What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves - Benjamin K. Bergen (2016)
Chapter 7. How Cock Lost Its Feathers
Athousand years ago, people living in the British Isles spoke various manifestations of Old English, the language that would evolve over the subsequent millennium into what we now know as Modern English. In terms of its words, what they mean, how they’re pronounced, and how they’re arranged grammatically, Old English is probably just as foreign to the contemporary speaker of English as is German or Dutch. For example, take the Old English version of the Lord’s Prayer (to jog your memory, this is the one that now goes “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” and so on). In Old English, it looks like this, in its entirety:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod to becume þin rice gewurþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.1
If you’re lucky, you might be able to pick out a couple of vaguely recognizable words, especially once you know that a rough word-by-word translation into Modern English starts with “Father ours, you who are in heaven …” As you can see, father used to be fæder, and heaven was heofonum. Like great-grandparents depicted in a blurry black-and-white photograph, some of these words bear a family resemblance to their modern kin. Other words are totally unfamiliar. Gedæghwamlican means “daily.” Alys means something like “redeem.” The passage of time does this to a language. As the years tick by, words morph into progressively less recognizable forms, while others are replaced entirely.
The Lord’s Prayer isn’t the only preserved record from the ancient history of English—liturgical, scientific, legal, and literary texts enshrined in the museums and archives of the Anglophone world contain within them the necessary rudiments to trace out the histories of not just the sacred words of our language but the profane ones as well.
Illustrative of how profanity changes is cock, a word as old as English itself. In ancient records, it can be found spelled variously as coc, cocc, or kok—as you can see, orthography was just as inconsistent during the Middle Ages as it is during the Texting Age. But from its earliest recorded use in AD 890-897, we know that in the first millennium, the word referred to one particular kind of cock, the kind that crows.2 Eleven hundred years later, the word has transformed. To contemporary American ears, of course, a cock is most likely something else, something not typically outfitted with a beak and feathers. The meaning of cock has changed radically.a
If Mark Twain had wanted to write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a farce, he could have gotten a lot of mileage out of this. Think about the riotous malentendus when an uptight courtesan proclaims I’m hungry for a cock tonight or I woke up this morning to that damned cock again.
In the place of cock, contemporary American English speakers prefer to refer to the male of the species Gallus gallus domesticus using the word rooster. We can track this shift through the historical record of English. The Google NGram corpus provides a count of how frequently different words have been used over time, at least as recorded in the books that Google has scanned to date. The record gets less reliable the farther back you go, especially for relatively infrequent words, like cock, that only pop up now and then. But if you track cock over the past 150 years, you’ll quickly see that it has come to be used progressively less and less over the years. The chart you see on the next page plots time on the x-axis—from 1850 to the present. And on the y-axis is the frequency of cock among all words in books from that particular year. You can see that cock has been quite infrequent for centuries: only about one word in 100,000 is cock. Presumably, that’s because writers have other things to discuss than fowl and penises. But what’s important is the change over time. By 2000, cock was used only about a third as often as it was one hundred years before. And lest you think this is merely because male chickens have progressively fallen out of favor as a writing topic, compare the downward trend of the cock curve with the upward trajectory of rooster, below it. Rooster was basically unattested in 1860 and has since risen to a nearly cock-like level. People are using cock less and rooster more.
The decline of cock and the rise of rooster.
Wait a tick. Does the Google corpus really contain no recorded instances of the word rooster in 1860? Or in 1850? Or anywhere in between? Zero? How could this be? Rooster feels like a word as old as the language. Isn’t it?
We’ll get to that.
But first, to sum up what we know so far: cock was once an innocuous animal term. Now, however, with the twenty-first century in full swing, if you ask a rancher about his livestock, at least in the United States, he’s unlikely to say that he has three hundred pigs and five hundred cocks. The original sense of cock has shriveled up and been replaced by rooster, a word that seemingly appeared in the nineteenth century.
What’s special about profanity—what makes it distinct from other types of language and particularly important to study—is that all of these facts repeat themselves again and again in one profane word after another. When profanity evolves, it tends to follow certain recurring patterns that open a window onto how and why languages change.
# $ % !
Exhibit B is dick.
There are many famous Dicks. Here are the first that come to my mind: Dick Van Dyke, Dick Smothers, Dick Cheney, Dick Cavett, Dick Clark. If you’re twenty or younger, it’s possible that none of these names are familiar to you—you who have missed out on unique American cultural treasures like Mary Poppins and American Bandstand. If you don’t know these Dicks, it’s because they’re all old. Their respective birth years? 1925, 1938, 1941, 1936, and 1929. In fact, as it turns out, there are a lot of guys named Dick from the early half of the twentieth century and well before. The first attested use of Dick as a name appears in 1553,3 just eleven years before Shakespeare was born. The Bard himself might well have had Dicks as contemporaries. For a while, Dick was as common a name as Tom and Harry.
But you know who isn’t named Dick? Most anyone born after 1968. It’s impossible to get hard numbers on nicknames, ephemeral as they are. But we do have data from the Social Security Administration (SSA), which tracks the names given to babies born each year.4 As you can see from the graph on the next page, Dick was once a quite popular name to give to young boys. To be clear, these aren’t babies named Richard and nicknamed Dick. Oh no. These are babies whose birth certificate proudly displays their given first name as Dick. According to the SSA, there were eight hundred of them per year in the 1920s and 1930s. As you can see, Dick started petering out after reaching its high point in the early 1930s. Newborn babies were still being named Dick through the 1950s, but by the 1960s, Dick was clearly on its way out. And then, starting in 1970, no more Dicks. Instead, Ricks.
The similarity between cock and dick is striking. In both cases, at one time, the word is entirely anodyne. At a later point, it means something different and profane, and the role it originally played passes to a different word altogether—rooster or Rick. The list of profane words in English is largely a list of words with similarly humble, inoffensive origins. Bitch used to refer just to female dogs. A faggot used to be a bundle of sticks. Ass used to be a donkey. And so on.
For a language scientist, a trend like this screams out for a deeper look. How are these particular words selected to become profane? Where do the old meanings go? And where do the replacement words come from—words like rooster and Rick? So what follows is an outline of the career arc that cock and dick and many other taboo words have scratched out, from banality to profanity and eventually to obscurity.
Live births per year with the given names Dick and Rick, from 1880 to 2010.
Step one: a word extends its meaning
Before cock and dick became profane, they already existed as words but with different meanings. This is true of most profanity. I mentioned bitch, ass, and faggot earlier, but other examples abound. Jesus used to just be a nice name for a Jewish boy, for example.
The history of fuck appears similar, despite fanciful stories you may have heard to the contrary. There’s a claim floating around that fuck was created as an acronym—perhaps for something like For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Fornicate Under Command of the King. Acronyms are certainly a bountiful source for profanity—as demonstrated by recent examples like MILF and even GILF, THOT, and WTF. But the historical record leaves no reason to believe that fuck was born as an acronym. A key bit of evidence is that fuck has apparent cognate words in languages related to English. As far as we can tell, fuck is related to its German equivalent ficken, which is roughly synonymous with its English cousin (though less widely used and less profane), as well as Dutch fokken (“to breed”) and Icelandic fjúka (“to be tossed by wind”).5 This suggests that the word’s ancestor can be traced back thousands of years to a time before the languages that evolved into modern-day German and English diverged. So if fuck were formed as an acronym (and there’s no evidence it was), this would have happened thousands of years ago, and the particular words whose first letters it spelled out would have been totally different from words of contemporary English. Words like carnal, knowledge, command, and so on were not part of the common ancestor of English and German and so could not have been used to form an acronym.
So if not from an acronym, how did fuck become the go-to swearword of modern English? Because fuck is so old and has had its meaning for so long, it’s hard to know if it had a life prior to its profane one—we simply have very little in the way of preserved written texts that go back that far. But there’s a bit of indirect evidence that in its ancient history it derives from an Indo-European root from thousands of years ago meaning something like “to strike,” “to stab,” or “to stuff.”6 That is, before it came to refer to copulation and before it became profane, it was likely a mundane Indo-European verb that described a simple and inoffensive physical action.
Precisely when it extended its meaning to specify a particularly lurid type of striking, stabbing, or stuffing is currently unknown, though this appears to have happened at least as long ago as the fourteenth century. Medievalist Paul Booth recently uncovered the earliest known record of the word to date, in legal documents from 1310 identifying a man as Roger Fuckebythenavel; parsed out, that makes Fucke by the navel. Booth explains that the name “could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit,’ i.e., a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”7This suggests the word has been doing dirty work for at least seven hundred years.
This common pathway to profanity suggests that although the Holy, Fucking, Shit, Nigger Principle tells us which semantic fields profane words are most likely to be drawn from, those words often have an even earlier history. Before they refer to genitalia or copulation, they have other lives, as words referring to farm animals or commonplace actions like hitting, for instance. So the first step toward profanity is actually to acquire a Holy-, Fucking-, Shit-, or Nigger-related meaning.
The ways they add these new meanings are largely typical for words. A common mechanism is metaphor: words commonly come to be used for something perceived to be similar to the original meaning. Consider why it is that we refer to the face of not just a person or animal but also of a clock. Although a clock face has no eyes, nose, or mouth, one may apprehend global visual resemblance to a human face. This explains why the word, first recorded referring to part of a human in AD 1300, was extended to clocks as well soon thereafter.8 In this case, the similarity between the two faces is superficial and visual. Cock is probably an example of this as well. As early as around AD 1400, we have records of cock referring not just to roosters but also to the male member. And the reason may well be superficial visual similarity between a rooster and a penis. Similarly, the name Dick gained an additional meaning in the 1870s. It’s not the one you’re thinking of. It came first to refer to a riding whip (how, we don’t know). From there, in the following decades, Dick was extended once again to a new meaning, this time referring to the male member (according to some sources, perhaps initially in military usage).9 The superficial visual similarity between the handle of a whip and the male member is probably responsible—though, importantly, it’s not sufficient. Many words denoting things longer than they are wide have not over the years come to refer to the male member. So chance is surely at play in this part of the process.
But metaphor doesn’t restrict itself to the surface. Words can also find themselves metaphorically extended to new meanings due to deeper, structural connections. We now use face in expressions like on the face of it, which can refer to things that don’t have any physical manifestation at all: On the face of it, this theory doesn’t have a leg to stand on! This kind of deeper metaphor has also generated some of our profane words. Consider bitch. Assuredly bitch was not extended from dogs to people due to superficial visual similarity. Although it’s now used to refer to a malicious or unpleasant person, particularly but not only a female one, its original foray into humanity was to denote a lewd or sensual woman. Again, there’s little visual similarity between a female dog and such a person. But extending bitch in this way might have constituted an appeal to perceive an abstract similarity between the behaviors of female dogs, particularly during estrus, and lascivious women.10
Metaphor might explain how the plausibly anodyne ancestor of fuck came to refer to sexual intercourse. Presumably I don’t need to explain the superficial visual similarities between stabbing, stuffing, or striking and certain aspects of intercourse. These ways that meanings get extended are in no way unique to profanity. What’s special about profane words like dick, cock, bitch, and fuck is that the meanings they gained were in an optimal position to become profane. They referred to copulation, genitalia, and so on.
Step two: dissemination
In order for a word with a new meaning to become profane, that change has to catch on. Let’s say that someone introduces a change into a language—for instance, someone starts using cock to refer to the male member. In order for it to have the string of consequences we now know that change had, other people have to start using it too. The thing is that most changes don’t catch on. For instance, consider a word that I myself invented, hummerbird. This word is meant to refer to someone who flits from sexual partner to sexual partner performing oral sex.b I hope you find some use for the word. But if you do, you’ll be basically on your own, because it has most certainly not caught on. No matter how useful you and I find hummerbird, no matter how frequently we use it, unless other people start using it too, the change will be lost as soon as you and I stop. You might know people who make up new words and then try to get other people to use them. Those people usually fail—almost all changes introduced into a language die off before they ever catch on. Urbandictionary.com is a graveyard for words people thought up that were going to be their big claim to fame, only to be entombed in the obscurity of two upvotes and three downvotes forevermore.
It has come to my attention that certain birders, particularly in Texas, already use the word hummer bird to refer to hummingbirds. Influential though the birding community may be, I don’t believe it’s responsible for obstructing my innovation from catching on.
Occasionally, though, a change gains traction. Someone said the word taint, and the English-speaking world was forever changed. Why? It’s worth trying to understand what makes a change more or less likely to diffuse through a community. Do new words contain intrinsic properties that make people want to reuse them? And how do words spread? Who has to use them for other people to decide they want to use them too? How, for example, did cock manage to spread its wings after losing its feathers?
We know a little about how this works. The success of a new word or a new use for an old word depends on at least three things. First, the intrinsic properties of the word itself matter.11 All innovations are not equal. Some words are shorter, easier to pronounce, or easier to remember than others, which may contribute to their eventual success. With English profanity in particular, as we’ve seen, there’s also a sound pattern (one syllable, with a consonant at the end) that makes words sound like swearwords. So a word with this particular phonological property is more likely to succeed, all things being equal, than one that doesn’t.
Another intrinsic aspect that appears important is how transparent (versus opaque) the word is. There’s a sweet spot for potentially profane innovations. A word is transparent if you can easily figure out what it means from how it sounds; conversely, opaque words are inscrutable. Opaque words are hard to remember and as a consequence may be less likely to spread. So if you started calling the perineum the baint, which is completely opaque, you probably wouldn’t find adolescents using the word in five years. If you called it something totally transparent, like interorgan region, it wouldn’t likely make much of a splash. But there’s a middle ground between transparency and opacity. Words can be “motivated.” For example, taint has been quite successful. And that might be due to the fact that it lives in the Goldilocks region of motivatedness. It’s not obvious to an outside observer why the perineum would be called the taint, even if taint does have another negative meaning (a stain or black mark). But if you’re an insider who knows the perhaps apocryphal origin story,c then it takes on a whole new life. It’s motivated.
Ostensibly, the taint is so named because “Taint your ass, taint your balls.” I can’t verify this account—it’s equally plausible that this is a post hoc folk etymology and that the original motivation for the word really comes from the other meaning of taint (“uncleanness”). Either way, Goldilocks should be happy.
A word that’s totally opaque faces a long, uphill climb to acceptance. At the same time, a word that’s completely transparent may fail to bestow cachet on people who know it. But taint is right in the middle of these two extremes. The same is true of MILF or butterface and plausibly, at their origins, bitch, cock, fuck, and others. Motivated words may be more likely to catch on than transparent ones because they require a little additional knowledge to interpret. They’re like a secret code that only insiders have the key to cracking. Opaque words are equally novel to everyone, while motivated words are, in a way, transparent to insiders only.
And that leads us to the second reason word changes may spread. Often changes in language catch on precisely because of the social functions they serve—in the case of profanity, allowing people to feel and identify themselves as part of specific social in-groups. Said another way, if a teenager’s parents could figure out right away what the child meant by hummerbird, it would take the fun out of it. So she might not use it. In other words, just as life forms thrive when they find a suitable environmental niche to exploit, so words thrive in fertile linguistic niches.
For any new word or new way of using an old word, we can ask, what niche does this innovation satisfy? Let’s look at an example of a successful innovation, the tear someone a new one pattern from the last chapter. This relatively new invention describes the very frequent and frequently talked about situation in which one person verbally or physically attacks another. Interpersonal conflict is one of our favorite things to talk about. So there’s demand for language to describe it. Now, it’s true that there are other ways to talk about conflict. For instance, focusing just on verbal conflict, you can chew someone out, bite someone’s head off, give someone an earful, and so on. But tear someone a new one expresses this meaning in a courser, more vulgar way. Other successful recent innovations like MILF and THOT also claim semantic territory that was previously underpopulated.
And finally, the third factor in a word’s success is in no small measure who is using it—the status of its users and how they’re connected within the network of people who make up a language community. Even assuming that you have a good innovation, which satisfies a particular linguistic niche and is intrinsically promising, that doesn’t guarantee it will spread throughout a population. Changes disperse through a language community in somewhat predictable ways. They spread first among people who talk to each other most and especially those who identify as belonging to the same social groups. We can quantify this in studies of how linguistic innovations spread over social media. For instance, one recent paper looked at what predicted whether a new word used by people in one city would spread to other cities.12 The researchers found that cities closer to each other are more likely to share new words and, in addition, that similar socioeconomic and ethnic makeups increase the likelihood that a change will spread between populations. So both geography and demographic similarity are important. We can interpret this to mean that changes will spread among people who communicate with, and think they’re similar to, each other.
But change doesn’t flow in every direction equally. In any group—kids hanging around a locker room, coworkers hanging around the break room, or gamers hanging around an online chat room—individuals will be unequally dominant or influential. If the more influential ones use language in a new way, then others are likely to follow suit. Of course, the changes don’t spread as fast in the other direction. Differential influence has the most outsized effects in the mass media. Stephen Colbert can coin a term (and does frequently), then use it on his television show, and it will catch on, whereas one of his millions of fans will never enjoy the same success, no matter how hard he or she yells at the screen. Many profane words gain traction through the media.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that’s always where those words originated. For instance, many people believe the word MILF to be the brainchild of the writers of the 1999 movie American Pie, in which the acronym is spelled out amid boisterous chanting by teenage boys. But a little Internet sleuthing reveals that it dates to at least a few years earlier. The earliest attested use I was able to find dates from 1995, in a usenet post about a Playboy spread. Here’s the usenet post I foundd (though this might not be the earliest use—T. J. Kelleher reports an instance several years earlier in a slang dictionary by University of California, Los Angeles, linguistics students13):
I contacted Mr. Andreano to ask where he thinks the word originated but didn’t hear back from him. In case you’re concerned that including his name here is a violation of his privacy, I was too, and I originally was going to anonymize the post. But I changed my mind for two reasons. First, the post is accessible online; a search that includes even a little of the text of the message will reveal the author’s signature. And second, I thought it would be a useful reminder that everything you do online will remain publicly accessible in perpetuity.
WOW! I saw the pictorial in the Feb issue and boy was I impressed.
Those moms are babes!! Almost unbelieveable [sic], especially that union worker one towards the front, you almost have to look twice …
We have a term for it around here, its [sic] called “MILF”
It stands for “Mothers I’d Like to Fuck.”
Maybe that is what they should have titled the section :)
-Just my $0.02
Chi Phi Fraternity
Stevens Insititute [sic] of Technology
Although the term had a life prior to the movie, its current popularity no doubt results from its use on screen rather than on a Playboy fan newsgroup. Likewise, the popularity of the word Johnson for “penis” exploded after it appeared in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski. But just as MILF has roots preceding the release of the movie, so the Nihilists in The Big Lebowski were far from the first people to talk about harm to people’s Johnsons. Take a look at the following entry from Walter Butler Cheadle’s Journal of a Trip Across Canada, which predates the 1998 Coen Brothers film and describes an expedition from Quebec across the Canadian Rockies to British Columbia: “Neck frozen. Face ditto; tights ditto; Johnson ditto, & sphincter vesicae partially paralyzed.” Walter Cheadle put pen to frigid paper to write that journal entry in 1863.14
In modern times, it’s comparatively easier to track how words disseminate throughout a speech community. For instance, we know that ctfu (“cracking the fuck up”) spread mostly from Cleveland to a number of other mid-Atlantic cities, as you can see in the figure on the next page.15 And we know this because people leave quantifiable records of their language use in the form of GPS-coded tweets.
But we have no such luxury for changes that occurred in the deep history of English—pre-Internet. So we know little about exactly how cock’s new meaning spread throughout the English-speaking world starting in the fifteenth century. But we do know what niche it filled. Every language has a way to describe human sexual organs. They’re pretty important, culturally, biologically, personally. It seems reasonable to assume that the new use of cock was somewhat motivated—there’s a passing similarity between a rooster and a penis—and we now know that as a closed monosyllable, it conforms to the sound pattern of English taboo words. We don’t know, however, who used it first or how it spread. It’s very likely that it diffused through networks of people talking to one another, where the status of the people using the word influenced its ultimate success. And mass media of the day—songs and poems and eventually books and newspapers, for instance—may have played a role, as they do to this day in spreading changes in a language.
Step three: all the action is in the reaction
So we’ve arrived at the point in our story where a previously unremarkable word has gained a new meaning that has spread within a language community. Dick now means not only Richard but also penis, and a lot of people are using it this way. But to be clear, these words have not yet become profane. Dick and cock came to refer to the penis in the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively, but those shifts by themselves didn’t make the words profane. Fuck has referred to sexual intercourse since at least the fourteenth century, but it only became so taboo as to disappear from the correspondence of upper-class ladies at the end of the eighteenth century.16
Tracking the use of ctfu over time via GPS-coded tweets. Source: J. Eisenstein et al. (2014).
The same is true of the word cunt. It had been in general use for centuries with the meaning “vagina” before people began to find it offensive. In fact, it was apparently of such widespread and untainted use in early English that it even appeared in people’s names. The Oxford English Dictionary lists several names built from cunt, like John Fillecunt (1246), Robert Clevecunt (1302), and Bele Wydecunthe (1328). Cunt also appeared in placenames. It was a long-standing tradition in England to name streets after the economic activities that predominated on them. This produced names like Silver Street and Fish Street. And in many English towns of the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, when prostitution was concentrated in specific places, these streets were commonly named some variant of Gropecunt Lane. Let’s be clear: that’s Gropecunt, as in grope plus cunt.17 Not very subtle, England. And cunt was so pervasive because, at the time, the word was a straightforward and inoffensive description of female genitalia. It even shows up in Middle English medical texts like Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie18 from AD 1400:
In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte.
“In women, the neck of the bladder is short, and is made fast to the cunt.”
This shows that becoming profane is a social change, not a semantic one. Like other human behaviors, language use is at the whim of cultural beliefs, norms, expectations, and prohibitions. Consider the way that norms for acceptable attire change over time and from culture to culture. We often think of history as making inexorable progress toward increased freedom, and you can take, for instance, norms about how people dress at the beach as an example of this, from Victorian full-body tunics through the bikini and speedo a hundred years later. But clothing norms ebb and flow. Over the last several decades, Afghanistan and Iran, for example, have seen substantial decreases in the parts of the body—particularly the female body—that people can acceptably show in public. The same goes for other behaviors, which are accepted or prohibited differently over time and across cultures. For example, spitting on the ground is illegal in Hong Kong, where it carries a fine of thousands of dollars, while Taiwanese people consider spitting out bones onto the table or floor while eating preferable to using their hands.
The point is that while beliefs about what behaviors are permissible in what contexts may often have some moral, spiritual, religious, scientific, or medical foundation, they’re also culturally relative. What’s sanctioned in one place, or at one time, or when done by one person might be socially unacceptable in other circumstances. And so it is with language.
There are different reasons why people at a given time or place might find a word unacceptable. Perhaps they find it offensive because it leads to thoughts that they don’t wish to have—about taboo concepts, for instance. Or perhaps they find the word insulting to them or a social group they belong to. (We’ll look in more detail at slurs and where they come from in Chapter 10.) These personal feelings about acceptable behavior become social norms when enough people engage in actions that constrain the behavior. Everything from public indecency laws down to muttered indications of displeasure enforce norms about clothing or spitting: Can you believe he’s wearing THAT? And these same types of enforcement take linguistic innovations—new words or new ways of using words—into the realm of profanity. Marginalizing a word through direct interpersonal action, like ostracizing or punishing people who use it, or indirectly through social and state actors that impose censorship will render those words profane.
Step four: the balance shifts
Once a word has gained additional meaning and once that additional meaning has come to be socially proscribed, as happened for dick and cock, the new meaning starts to color any use of the word. When words have multiple meanings, as many words do, it’s often impossible to use them in one way without activating other possible interpretations in people’s heads. For example, when you hear a news anchor tie up a report featuring a variety of exotic animals, including a lion, by saying, “Nice pussy!”19 it’s simply impossible to contain your interpretation to the single, intended sense of pussy. You shouldn’t feel guilty about this. It’s just how your brain works. When a word has multiple meanings, you systematically and automatically activate the different meanings, regardless of whether the speaker intended them or not.20
This is equally true for cock and dick. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Dick was living parallel lives. At the same time that it was referring to sexual organs, there were still children, adolescents, and adults named Dick. The word had several meanings. That led to confusion, some unintentional, some quite deliberate. For an example of what I can only imagine is the latter, enjoy the actual campaign button for Richard Nixon reproduced on the next page.
This effect—the spontaneous activation of the multiple meanings of a word—is so overwhelming that only under the rarest conspiracy of conditions does pussy evoke only the thought of a cat.21 For that to happen, the context has to be strongly compatible with the intended sense but totally incompatible with the unintended one. What a nice pussy is compatible with both interpretations, and you really have to stretch your imagination to find contexts only consistent with the feline one. Perhaps I predict that my cat is going to give birth to a calico pussy would be an example. But maybe not. And second, in order for the unintended sense to remain out of mind, it has to be a peripheral and infrequent sense of the word. The genitalia sense of pussy does not currently qualify as peripheral and infrequent. Tea-bag might be a better example of a word that, at least for many people, has an infrequent and peripheral profane sense. But profane senses for words can become central quickly. As we saw earlier, profanity grows deep roots into the brain’s emotion systems. Merely seeing or hearing a word that has a profane meaning activates this meaning immediately, context be damned. There’s no number of cat videos that would keep pussy from activating the other meaning in your mind.
Source: Gene Dillman of Old Politicals Auctions, www.oldpoliticals.com.
And people seem to know this, whether consciously or unconsciously. Double entendres make use of this very feature of human language processing. Writers play on it all the time. The James Bond character Pussy Galore was not thus named blithely. On The Simpsons, in an early episode (“Treehouse of Horrors III”), Marge is about to board a ship, at which point Smithers (Mr. Burns’s assistant of ambiguous sexuality) comments, “I think that women and seamen don’t mix.” Mr. Burns’s response: “We know what you think.”e
The astute linguist will have noticed that this is actually an example of homonymy—seamen and semen are distinct words that happen to be pronounced similarly. Nonetheless, taboo homonyms, as you can tell, exert the same tug on the mind that words with multiple senses do.
The safest strategy for the speaker who doesn’t want to make a verbal misstep is simply to avoid those words in general that have a possible second meaning. I know that I for one simply don’t ever use the word pussy to refer to a cat, period. I don’t refer to a rooster as a cock. I will call my dog a bitch, but that’s always with malice aforethought, and I only do it when I think the audience will be forgiving or when I want to be a little edgy.
So the consequence is this: When words acquire new meanings through natural processes of meaning extension, and when those new meanings are profane, then to the extent that speakers feel that those profane meanings will have negative consequences, they’ll start to use the words only when the profane meaning is what they intend. And they’ll avoid using the word with the original meaning. In the case of Dick, we can see why some people might find the ambiguity untenable. By the 1960s, it came to a head. The profane use was too much to overcome, and people gave up on Dick as a name. Similarly, we can presume that something similar happened with cock—that at some point, the profane meaning overwhelmed the original galline one.
And just like that, the balance can shift, often quite quickly, from an older meaning to a new one. This is something special—or at least particularly pronounced—about profanity. We don’t readily see it with nonprofane word change. For instance, although cell now refers not just to a jail room and the basic structural unit of biological organisms but also to the thing in your pocket that you watch cat videos on, this hasn’t led us to stop using the word cell in its old senses as well. Same with mobile, which used to (and still does) describe the thing hanging over a crib, even though it now also refers to the cat video machine in your pocket (although some people might pronounce the two mobiles differently). That’s not to say that new meanings can’t usurp old ones unless they’re profane. Certainly they can. But they’re not as likely to do so, and they don’t do so as quickly or as completely.
To be clear, this shift doesn’t have to happen. Although the earlier senses of cock and dick have largely fallen out of favor in American English, most other varieties of English have exhibited no such shift. Cock is still in favor as the default term for the rooster in most varieties of English spoken in Great Britain, for example. Clearly, in some times and places, speakers of particular language varieties are more comfortable with unintended innuendo. But the situation is unstable.
Step five: the replacements
So we’ve seen how, once a word gains a new, profane meaning, this new meaning can start to push out the old one. But this leaves a logical gap in the language. You need a way to refer to roosters, and you need a nickname for Richards. What do you do?
Sometimes, there’s already a good alternative out there. As we saw, when Dick grew a new meaning, Rick stepped up and took its place. (You can see this in the SSA naming data chart. Ever since 1970, there have been more Ricks than Dicks.) Similarly, as broad came to have a derogatory connotation for a woman, it was replaced in the name of the track-and-field event that became, in the late 1960s, the long jump. And although it’s a little cumbersome, female dog has largely (but not entirely) replaced bitch.
In other cases, there doesn’t already exist a viable alternative to a word that has been made unusable in polite contexts. In this case, you have no other recourse than to make up a new word. People make up new words all the time in certain regular ways.
Although rooster seems like a word that should be as old as English, as we’ve seen, it’s a relatively recent addition. The first recorded use dates from 1772, in the diary of a Boston schoolgirl.22 The word was actually manufactured by design. It was the end of the eighteenth century, and the balance of cock had shifted to the point where its “male member” meaning had gained prominence. As a result, to simply talk about a rooster, puritanical Americans had to tread delicately around this second taboo meaning of cock. So they simply invented a new word, rooster. And the way they did it was pretty straightforward. They already had the word roost at their disposal, which, as it still does, described the place where chickens hang out. There was also a verb to roost, which denoted the action of hanging out in that place. And these linguistic innovators figured that just adding -er to the end, in the normal way that English is fond of, would create a new word that described something that roosts without the “penis” meaning attached. And they were right. Rooster has been largely free of profane connotations for the two hundred or so years it’s been around.
This rule allowing us to add -er to a verb to create a new noun is particularly robust in English and pervades both profane and nonprofane language. Other mundane examples are catcher and pencil sharpener, and profane ones include cock-blocker, shit-eater, and muff-diver. But the application of a rule to generate a new word is only part of the story. Subsequently, rooster and all these other constructed words have to come to be used with this specific new meaning. They have to become “conventionalized”—the linguistic community has to decide that this word will be preferentially interpreted as having this specific meaning. We now agree, by convention, that rooster refers just to the adult male chicken and not to anything that happens to be on a roost. For instance, if an egg or a nest were on a roost, we wouldn’t refer to it as a rooster. It’s the same with other words invented using normal English processes. Cock-blocker has become a conventionalized word in English. We can tell because it has a specific meaning—it only refers to one type of cock (the type without feathers) and only to blocking of (and not by) that cock. Motherfucker is another word created using the same noun-verb-er template in surprisingly recent history; it is first recorded in the twentieth century!23 But since then, it has come into very frequent use and now merits being considered a word in its own right. And like rooster and cock-blocker, motherfucker has a specific, conventional set of meanings.
Adding a suffix to an existing word, as in these cases, isn’t the only way to coin new words, of course. As we’ve already seen, totally new words can sprout in a language, assembled from the generative grammatical and lexical resources that the language makes available. Some are constructed by blending together existing words—merging them together to form a new, socalled portmanteau word that sounds something like a combination of them. For instance, mangina is a blend of man and vagina. In the same way, fucking and ugly give us fugly, and pornography plus cornucopia yield pornucopia.
Any of these tools for innovating words can create replacements for words tainted by new, profane meanings and can fill a gap in the language.
So, to take stock of where we are, we’ve now seen that banal words can change meaning to the point where they are candidates for becoming taboo. In the eventuality that this happens, people start to avoid using the words in their earlier senses and need to find or create a replacement, which the language in general provides various tools for. One small change in the meaning of one word can have downstream consequences for other words as well.
Step six: minced oaths
There’s another way around using profane words—another externality of words becoming taboo. Once people start avoiding a word in certain circumstances, what do they say instead? Let’s say you’re in pain because you slammed your finger in a car door. Or you’re angry because your neighbor is laughing at you for slamming your finger in the car door. This is prime profanity territory. And yet, if for reasons personal, religious, cultural, or otherwise, you decide that an expletive fuck! or shit! is out of line, then what do you do?
One option is to say something that sounds like a particular taboo word but isn’t, like frick or dang. These are known as “minced oaths.” Sometimes these minced oaths are actual, existing words used in new ways, like shoot or fudge. They get more elaborate, too, like cheese and rice! as a minced oath for Jesus Christ! or Shut the front door! to replace Shut the fuck up! But minced oaths can also be entirely new words. For example, over the years, people have come up with novel ways to avoid saying Jesus Christ, like sheesh, gee whiz, or crickey. Other invented minced oaths like gosh, shucks, and frig sound equally similar to the words they’re used instead of.
There’s a fine line to walk with minced oaths. They have to sound similar enough to their taboo target to be recognized as standing in for it. But they have to be different enough for the speaker to maintain plausible deniability—no, of course I didn’t mean that filthy word (wink, wink). Quite often, the sounds at the front end of a minced oath are similar to the taboo word they’re shadowing, as in the examples above. This might be related to the strategy that some people with coprolalia deploy—reshaping an expletive once it’s started.
But minced oaths can also rhyme with the profane words they’re replacing, and some of the most elaborate minced oaths to be found occur in a British form of slang called Cockney rhyming slang.24 This linguistic art form starts by taking an expression that rhymes with a swearword. For instance, Richard the Third rhymes with turd. Cattle truck rhymes with fuck. So that expression comes to stand as a sort of minced oath for the profane word. But rhyming slang takes it one step further and uses some other, nonrhyming word from the same expression as a disguised cue for the whole thing. So instead of saying cattle truck or just truck to mean fuck, people say cattle. To mean fuck. Got it? OK, England, that’s a little subtler.
A more concise strategy is to abbreviate the profane word. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the now rather tame (but formerly very profane) zounds is an abbreviation of God’s wounds. In the most extreme case, the offending word is reduced to a single letter, as in acronyms. WTF or MILF take the first letters of the words in taboo expressions. Other similar cases are BJ and T&A. And for the most potent words, we can even refer to them simply by one letter. The F-word isn’t the only word in English that starts with F—it’s not even close to being the most frequent one. (That crown belongs to for, which is among the top twenty most frequent words in English.)25 Nor are the C-word or the N-word particularly outstanding representatives of the language, except in terms of their offensiveness. These acronyms can be used to refer to the words in question (He said the N-word!), but they can also be used as replacements for the words themselves in normal use. For instance, F replaces fuck in expressions like F off! or F you in the A! or, of course, What the F?
Minced oaths and abbreviations have the advantage of preserving enough of the sound or spelling of the unsaid term that the sufficiently perspicacious audience can easily retrieve the intended but unsaid word. But some situations warrant a more delicate approach. If you don’t want to be on the hook for even having thought about the profane word that you subsequently didn’t say, then you need a euphemism. For example, people often want to avoid talking about death directly using the word die. Instead, they retreat to words and expressions that refer to the concept indirectly, such as to pass on or to leave us. Similarly, talking about the male member as a Johnson or a wiener is a way to euphemistically avoid overtly vulgar language.
As a case in point, below you can see a whole stable of words and expressions that all refer to broadly the same thing but with varying degrees of likelihood of offending sensibilities. The words and expressions toward the top, like powder my nose and visit the ladies’ room are euphemisms. They tend to incorporate words that do not refer directly to the described act but instead mention related, innocuous activities.
powder my nose
visit the ladies’ room
go to the bathroom
use the toilet
take a shit
cop a squat
do some paperwork
drop the kids off at the pool
pinch off a loaf
As you work your way down to the bottom of the list, you find ways to describe the same act much more vividly. These terms at the bottom go as far toward impropriety as the euphemisms at the top of the list go away from it. They’re filling another niche. Whereas the euphemisms at the top fulfill the desire to describe a taboo topic in the most linguistically hygienic way possible, the dysphemisms at the bottom satisfy an urge to offend, impress, or entertain through lurid, evocative language. Oftentimes they describe vivid details of the described event (like squat or pinch). Sometimes they metaphorically describe the activity in terms of something else that itself evokes vivid imagery (like loaf). This makes for language that’s particularly graphic, creative, or descriptive, while crucially not being strictly profane. A child who says she needs to pinch off a loaf might be chastised for being disgusting but not due to any of the specific words she selected. Dysphemisms abound, especially around taboo topics. In place of to die, people might choose to use stronger words like to croak, to bite it, to eat it. And for our current purposes, the most important bit is that in all of these cases, the meanings of existing words have been extended to cover new ground—croak now means more than just “to make a croaking sound.”
Dysphemisms are just the other side of the same coin that euphemisms and minced oaths are embossed on. Profane words have external effects on the rest of the language, as people scramble to not say, or say without saying, or say even better, words that they know are taboo.
Step seven: change is the only constant
Words continue to change throughout their lifespans—becoming profane isn’t an end point but a waypoint. This is clearly visible in the histories of dick and cock. For instance, even after gaining anatomical meanings, they came also to refer to an unpleasant person. And although that person originally had to be male, recent usage shows that for some English speakers, maleness is not a prerequisite to being labeled with one of these words; nor does it necessarily shield one from being addressed as bitch or cunt.
Even more radical changes are apparent in the history of profanity. Some words change their grammatical category, or part of speech. Of course, we’ve already seen how dick and many other profane words have become vulgar minimizers in expressions like You don’t know dick. But that’s just the beginning. Although dick and cock started their lives as nouns—referring to things—they soon came to be used as verbs as well. Cock gained its verb use—to cock—in the seventeenth century, and dick was verbed, as in to dick around or to dick someone over, only in the twentieth century. And other examples abound. For instance, tea-bag now acts as a verb as well as a noun, as in Dave fell asleep at the party so Ray tea-bagged him. (That means that Ray put his scrotum on Dave—and knowing the two of them, there’s probably a picture of it somewhere.) English, as it turns out, is particularly prolific at verbing nouns or nouning verbs. Conversions from one grammatical category to another generate new meanings. In the recent history of the language, the noun nut (which had previously been extended metaphorically to mean “testicle”) has also been verbed, perhaps via the expression to bust a nut, to become the verb to nut, meaning “to ejaculate.”
And like all things, profane words eventually meet their end, ultimately fading away into banality and then obscurity. In the fifteenth century, the word swive (meaning “screw”) was used similarly to our modern-day word fuck. But you’ve probably never heard it because it’s disappeared since and in fact hasn’t been used in hundreds of years, except perhaps in heated exchanges between impassioned maidens fighting over a mutton chop behind the bleachers at the Renaissance Faire.
Swive isn’t the only profane word we’ve lost. You’ve probably never been called a fart-sucker. But that used to be a common term to describe the same thing as brown-noser, for reasons that you can surely surmise. And the list of now obsolete profanity goes on … zounds and gadzooks, which we’ve already discussed, as well as others, like consarn, which means something like damn, as in consarn it! You can see zounds wane over time in the chart on the next page (swive predates it by several centuries, where the written record is far sparser). Zounds had its moment in the 1800s, but by 1900, it had begun to peter out. Today, cunt is clearly in vogue. But this too will most likely pass, though probably not during this century.
Profanity has been in flux for all of recorded English history. And it still is. The reason relates to the effects profanity has on people and the effort it takes to maintain those effects.
The decline of zounds and the rise of cunt.
Let me flesh that out. Using a profane word has an impact on people who have strong emotional associations with that word. But that impact weakens as a function of use. The first time you heard shit on television (possibly on the cartoon South Park), it was probably jarring—like the first time you bit into a chili pepper. But with uncensored cable television, podcasts, and social media now using the word de rigueur, your tolerance for this linguistic spiciness has increased. You might not even notice when you hear it. The more a profane word is used, the less impact it will come to have. But those words whose use is still restricted, like cunt, nigger, and to some extent fuck, continue to pack a punch. At least they do now. As they come to be used more, my best educated guess is that they’ll fade into innocuousness and then into obscurity, just like swive and zounds.
And so, as sad as it seems, by every indication the days of dick and cock are numbered. There may well be a time in the not-too-distant future when little Dicks once again play in the schoolyard next to Peters and Willies, innocent to what their names once meant. At the same time, while we can’t predict which they will be, we can be assured that other words will rise to fill the gaps dick and cock have left unoccupied in the ecology of the language.