Friday, October 21, 2016

When You Think of Bullshit...

Some people are saying I wrote an “important article” on a topic in sociolinguistics. The modesty for which I am so well known prevents me from making this claim myself, but I can’t help what other people are saying, right? To be specific, linguist Michael Adams, in his recent book, In Praise of Profanity, wrote this: “In an important article, ‘On Swearwords and Slang,’ Robert L. Moore (2012) attempts to distinguish slang from profanity.”

Admittedly, the issues that linguists consider important might be different from those that the linguistically benighted deem worthy. Some people want to end world hunger, others want to distinguish slang from swearwords. Chacun à son goût.

My interest in this topic was provoked when an anonymous reviewer of an earlier article admonished me for putting slang and swearwords into a single lexemic category. So, looking at these two kinds of words closely, I was struck by the way they were so often linked but also by the fact that they were clearly not exactly the same thing. So, I sought the help of a number of Rollins students who dutifully filled out questionnaires asking them to categorize some of the words and phrases found in expressions like these:

“Who boogerbooing?...Jig, I don’t have to. Talking about me with a beat chick scoffing a hot dog! You must not of seen me…”

And, in a more poetical vein,

“He banked the six and seven cross-side

He took the motherfucking eight for a goddamn ride”

Based on what my students indicated, and backed up by what a similar sample of Chinese responses from Beijing students showed, I came to the conclusion that slang and swearwords are universal categories that serve separate universal social/psychological functions. The latter is prototypically used to express intense, often negative, emotion, while the former is prototypically used to inspire an ethos of egalitarian informality. These linguistic categories overlap in usage, largely because they share an emphasis on informality and the expression of affect. But they are prototypically separable and linked to specific design features of human sociality.

Anyway, it is nice to know that somebody has read one’s work and approved of it. Also, it occurs to me that if I write another 10 or 20 “important” articles on swearwords, I could become an academic big shot in linguistics; a kind of Jane Goodall of dirty words. If that happens, I intend to assume a cool slangy nickname like Badass Bob. Actually better than a slangy nickname would be a catch phrase. I’m open to suggestions, but right now I’m toying with this one: “When you think of bullshit, think of me.”

       Family Tree of Indo-European Languages