This review is dedicated to my friend Eh!
Updating this review after Alexis and I had a selfie-off with books about cussing. She began with a photo of herself with the Encyclopedia of Swearing; I countered with one of me holding up this book. So, who (s)wore it better?
Original review: I have a love affair with the f-bomb, so much so that my mother gave me this as a birthssdayyy pressenttt, my preciousss. This is pretty much the best book ever written, at least for me, because it combines my love of the dictionary with my love of cussing. And not just any cussing – there are plenty of curse-words in the sea of profanity, all of them fine words in their own rights, but none of them roll off of my tongue with the same regularity and fervor as the venerable eff. It sounds good; it has punch; it’s volatile, useful, emotive. But more than that, the effenheimer is so explosive, so everywhere. It’s one of the few words in English that can used as all parts of speech, up to and including the infix, a bit dropped between syllables, as in absofreakinglutely, which one almost never finds in English. These four letters go where no word has gone before.
The intro to this book is a piece of scholarly beauty. Sheidlower begins by exploding the myth that the f-word begins life as an acronym, usually “Fornication Under Consent of the King” or “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. (This last one was used as by Van Halen as an album title, natch.) I was told this as a teen by other credulously whispering teens, and I didn’t believe it then. Given how completely illiterate most of history is, the acronym-word is something of a modern invention, one that our four-lettered friend is happy to be a part of in new coinages like OMFG and MILF.
He chit-chats a bit about early usages, winding toward the pretty well-supported theory that probably frak didn’t evolve from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you want to get into a big fighting match about what to call these languages). Frig was probably was a later borrowing from various Low Germans, and the earliest reference in writing is in the mid-1400s in…get this…a cipher. There’s good evidence that Shakespeare is making a coded reference to the f-bomb in the funny French-talk scene in Henry V, along with…get this…the c-bomb. The difficulty in charting the history of forbidden speech is that it’s forbidden of course, and while everyone may be saying it, no one writes it down.
Here’s where I freak out, of course. (You knew I was going to.) The history of profanity is so incredibly fascinating to me because it’s this incredibly common thing, and I mean that with all of the double-ententes. It’s not that classes of people don’t swear – they pretty much all do – but they swear only when with specific people. You can see this in the copious amount of military f-slang in this book – men will swear with other men, but not with women or men of the wrong class. (Actually, not everyone swears: there’s a really funny reference to a Browning poem where he misuses the word twat, thinking it’s a kind of hat. Muhahahaha.)
There’s a whole twin history of c**t and f**k though, culminating in the legal wranglings over the the publications of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And I think the basis of the upset, on some level, was that Joyce and Lawrence were writing about the elevation of everyday experience, in Joyce’s case, and a love affair between people of different classes, in Lawrence’s case. Each in their own way, they were reworking what kinds of stories were acceptable, valorous, important. I can just see the monocles pop. “You there, Joyce, you’ve mired the Epic in the street-filth of everyday life; put it down now and back away. You there, Lawrence, it’s bad enough that you describe the possibility of female pleasure, and with someone outside her class, but did you actually have to go and name the dreaded thing? Eeeek!” The profane words – often coded themselves, pushed down so that they squish out into all kinds of codes, ciphers, and allusions – become a kind of cultural metaphor for unspeakable people, unspoken lives and stories, the word that cannot be named as a sign for people who should not be mentioned. Joyce and Lawrence couldn’t be taken to court for their filthy ideas, but they could be taken to court for using bad words. The great benefit of learning language, for the slave Caliban, was in his ability to curse.
Whoa, that got a little heavy. Seriously though, I think maybe part of the reason I love swearing so very much is that I can’t figure out whom I’m hurting by doing so, and if I am indeed hurting someone, I would like to know why. I have plenty of words that I feel are taboo, something I cannot speak aloud, and in some cases can’t even type out: retard, kike, the n-word. Much of this is based on identity, because these words are meant to slur and smear. They use marginalized identities as their own insult. (And honestly, I’ve heard all the arguments about retard being just a funny word and non-threatening – and/or “medically accurate”; fools – and this is all b.s. that continues to discount the disability community because disabled is disarmed. But whatever, say what you will, of course.)
Now that I’ve slipped into arguing against the usage of certain words, I’m all in love with this book again. Words have power, yes indeedy they do. Say it with me now: fuck you.
P.S. Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote this book, is incredibly adorable.