Mainstreamed Vulgarisms

by tjmHolden

17 October 2008


Rob Horning’s contribution, The Pejorative Gay, yesterday drew attention to one word (“gay”) and the (negative) traction it has gained in (English-speaking) society. As he observed, it has come to be associated with a particular (pejorative) meaning, with attendant implications (and negative outcomes). His discussion was interesting as far as it went—a consideration of the power of a particular word in a society—but as I read it, my first thought ran to origins. Whereas Rob’s point of departure was how “gay” once mean “lame” (to him), my first association (and the one I tend generally to employ) was of “merriment” or “mirth-full”; and in Pop-cultural terms, the first voice I heard was Dylan’s: his (intentional) choice in Standing in a Doorway to croon: “I’m strummin’ on my gay guitar”—a very different use of the word, and one which hues more closely to its original intended meaning and accepted understanding. Reminding us that language is organic and what words become—the life that they take on—may differ greatly from what they were, where and how they began.

I would have left it there—a one-off thought flitting through the (hopelessly unchartable) labyrinth of my mind—had it not been for John McCain’s coincidental appearance on Letterman last night. For those who didn’t catch it, or wish a refresher, you can find it here:


Which got me to wondering: “How is it that we got to the point that this phrase ‘screwed up’ was acceptable in polite company?” How did we get to the point that a mainstream politician seeking to appeal to the widest number of people (offending as few as possible) could get away with uttering this expression in public?

What is happening to America, that a guy who comes on TV because he wants to be the elected representative of a (presumably) majority of that country’s citizens, can spew a vulgarism and chuckle about it with a smile on his face?

Unless, maybe there was something I was missing in translation, some obvious fact that I was overlooking.
So, I did a bit more research, and it turns out that it is possible that I have it wrong . . . or not . . . depending.

According to this back and forth, “screwed up” may not, as I had always assumed, been associated with the sexual act; it may refer to the contortions, the twists and turns, if you will, of an actual screw. It may simply be a representational device—a metaphor even; an iconic image invoked to stand for something that fails to go smoothly.


And, if so, I stand corrected. I guess I screwed up.

Except for the mental image that is conjured—not only in my mind, but in many others who encounter the usage. After all, in the thread linked above it is clear that others also (mis)interpret “screw” as containing a sexual connotation. On the other hand, and inexplicably, another contributor weighed in with the idea that the phrase “fucked up”


carries no hint of sexual allusion.

Come again?

(so to speak).

Now, words do have second and third lives in the civilizations in which they swim around in. They do grow and flourish, or else wither and die. And they also mutate and transmogrify. And so perhaps I should not be such a strict constructionist. Maybe I need to appreciate the inherent flexibility of language—and the liberality of the people who wield it.

As Rob intimated in concluding, “suck” is a word that has also experienced a certain (and quite more extensive) second life of late. I mean, my 18 year-old daughter and 17 year-old son freely employ it, and when pressed on what the word means, they insist that there is no sexual connotation, whatsoever. (Bless my duaghter, she asks me in (feigned?) innocence: “Dad, why would ‘suck’ be sexual?”

Typically, my son takes a more literal approach:

‘Suck’ doesn’t mean ‘to suck’, Dad. It means, you know, screwed up. You know, effed up. Like that . . .

Got it. And, “effed up” isn’t what you think it is. Not, at least, any more.

What “effed up” really means—its surfacing, its widespread use—is that culture has shifted. Why? Because now we can put quotes around “problematic” words, we can insert symbols inbetween consonants of “troublesome expressions” such that, as happened on CNN a couple days ago, we can explain away (while still publicly airing) social gaffes. The (larger) point made by such display is not that we still have decorum, but that the door that once rebuffed public discourse about the coarse is no longer as firmly braced.

A major social change, if you ask me—with extensive, wide-reaching (and not yet fully felt) social impacts.

Stay tuned.


Now, if I’m searching for quick, handy culprits, I blame the media (man, do I sound like Sarah Palin)—but particularly, Internet; and even more specifically: blogging.

And now for something that I am not sure S.P. would (could?) say: the universalization of voice brought on by the democratization of the means of communication has led to the pell-mell, mass distribution of opinion. Anyone is a pundit, everyone is a critic. We all get a chance to speak—in words all our own, true—but also words that the community can recognize and respond to. After all, the speech act (a major aim of communication) exists so that the speaker can not only be heard, but also understood, and, beyond, provoke some form of response. For this reason, speakers endeavor to employ common currency. And, as we do, as we trade in the coin of the linguistic realm, it gets scuffed up; so, too, is its use routinized, such that users become acclimatized to its normalcy, passing, as it does, through the mental circuitry of the many, between more and more rhetorical filters. In short, the more people give voice to the vulgarism, the more they say “fuck”, the less “fuck” means what it once did. Similarly, the more we read

C**T, the closer we have moved to mainstreaming the full four letters, themselves. A short hop and skip to actually accepting the concept

of “cunt”. (And all that that implies—and the discourses it engages—of and between men and women).

So, where does any of this leave us? Well, setting aside the larger issue just broached (since it is, well, the largest issue, the least tractable, the thorniest), in the shorter term, and on a more manageable scale, we are contending with the uncertainties of language. Meaning: we still don’t get a lot of relief, for we are


standing on uncertain footing, for sure. As in: “don’t assume that what you are hearing is what you think it means. It might be something completely different; it may mean something else entirely.”

Leaving us with this advice: don’t be so quick to offend, to feel dissed. Before you throw a punch or dash off the nasty email in anger, take a breath and maybe even ask: do you really mean what I think you meant? . . . or . . .

did I just screw up?

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