Once, while I was visiting my anthropologist friend James in New York, he took me to his campus to check out his department. The two of us pulled up in his car next to the office window of Richard, a fellow professor, whom we could see working inside. James began blasting on the car horn as though he were fuming with rage, whereupon Richard looked up at us, and James gave him the finger. At this point Richard burst out laughing.
I thought of this incident because I’ve been thinking about dirty words lately. I know that a middle finger isn’t actually a dirty word, but I think we can agree that it says “Fuck you” with a remarkably succinct clarity.
But why do we say “Fuck you”?
Though “fucking” refers to sexual activity, when we say “Fuck you,” we’re not really suggesting some sort of sexual encounter with our target. We’re usually saying, “I am really, really angry at you,” (though in James’s case the anger was faked for humorous effect).
Let’s face it: It’s more satisfying to say, “Fuck you,” than the denotatively precise, “I’m really, really angry at you,” because badass words pack a palpable emotional wallop. Using them not only signals and releases feeling, it can, in some cases, provoke it.
Consider this joke: “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. Then I felt a lot better after mocking his sorry ass.”
The person telling this joke would probably not feel any particularly intense emotion, but a listener may find it provokes laughter, which is a clear indicator of emotion. But would this joke be funny in the same way if it didn’t include the somewhat obscene phrasing at the end? I don’t think so.
My theory of dirty words (aka swearwords) is that they function mainly to express or incite emotion, and that any semantic baggage they carry is all but irrelevant in their most common usages. Of course they do provide semantic clues about social taboos. But more significantly their use indexes a speaker's readiness to violate taboos, and also reveals with whom he or she is willing to do so. Because violating taboos together is one way to deepen intimacy, tossing off f-bombs can sometimes have a positively benign social function – like tossing off little affective grenades that obliterate a few of the social barriers that keep us apart.
This is also true of slang. Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, has a fun and interesting book called Slang and Sociability, in which she demonstrates the ways in which students create social bonds through the use of slang.
Slang and dirty words are not the same thing, but what they have in common is emotional impact. Two of my best students (Eric Bindler and David Pandich) and I published a study last year on Chinese and English slang, and one of the conclusions we reached was that slang and dirty talk are separate but overlapping categories in Chinese and in English. They are overlapping because they both have “attitude.”
But slang is different from dirty talk, because its attitude is typically more sociable and because it usually changes quickly from decade to decade. “Far out,” and “groovy” had their day, but today you’re better off saying “gangsta” or “sweet” if you want to be the cat’s pajamas. And notice that none of these slang terms can be considered dirty, though all of them would be inappropriate in some contexts because of their emotional charge.
Slang’s emotion is mainly about the group or generation you belong to; it’s not so much about how pissed off or shocked you are. And, while dirty words often stay dirty for centuries, slang usually comes and goes within a decade or so. Of course there are the ever present exceptions like “swell” and “cool” (see December 11 blog posting for fascinating details on these slang terms).
The “Language with Attitude” article that Eric, David and I wrote about slang and dirty words attracted the attention of Eveline Chao, a journalist who herself recently put together a book on Chinese slang called Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. Ms. Chao’s book (which I have insisted must be added to the Rollins College library’s collection) lays out some phrases that travelers to China may find useful, particularly if those travelers are incorrigibly outspoken and unafraid of giving offense.
The Chinese word “niubi,” by the way, means “cow cunt,” and you will be sure to attract attention if you use it with gusto while making your way past the border control desk at the Beijing Airport.
When Ms. Chao found out about our Rollins team’s research on slang, she interviewed me for the November issue of That’s Shanghai, one of the magazines for which she writes. Then, when readers sent in questions to her about slang and swearwords, she gave me the opportunity to answer them here. It was a lot of fun for me, because, in case you haven’t noticed, slang, in my opinion, is the shit.