were a double antibacchius.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:50 pm

    Robert Coren and Ben Zimmer: Thanks for the clarifications on "shitehawk". I must have missed "many of". In fact it's all but one.

    Adam Roberts: I hear those "Oryx and Crake" combinations as choriambs, with the first syllable stressed too.

    J. W. Brewer: Is there a technical name in prosody for the dactyl-and-spondee (or perhaps dactyl-and-trochee?) combination seen in e.g. "Clownface von Fuckstick" or "Boaty McBoatface"? Because that seems to be a rhythm with a certain appeal to The Young People when engaged in internet-based vituperation.

    Thirty-some years after I first read about that pattern (in John Frederick Nims's textbook Western Wind, I think), you've prompted me to look up what it's called: an Adonic line. Sources seem to differ on whether the second foot is a trochee, a spondee, or either. It's had a certain appeal for a long time, as it's the last line of the Sapphic stanza, and I think of the English version as the "Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking" pattern. And now the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony is pleasantly stuck in my head.

  31. Thomas Lumley said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 12:22 am

    There are a few stressed-unstressed-stressed examples, such as "douchecanoe"

  32. Breffni said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 3:25 am

    Terry Hunt: OED's first citation for shitehawk = bird is 1944, and first for shitehawk = person is 1948.

    Shitehawk reminds me of cockchafer (another antibacchius), which I entirely misunderstood when I first read it in Lucky Jim. Jim uses it repeatedly in reference to another character ("the old cockchafer"). I thought that was a bit risqué for a 1954 novel, but apparently it's a kind of beetle, a Maybug. Double-entendre intended, no doubt.

  33. Robert said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 8:39 am

    I think Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove should weigh in on this.

  34. AG said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    That "chafer" is a cognate of German Käfer, if I recall correctly.

  35. Robert Coren said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 10:32 am

    @Bloix re the lawyer's term for jurors: Presumably not in open court.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    A slightly earlier (late '80's) instance of the band-name phenomenon Jim Shapiro notes would be Mudhoney, who although not Midwestern were perhaps prominent enough to potentially serve as a role model (whether followed consciously or unconsciously) for a whole naming subgenre that could have blossomed in the following decade. An even earlier (mid '80's) and Midwestern example that fits all the criteria except for the use of the STRUT vowel might be Killdozer.

    I am separately grateful to Jerry Friedman for teaching me the term "adonic line." No doubt a whole list of adonically-named rock bands could be compiled, although the only one that leaps to my own mind w/o digging is Mission of Burma. (And speaking of Burma I am now idly wondering if the Jim Shapiro who commented above is the same Jim Shapiro who played and sang in the bisyllabically-named U Thant in the mid '80's, although I guess that particular idle curiosity really is outside the scope of this discussion.)

  37. Gregory Kusnick said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

    J.W.: Jefferson Airplane and Tower of Power leap pretty quickly to my mind.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    Merlebird: I think you have a good point about Germanic origin, but maybe it's mildly interesting that words with "mis-", "un-", and "no-" seem to be good candidates for vulgar insults, but aren't used much. "No-brainer", an amphibrach, would work well, but it's not an insult. ("Misbegotten" is an obsolescent insulting adjective, but it has a secondary accent on the first syllable, at least the way I say it.)

    I can think of two trochaic insulting nouns from Latin, "reject" (popular in my youth) and "retard", but they have the first syllable accented because of a familiar process for making nouns.

    "Vagina-mouth" strikes me as a one-shot piece of whimsy. "Pussy-mouth", on the other hand, could catch on.

  39. Thor said,

    February 11, 2017 @ 9:19 pm

    "Shitehawk" has been an uncomplimentary epithet among British navy lower deckers for the common gull and its indiscriminate defecatory habits.

  40. ardj said,

    February 12, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

    Thanks to Ben Zimmer for directing us to Taylor Jones, who has elegantly expressed what I wanted to say. Yes, he comes up with some fine examples of antibacchics: but not only has he too noticed that bunglecunt does not fit the antibacchius pattern, but more generally he illustrates that the word sounds make a big difference, perhaps more than the stress pattern. I am not convinced that there is a subgroup of rhythms particularly favourable to dispraise, animadversion, disparagement and reviling in English: though it may be that a pattern becomes fashionable (arselickers anyone?).

  41. Keith said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 4:46 am

    Milan points out that "the first element is a stressed monosyllabic and the second one a trochee", and Ben claims that many of these insults have the structure of antibacchius, and points to the corresponding article on Wikipedia.

    This is true for when the words are taken individually, but when the trochee is joined to the preceding monosyllabic word, it loses its initial stress.

    When I pronounce any of the list "wankpuffin, cockwomble, fucktrumpet, dickbiscuit, twatwaffle, turdweasel, bunglecunt, shitehawk, cuntpuffin, spunkpuffin, shitpuffin; fuckwomble, twatwomble; jizztrumpet, spunktrumpet; shitbiscuit, arsebiscuits, douchebiscuit; douchewaffle, cockwaffle, fartwaffle, cuntwaffle, shitwaffle, crapweasel, fuckweasel, pissweasel, doucheweasel", I have a stressed first syllable and then two unstressed syllables.

    Oh, and shitehawk is a particularly useful word. Used as the name of a boat or car, it can be written "Shy Talk"; it has a racy sibling, "Shy Tot".

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 14, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

    Keith: How about "warmonger"? "Lifesaver"?

    In each of those words, I have primary stress on the first syllable and secondary stress on the second. I could work each into a poem as either an antibacchius or a dactyl.

  43. Jamie said,

    February 19, 2017 @ 2:17 pm


    Possibly this: '“The puffin obsession was to do with Björk’s old band The Sugarcubes admitting to Steven that they had eaten puffin,” Quantick told me.'

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