Political castration

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Everybody seems to be talking about Jesse Jackson's whispered expression of annoyance with Barack Obama.  And I have something to say about it too. I'm not going to comment on the strange choices that editors and broadcasters have made in bowdlerizing Jackson's phrase "I want to cut his nuts off", though that's an interesting topic in itself.  Instead, I want to express puzzlement about the phrase itself.

I've heard men and boys from all sorts of geographical, social and ethnic backgrounds express anger and threaten violence, in thousands of different ways, literal and metaphorical, direct and indirect. But I can't remember every having heard this particular way of expressing anger towards a specific third party who isn't present in the conversation.

I've heard such figurative threats face-to-face, from metaphorical cutter to cuttee — this imagined locker-room conversation is familiar:

"… if you ever, ever tank another play like you did today, I'm gonna cut your nuts off and stuff em down your f***in throat!"

And I'm also familiar with such metaphorical interactions described at a distance, as in this third-party claim about Norman Mailer:

He loved this country and he'd cut your nuts off for saying otherwise.

What seems odd to me about Rev. Jackson's phrase is that he's not making a threat — he's talking about what he wants to do to someone who isn't there.  And after a bit of research and contemplation, I've concluded that I was wrong to think that Rev. Jackson was simply expressing metaphorical anger. Instead, I think, he was talking in a matter-of-fact way about his desire to undermine or sabotage Senator Obama politically.

As evidence that this is how politicians think of castration, here's George Stephanopolous talking about Al Gore:

He was good to me, but the threat was implicit: 'Don't even think about trying to shut me out; if it comes down to you or me, I'll cut your nuts off.' …

And here's a relevant quote from Al Haig to Nixon:

Ruckelshaus, who wanted to reform the bureau, and Felt, the leader of the pro-Hoover faction at headquarters, clashed immediately. Meanwhile, Nixon was still fretting about Felt. On May 11 Nixon, who was now politically wounded by Watergate, expressed his frustration to his new chief of staff, Alexander Haig. They believed Felt had leaked damaging information, but they could not expose him. "We've got to be careful as to when to cut his nuts off," Haig said. Nixon responded: "He's bad."

There are lots of ways to express anger in terms of metaphorical violence: "I want to kill him" is the simplest, but there are plenty more.  But I don't think that Rev. Jackson chose "I want to cut his nuts off" as a more vivid substitute for "I want to kick his butt". Instead, I think he was talking about his desire to do to Barack Obama what Al Haig wanted to do to Mark Felt: destroy his political power.

[Note: some sources report the phrase as "cut his nuts off", and others as "cut his nuts out".  I haven't been able to find an un-bleeped recording, but the bleeped ones sound somewhat more like "off" than "out" to me.]


  1. David said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    I believe the exact JJackson quote was, "I want to cut his nuts out."

    Not "off."

    Strange formulation….

  2. David Scrimshaw said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    This reminds me of 1995's Great Turbot War between Canada and Spain. Where Canada's Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin made good on his threat to cut the nets off a Spanish Fishing Trawler.

    The newspapers avoided saying "cut their nets off":

    Spanish fishermen warned to retreat or nets will be cut
    OTTAWA – Spanish trawlers defying Canada's cease-fishing call on the turbot grounds of the Grand Banks can either cut their losses or Canada will cut their nets. [Canadian Press – Times Colonist (Victoria) Mar 24, 1995]

    But in popular discourse many Canadians were happily talking like pirates and saying things like, "Arr, we'll cut their nets off"

    The Ballad of Brian Tobin or "Let My Turbot Go"
    (sung to the melody of "Ghost Riders in the Sky")

    Now, come on, you Spanish captains, who look at us and scoff,
    Don't mess with Brian Tobin or he'll cut your nets tight off.

    [Ontario resident Kirk Elliot "She's Gone Boys": Vernacular Song Responses to the Atlantic Fisheries Crisis

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

    "And if anyone ever tries to cross you, I'll grab them by the balls and squeeze 'til they're dead."

    Martin Short as Hollywood talent agent Neil Sussman, in The Big Picture.

  4. albert said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    If you search on YouTube for O'Reilly's take on it, he plays the clip uncensored.

  5. Bobbie said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Let's not forget that good ol' Jesse was the one who used the disparaging term "Hymieville" to refer to Jews a few years ago. Why does everyone look upon him as the spokesman for so many people when he is crude and bigoted in his own way?

  6. Joe said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Is it just me, or do they make it sound *worse* by bleeping it out? To me, the bleep makes it seem worse than the uncensored version.

    But that's probably nothing new. After all, I seem to remember hearing one time about some people who took ordinary conversations and bleeped out selectively chosen words to make them sound bad, even though there was nothing dirty in the original conversation.

  7. Theodore said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    As soon as I heard the [bleeped] version on a news broadcast I interpreted it as a threat to politically castrate Obama. No doubt about that.

    As for the use of "out" instead of "off" in the phrase, I remember an explanation of castration from a swine farmer (I've never performed the procedure myself). IIRC, you make an incision (cut) on the scrotum and the testicles (nuts) fall "out".

  8. mgh said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    If I recall correctly there is an idiom in Spanish (local to Buenos Aires?) along the lines of "cut my balls" but I think it meant something like "chap my hide"/"give me a pain".

  9. Sylvia said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    Joe, you may also be thinking of the ongoing Jimmy Kimmel comedy bit, "Unnecessary Censorship", which operates along similar lines.

  10. Russinoff said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

    Pullum has posted some nice examples over the years of singular "they" with referent of known sex, but the Martin Short line reproduced above by rootlesscosmo is about the finest I've seen.

  11. Joe said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:25 am

    > As for the use of "out" instead of "off" in the phrase, I remember an explanation of castration from a swine farmer (I've never performed the procedure myself). IIRC, you make an incision (cut) on the scrotum and the testicles (nuts) fall "out".

    In the interests of science (and contrary to my own better judgment), I searched for "how to neuter a pig" and I don't believe that information is correct, unless it only happens with what they refer to as "barnyard style" neutering (which I did not investigate).

    It appears that one has to push them out of the incision and then cut off the little cord. I would also like to warn anyone squeamish against repeating this search, because there were pictures.

    If you'll excuse me, I'll be off looking for eye bleach.

  12. Jorge said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    mgh: "me quiero cortar las bolas/pelotas" is used when you are in dispair about something.

  13. Jorge said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    mgh: "chap my hide"/"give me a pain", would be "me hincha las bolas/pelotas", i.e. something like "it fills my balls".

  14. Chud said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    I was surprised by Jackson's choice of words, especially since castration went along with many lynchings. Did he choose castration because that is (or at least was) a legitimate fear for Jackson, and it's natural that if he wants to impress someone with his power, he'd use castration as a metaphor? Or maybe because Jackson grew up in an environment with that threat, it was common to use it as a threat or contrast in power between folks where he came from. Or should we think Jackson forgetful of this aspect of the past and therefore negligent in being so forgetful? Or should we make no associations with this and the castrations that went along with lynchings, and just call it colorful language?

  15. John said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    I think it may be that he is saying "off" but people are hearing "out" because the final consonant is muffled so all you hear is the vowel. The way Jesse Jackson pronounces "aw" is close to the way I pronounce "ow", so that "off" ("awff") might sound like "owff". Obviously this is identical to "out" if you can't hear the final consonant.

  16. Andrew said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 7:26 am

    I hadn't heard of the term being used as a metaphor for removal of political support, and I thought I'd test how well established the metaphor was by seeing if it was applied to people who didn't have literal nuts. Google returned 19 hits for "cut her nuts off"

  17. Edna Butler said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    Mark, remember the 1984 Jesse Jackson HYMIEToWN remarks? as reporgted in WA PO then? new developemnt in UK now — check?

    dan bloom in Taiwan
    i reported this NEWS now in THEWRAP.com and Yahoo News! google it

    Speaking of slang from overseas, remember the 1984 fiasco when Jesse Jackson called NYC as hymietown and referred to Jews as "hymies" when speaking with a Black reporter from the Wash Post at lunch and word leaked out later, I think it was Milton Coleman, and then a month later, Jesse apologized for the wrong language, since "hymie" is an ethnic slur that even in 1984 should not have been used. Strangely enough, in the UK, an elderly Jewish gent named Michael Winner, born in 1935, has just released a collection of Jewish jokes he has collected from readers of his Sunday Times food column and the title of the book, kid you not, is "Michael Winner's Hymie Joke Book" and published by Robson Press there, Not released in the USA, but heavily advertised onlun in the Guardian, TElegraph and Daily Mail. ANd not one Brit has protested about the use of this term. Maybe "hymie" is a kosher word in Britain? can check?

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