27
Mar
11

What a fuckin’ tragedy

Here’s John McWhorter on the fuckin’ kids these days fuckin’ cursing in their fuckin’ rock-n-roll:

Swearing has become more common—Melissa Leo even swore at the Oscars!—and what’s more, the phenomenon is now running the risk of devaluing swear words. Yet this phenomenon is as predictable as it is harmless.

I beg your fucking pardon.  (Emphasis added.)

McWhorter goes on through an entertaining etymological rant to explain why the devaluation — it’d be amusing to formulate it as inflation — of obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity is drearily predictable:

Language is all about creeping numbness, jokes wearing thin, feeling devolving into gesture. Terrible once meant truly horrific. The will we use to mark the future once meant that you quite robustly “willed” to do something, but diluted into just indicating that sometime you would.Hence a burnt steak as terrible, a good movie as awesome, trivial terms like shopaholic based on the glum source alcoholic, and just as naturally, we now have snowpocalypses, and even what we process as irresponsibly casual usages of Holocaust. Profanity is hardly immune to this inexorable weakening, and as such, what we process as a peculiar encroachment of curse words into the public sphere is actually a matter of the words ceasing to be curses in any coherent sense.

He neglects, however, to explain why the devaluation of linguistic offensiveness is harmless.  Language is a tool to express meaning.  Much as the bit pattern 11111111 expresses the number 255 to a computer expecting it to be an unsigned eight-bit integer, the word fuck expresses frustration to a human expecting it to be an English interjection.  But as words devalue, their meaning changes, and just as Zimbabwe needs to print the occasional run of bank notes with an extra three zeroes, foul-mouthed bloggers need to gin up more complex epithets as the Binary Four becomes mundane.

Elmo Iscariot is at the forefront of this linguistic revolution:

I believe I’ve solved profanity.

Strong words about strong language!  But:

First, choose any one-syllable profanity. The short ones tend to be punchiest and most visceral anyway.

Then take any mundane single-word trochee–a two-syllable word with a stressed first syllable and unstressed second syllable–whose first syllable shares a vowel sound with the profanity.

Et voila! You have a metrically ideal nonsense phrase that people will involuntarily try to picture, disgusting them, delighting you (assuming you’re as big a child as I am), and getting you thrown out of restaurants.

So far, so good.  I might add that such a compound should be evocative in the same sense as its leading profanity, as for example my use of “fuckpuddle” to describe the sum corpus of Canadian federal politicians a couple posts ago.  (If you’re starting to think that this post is merely an excessively-verbose excuse for me to call Harper, Iggy, and &c. a shower of fuckpuddles again, you might be on to something.)  But when only compound obscenity is offensive, everyone who wishes to offend will use compound obscenity, and so on down the slippery slope to a world where annoyed mothers can hiss “I will kill you and fuck the body” at unruly toddlers in line at the Quik-E-Mart and find themselves utterly unremarked-upon.

No you can’t have a candy bar now quiet down

And is that really the world in which we want to live?

No, Mr. McWhorter.  Not harmless at all.

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anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

I say fuck a lot

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