Mind Your Language: Mischievous Linguistic Histories

by Emily Z.

Today I want to talk about some troublesome terms, namely slang words and swear words. There are a goodly number of books examining the shifting, spreading nature of the English language as a whole. The books featured here though are about English’s naughty words (figuratively and literally) and those who try to know and tame them. I like languages, English especially (expansive and eccentric though it may be), and I’d wager you do too, given that you’re reading a blog on a library website. Language is powerful, you can use it to shape images or feelings in another person’s mind using only gestures, symbols, and squeaks.

Yet, there are times when the established, widely agreed-upon symbols and squeaks cannot adequately house what we want to communicate, so we go and create slang. We have always done this. Now we have words like “turnt”, “bae”, “shade”, “yas”, “yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaass queen”, “lit”, “eleganza extravaganza”, and “shants”. Someone once tried to make “fetch” happen, but it didn’t take. Why do we do this to ourselves and others? Isn’t English convoluted enough? Sometimes we want to stand out, annoy, or exclude others, or even protect ourselves, though if a system of obtuse slang terms is complex enough it actually becomes more of a “cant” or “cryptolect”. Conversely, it could be said we adopt slang to fit in to an established group, neighborhood, sub-culture, fandom, place of work, etc.

Then there’s swearing. Author Melissa Mohr writes, “Language is a toolbox and swearing is a hammer”. Swear words can be blunt tools, but like a hammer, they can be cathartic to use (judiciously), especially on the inanimate. The morning glories striving to overtake my garden know this well. Some believe swear words can help with pain, though don’t trade actual medical care for f-bombs just yet. For better or worse, Americans seem to be cursing and cussing more than ever, though not for the reasons one might imagine.

Just to be absolutely clear, each of these books contain strong language at one point or another (especially Mohr’s), though for entirely scholarly reasons.

Holy Sh*t: a Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

Mohr takes an unflinching look at the more shocking parts of English (and Latin). She squirms at nothing and is entirely unapologetic about the kind of language humans actually used when enraged, injured, slighted, or… amorous. She pulls the lengthy, sordid history of salty language from every corner: ancient graffiti, Biblical passages, poetry, wars, the toilet, etc. She also considers how our definition of what constitutes swearing has shifted, from simple scatological terms to actual oaths to racial slurs. If you opt for the audiobook, brace yourself for the amusingly incongruous and quite stately narration of Napoleon Ryan.

The Vulgar Tongue by Jonathon Green

Green (a lexicographer and overall slang-enthusiast) works at explaining slang of all slants: that of criminals, youths, sex, war, sports, theater, and more. It’s a handy overview of an endlessly evolving subject. The author has also built an online slang dictionary which covers everything from “krunk” to “groovy”, though oddly enough not “twerk”.

Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language by Mark Forsyth

Think your vocabulary is complete? Forsyth might have you beat. With his humorous Horologicon he aims to enrich both our world of words and knowledge of obscure trivia. Rather than simply making a dictionary or glossary, he arranges his carefully curated, entirely real, but fascinatingly exotic terms by how and when they might fit into a single, very full work day.

In the morning, you might fucate yourself or perhaps only have enough time to figure out what kind of opsony you can throw on some toast before scuddling out the door. Depending on your occupation you might find yourself spending the morning screeving via e-mail or discepting with some purple dromedary in another department about a deadline. After a morning like that, hopefully your lunch will at least be suitably golopshus. If not and you’ve had a really rough one, you might still make the evening special by getting reasonably fuddled in a quiet snuggery or lucubratory somewhere. Alright, I’ll stop now.

Word by Word: the Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Part memoir, English language primer, and industry exposé, Word by Word is not just for nerds. Stamper works for Merriam Webster as a lexicographer and adores her job, most of the time. With her own engaging phrasing, she expounds on all the challenges of putting together a dictionary. Some of my favorite passages involve Stamper’s never-ending scavenger hunt for real-life examples of unusual English. She collects tiny bars of motel soap, cereal boxes, and restaurant menus with non-standard English copy on them and takes them into work to be “filed”. When she sees a diner in a small town referring to itself as a “Dinor” she pulls her car off the road to photograph it. She has feverishly transcribed the words of a radioshow host using the term “hoe-bag” in a new (unfortunate) way. It’s all for a good cause. She has to document these words and add them to the vast assemblage of data she and other lexicographers rely on for their research. Working out definitions is but a fraction of her duties, but it can be dangerous work, especially when it comes to terms like, “nude”, “marriage”, and “love”.  Normal mortals can (and do) write in to Merriam Webster when they disagree with definitions, you see. One such challenge:  “The meaning of ‘love’ in your dictionary is wrong. The meaning of love is the Jonas Brothers!”


Lists, lexicons, and lighter fare

Fubar: Soldier Slang of World War II by Gordon L Rottman

The most impressive aspect of this lexis of WWII military slang is its international nature. This is not a dictionary of exclusively American colloquialisms, but one of words from a World War. There are colorful terms from the British Commonwealth (the British Isles, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), Germany, Japan, and even Russia. Keep in mind that each term is a product of its time and yes, some are a bit… dated.

The Weird World of Words by Mitchell Symons

Abundant trivia, tongue-twisters, and other linguistic tidbits with which to impress or annoy others. Did you know “Jenga” is Swahili for “build”?  Do you know about “Kangaroo words” or “Mondegreens”?


Please feel free to comment with your favorite words or any “minced oaths” you like to use. I’m partial to “obsequious” and “Gordon Bennett!“.

Browse the full list here.

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2 responses to “Mind Your Language: Mischievous Linguistic Histories”

  1. Marina M. says:

    I love etymology. Therefore, I love your post. And you’ve just multiplied my TBR pile by your entire list.

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