Horton Hears a Swear

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From 17 March, Tom Brazelton's Theaterhopper cartoon, entitled "Horton Hears a Swear":

Two points of linguistic interest: the noun swear and the undernegated could give a shit, parallel to the famous could care less. Plus the misspelling of Dr. Seuss.

1. Dr. Suess. We've been talking about English spelling and its frustrations a good bit recently, but without touching on the nastiness of proper names. Suess is what you get if you know the name is pronounced /sus/ and is spelled with a combination of E and U. EU sometimes spells /yu/ (Europe, feud), but UE is a much more common spelling for /(y)u/ (true, cue, fuel, cruel, etc.), and there's a word sue but no non-name word beginning with /su/ that's spelled with EU. And in fact there are quite a few people with the family name Suess (German 'sweet'). So Suess is a reasonable stab at the name — wrong, but reasonable (and, apparently, a fairly common error).

2. Could give a shit. Here we've got a family of undernegated idioms that includes could care less, give a damn, and others that Mark Liberman discussed here some time ago under the heading of "negation by association", with credit to John Lawler.

3. A swear. Adrian Bailey, who pointed me to the cartoon, at first thought that a swear was an instance of countification, but quickly realized this couldn't be right, because there's no mass noun swear to serve as the basis for the count use. Instead, swear in the cartoon title looks like a nouning of the verb swear; compare my discussion of the noun ask here.

Swear 'swear word' turns out to be pretty common. Here are a few cites, beginning with one from a Boston Globe piece on Chris Potts's (yes, Language Log's Chris Potts) research on obscenity:

While a human listener can intuitively grasp the meaning of a swear through inflection and other cues, a robot can't. (link)

… during the day you can bleep out swears … (link)

Now a days a young child who blurts out a swear is more likely to be corrected by explanation of why the word is inappropriate and be guided … (link)

Count uses of swear have been around for some time, but with meanings beyond 'swear word'. OED2 has 'a formal or solemn oath' from 1643, 'a fit or bout of swearing' in an 1871 cite ("a good swear"), and some other cites that might just be glossed as 'swearing'. But there's a 1915 cite, for "an Afridi swear", that looks parallel to the examples above.

At some point when I wasn't looking or listening, the count noun swear 'swear word' seems to have spread. Things like that keep happening.


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