Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Taboo’ Category

Mental Masturbation

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2012

Last November, I blogged about the title of one of the books in Grammar Girl’s “101” series: 101 Words to Sound Smart. A commenter with the handle of Palavering2U wrote:

Why do many grammarians sound so full of themselves? I’m sure that you know your grammar, but most of the articles you offer are excercises in mental masterbation [sic].

I wasn’t sure what he meant by mental masturbation, but putting on my “Let’s tackle some non-literal language” hat, I concluded he must mean something like, “pontificating about things to no purpose but your own pleasure.” Urban Dictionary confirmed: Out of 14 user-submitted definitions, 11 agreed in essence with mine. Here are a few:

Intellectual activity that serves no practical purpose.

the act of engaging in intelligent and interesting conversation purely for the enjoyment of your own greatness and individuality. Subjects range from obscure lp’s to cultural movements in preindustrial societies. Either delivered through grand monlogues or subtle conversation orientation, it links large words and random references resulting in nothing acually being communicated.

The act of engaging in useless yet intellectually stimulating conversation, usually as an excuse to avoid taking constructive action in your life.

However, when I searched for the term in the Google Books archive, I learned that mental masturbation can refer to something much more insidious. Here’s a passage that according to Wikipedia is from Margaret Sanger’s What Every Girl Should Know, published in 1916, but according to Google Books is from Humanity; or, What every father, mother, boy and girl should know, by Louis L. Krauss, published in 1915:

In other words … sexual fantasizing? Here’s an entry from a year later, in Sex Knowledge for Women and Girls, by William Josephus Robinson:


This passage is also entertaining because of the retronym manual masturbation. Once you have electric guitars, wireless phones, and mental masturbation, you need to specify when you’re talking about what used to be the only kind of guitars, telephones, and masturbation. Etymologically, manual masturbation is funny, given that the word masturbate itself may ultimately come from the Latin root manus, too. It reminds me of the kind of situation I blogged about here.

Anyway, this next example is from 1919, in The Psychoanalytic Method, by Oskar Pfister and Charles Rockwell Payne:

I’ve found examples of this evidently common and accepted meaning for mental masturbation as late as 1950 through Google Books, but it’s definitely dormant now. Of the remaining three definitions from Urban Dictionary, two agree with the earlier meaning, but neither is well-liked by the readers. First, there’s

v. the act of masturbating with and only with your mind, totally not sexy

When I checked, this definition had 16 thumbs up, 73 thumbs down. Furthermore, I can’t tell whether the definition writer intended the definition seriously. The other concurring definition doesn’t actually define it, or even make much sense, but the sample dialogue using the term makes things clear enough. This definition writer is pretty clearly out for laughs, so it’s again hard to say whether the definition is to be taken seriously. It had 1 thumb up, 7 thumbs down.

This is usually announced or thought of after seeing a girl who is distractingly attractive. The act of explaining you like the looks of a girl enough to masturbate too.
See, she’s hot dude I’m going to ask her out.
Yea I’m masturbating in my head to her.

I’m still masturbating in my head to her. Still not done, not done, Alright I’m done. I’m going to go make a sandwich. Good Mental Masturbation. Actually, you want to go to Chipotle?

The earliest attestation I’ve found of the much more prevalant nonsexual modern meaning of mental masturbation is from 1921, in Transactions on the Section on Nervous and Mental Diseases, published by the American Medical Association. It occurs in an article about stuttering:

So both meanings have been in use for about as far back as I find the term in print, but there’s been a big shift in which meaning is prevalent. In any case, with both meanings still available to one extent or another, now it’s time to have some fun with the phrase and run it through the crossed-senses test (remember that from a few posts back?):

Lee and Kim both engage in mental masturbation.

What do you think? No, I don’t think it passes the crossed-senses test, either, but it was fun trying to make it pass.

Posted in Diachronic, Taboo | 6 Comments »

Steaming Piles

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I don’t even remember which cat we had brought in that day, although it was probably Nick, with his chronic nasal problems. What I do remember, and what Doug and Adam remember, is a terrier with curly black fur, a terrier they now refer to simply as Smelly Dog. Smelly Dog was agitated, whining and restlessly shifting side to side while his owner tried to calm him down. Then, suddenly…

Maybe you’ve seen fountains of blood spurting from severed arteries in some of the gorier videogames, or in the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or in real life. That’s what it was like in the vet’s waiting room, except that the blood wasn’t shooting out of a brachial, femoral or carotid artery, but Smelly Dog’s rear end. And it wasn’t blood. It squirted, and squirted, and squirted. As we watched in disgusted fascination, the smell reached us.

“Aww, do you feel better now?” Smelly Dog’s owner cooed, while Doug and Adam scrambled for the exit.

Every now and then Doug or Adam will remember that story and reminisce with his brother, or me. The last time it happened, I was busy heating up a serving of chana masala for the wife, who’d gotten home after we’d had supper.

“… until there was just a big, steaming pile of liquid!” Doug said as I pulled the bowl out of the microwave.

“More like a puddle,” I said.

“That’s why I said ‘of liquid,'” Doug answered. I didn’t pursue it, because I was busy getting a napkin and a spoon for the chana masala. As I handed it to my wife, I said, “OK, here’s your hot, steaming pile of–“

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!” she blurted out.

“What are you talking about? Here’s your hot, steaming pile of chana masala!”

So did my wife have a point? Is the string steaming pile of enough to warrant disgust? Clearly, it was for her, but that was with some vivid priming from Doug and me. The association was strong enough for Doug to forgo the word puddle to call the spreading brown mess on the waiting room floor a “steaming pile of liquid.” In a thread on the online Word Reference Forum, one participant asks what steaming pile means, and another, “In many situations the ‘steaming pile’ alluded to is a steaming pile of bullshit, horseshit or just shit,” and another adds, “If the author of that had only said My life is a steaming pile, I’m fairly sure that most native English-speakers would have easily been able to supply the missing [of shit].”

A COCA search for “steaming [pile] of”, looking for the most common words within four words to the right, brings in only about two dozen hits, but seven of them are guano, excrement, scat, poop, dung, and shit. COCA will let you sort results by mutual information, which is a statistical measure of how closely associated with each other two words are. In the extreme case, if the probability of word B appearing after word A is no different than the probability that word B will appear anywhere, then these words’ probabilities are independent, and their mutual information will be 0. On the other hand, if word A always occurs with word B, and word B always occurs with word A, their mutual information will be much higher. According to the COCA tutorial page, a mutual information score of above 3.0 generally indicates “semantic bonding”.

Steaming pile(s) of and shit within four words of each other have mutual information 9.48. Pretty good, given the 3.0 threshold, right? But in fact, there’s only one example with shit:

They’ve left a steaming pile of dog shit on my desk, and now it belongs to me.

The word that yielded the highest mutual information score was actually another singleton hit, roadkill, at 15.87. Guano followed closely, with 15.85.

For comparison, I did a search with a string that I thought would have higher mutual information with shit, namely lying sack of, limited to words that occurred immediately to the right. That got eight hits, four of them with shit, one with manure, one with (censored), and two left incomplete. The mutual information with shit was 14.18, more than the 9.48, but still less than the score for steaming pile(s) of followed by guano. It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions.

But back to our steaming piles, I found that the steaming pile of chana masala I served up to my wife was not without precedent in the Corpora of Contemporary and Historical American English and in Google Books:

  • His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. (2009)
  • there was a steaming pile of peas and a casserole of sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows on top. (1995)
  • The pot had been drained of water and dumped on its side; they sat close to the steaming pile of potatoes, hunched over, ripping off the salt-stained skins with small knives. (1957)
  • They returned to the tent just as the last streak of daylight disappeared from the western horizon and at once set about the consumption of a steaming pile of boiled mutton and huge bowls of dough strings floating in mutton broth. (1918)
  • Isidora saw that Bill had the food he liked best for breakfast; a steaming pile of buckwheat cakes trimmed round the edges with crisp brown lace, and oozing syrup at every pore. (1910)
  • It was not the time — just after tea — to eat an immense dish of coos-coosoo, or a steaming pile of hot mutton and raisins, cooked in oil,
    (1903)
  • “Naw, Amy ain’t took wid no spell no sich a thing,” interrupted Caroline, as she placed another steaming pile of eggs on Sam’s plate. (1886)
  • he will hereafter be held in grateful remembrance around many a steaming pile of Saur-Kraut and Speck. (1869)
  • they rushed upon the steaming piles of meat like half-famished wolves.
    (1848)

I also found, in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, steaming piles of rubble:

  • in no more time than it takes for a tangle of tubes and drums to fly up and fall down again, the whole plant is a steaming pile of brick, mortar (1937)
  • The wall crashed down, demolishing the office completely and leaving nothing but a steaming pile of bricks and debris. (1917)
  • the lovely mother, who had led him to behold her son as he slept, at this moment a blackened corse under the steaming pile [of a burned-down house] before him. (1832)

The earliest example I’ve found in which steaming pile refers to excrement is from 1890, in Light on the Cloud, or Hints of Comfort for Hours of Sorrow, by Minot Judson Savage:

It is not the fault of the sunlight that, beneath its shining, a bed of flowers lifts up its fragrance to God, and that, beneath the same shining, a steaming pile of filth reeks offence and disease in all nostrils.

And on that inspirational note, I leave you to your own steaming piles, whatever their composition.

Posted in Doug, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The wife | 7 Comments »

Ass/Fucking Intensification

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2012

Several years ago, when Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic still consisted mostly of scanned images of doodles from his graph-paper notebooks, I got a laugh out of this one:

It’s funny because it’s true: I do the same thing.

In September 2010, Munroe revisited the topic of obscenity-based intensifiers with this diagram:

Although Munroe didn’t include ass in this survey, I’d say the same adjectives that you don’t find intensified with fucking or as shit, you also don’t find intensified with ass. A lot of the discussion on the xkcd forum focused on which adjectives could and couldn’t be intensified in these ways, but as I thought about these three obscenity-based intensifiers, it occurred to me that even one and the same adjective can’t always be intensified by all three of these intensifiers. In fact, I discovered that the rules for how to use fucking, ass, and as shit are pretty subtle.

For comparison, let’s look at the intensifier really. You can use really to intensify a predicative adjective (i.e., an adjective that comes after the linking verb be), as in

This car is really sweet.

You can also use it to intensify an attributive adjective (i.e., one that modifies a noun), as in

He has a really sweet car.

Fucking can intensify both predicative and attributive adjectives, too; you can substitute fucking for really in both of the example sentences with no problem:

This car is fucking sweet.
He has a fucking sweet car.

So can as shit, although as we see below, it starts to get a little awkward before an attributive adjective. That’s probably due to long adjective phrases in general not sounding so good before the nouns they modify.

This car is sweet as shit.
?He has a sweet-as-shit car.

Ass, however, can intensify only attributive adjectives. Put it with a predicative adjective and it’s just silly:

*This car is sweet-ass.
He has a sweet-ass car.

By the way, if someone says something is as “nasty as shit” or “disgusting as shit”, you might be able to interpret as shit is an ordinary comparative phrase. But when they say “sweet as shit”, you know as shit has now become completely grammaticalized as an intensifier. Come to think of it, the same goes for pissed as shit, something I actually heard a dormmate say in college.

So anyway, as I was saying, it looks like two of the obscenity-based intensifiers, fucking and as shit, can go with either predicative or attributive adjectives, while ass is limited to attributives. This peculiarity of ass may be a relic of its origin. Patricia O’Conner writes on her Grammarphobia blog that the original ass-suffixed adjective was big, and at first it was written big-assed, and referred to people that had big asses. She cites the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation, from 1944:

The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.

O’Conner continues:

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

The phonetic simplification from big-assed to big-ass is unsurprising; it’s exactly the same change that took place in ice(d) cream and is ongoing in ice(d) tea (which with the right accent can even sound like “ass tea”). The semantic shift from something with a big ass to something that is itself big is understandable as well. The OED‘s earliest example of that is from 1945, referring to a policeman’s “big ass nightstick”.

But the complications don’t end with the limitation of ass to attributive adjective modification. With fucking and as shit both able to modify predicative adjectives, there is the possibility of using both in a single predicative adjective phrase, as in

(That’s) fucking annoying as shit.

You can get a similar doubling fucking and ass with attributive adjectives; for example,

a fucking sweet-ass car

This kind of double intensification is much less natural with other intensifiers; for instance, ?his really very expensive car is questionable. You can also pair fucking with really or very, but there’s a condition: fucking gets to be closer to the noun:

a really/very fucking expensive car
*a fucking really/very expensive car

(You might be thinking that a fucking really expensive car sounds fine, but what’s going on there is that fucking is modifying the entire nominal really expensive car, the same way as it could to with car all by itself: His fucking car is parked across the sidewalk! If you put in some other adjectives and separate fucking from the nominal, the phrase is questionable at best: ?/*a totally awesome but fucking really expensive car.)

I’ve paired fucking with as shit, and fucking with ass, but what about ass with as shit? Sorry, no can do:

*This car is sweet-ass as shit.
*He bought a sweet-ass as shit car.

It’s no surprise that predicative sweet-ass as shit is no good, given that predicative sweet-ass is no good, either. Attributive *sweet-ass as shit may be ungrammatical simply because it’s a long adjective phrase coming before the noun it modifies–the same thing that happened with ?sweet as shit car, but made worse now with the addition of ass-intensification.

Another wrinkle turns up when it comes to comparative forms of adjectives; i.e. their -er or more ___ forms. Fucking, like really and very, can’t modify comparative forms, whether they’re predicative or attributive adjective. The same goes for ass with its attributive adjectives:

*This car is really/very/fucking sweeter.
*He has a really/very/fucking sweeter car than me.
*He has a really/very sweeter car than me.
*He has a sweeter-ass car than me.

So early in 2011 when the question came up on Twitter on what the proper comparative of bad-ass should be, the answer should have been not worse-ass, bad-asser, or even badder-asser, but none of the above.

Once again, though, the obscenity-based intensifiers are different from ordinary intensifiers. They can modify comparatives after all, provided they get introduced by a lot:

This car is a lot fucking sweeter.
He has a lot fucking sweeter car.

(There’s also the question of why it’s not *an a lot fucking sweeter car, but that’s another story.)

But wait a minute! What about as shit? It has complications of its own. I said above that it has been completely grammaticalized into an intensifier, but I lied. It still has some of its original meaning–not in the shit part, but in the part that compares some property of the modified noun with that of shit. Sure, to be dumb as shit means to be really dumb, but if we’re talking even dumber than that, we don’t just say *dumber as shit; it has to be dumber than shit.

Intensification with fucking, ass, and as shit: a taste of syntactic anal-ysis.

Posted in Comics, Morphology, Potty on, dudes!, Syntax, Taboo | 10 Comments »

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Taboo, Variation | 4 Comments »

The Douche Totally Kicks Back

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2011

Last month, the wife and boys and I saw Super 8, the aliens thriller from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Despite its cheesy ending, we liked it enough that we took Mom and Dad to see it when they came to visit a few weeks later. In fact, the movie was entertaining enough that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I noticed what should have been some glaring language anachronisms in a story that’s set in May of 1979. There were other anachronisms, too, which you can find (along with other goofs) on various websites.

The smallest temporal dislocation comes in a scene in which a character named Jen is flirting with a stoner dude named Donny. She tells him that her brother has told her Donny is a cool guy (or something along those lines), and then suggests that the she and he could “kick back”. Kick back meaning “relax” is only an anachronism by five years or so. I recall hearing it in 1984 or 1985, and its first attestation in COHA is from 1986.

In that same conversation, Donny responds to the comment about his being a great guy, “I totally am.” To the suggestion that he and Jen kick back, he says, “We totally could.” Also, in an earlier scene, the characters of Alice and Joe have an intense, emotional conversation. She asks him if he feels the same way she does about something, and he says, “I totally do.”

Totally, of course, can modify verbs, but until recently, only in its literal sense of “completely”. It’s hard to say when its sense of just “truly” or “definitely” developed, because in many cases either meaning works. Nevertheless, when totally began to be used with this sense, it was primarily with adjectives, most notably awesome. I don’t think it began to modify verbs that are incompatible with a “completely” meaning (such as kick back) until the 1990s or so. What’s more striking about all three examples in Super 8 is that they all modify an elliptical verb phrase, i.e. one with just an auxiliary verb. We’ve got a nice variety in these few examples: a modal (could), a form of be (am), and a form of do. All that’s missing is have. In both COHA and COCA, this only starts to happen in the 1990s.

The most jarring of the language anachronisms comes from Donny. Actually, Jen can’t stand him, and the only reason she’s flirting with him is to persuade him to give her brother and his friends a ride back into their evacuated town, where they plan to break into their school to look for top secret stuff. (It’s a government cover-up evacuation, of course, so the scene of Donny and the kids driving against a flow of outgoing traffic into a danger zone is probably deliberately reminiscent of Close Encounters.) Donny objects to the boys’ demand that he stay outside the school while they conduct their search, and says something like,

So what, I just wait here like a douche?

Like a douche? It’s only been in the last couple of years or so that I’ve gradually become aware of the insult douche. Other people noticed this anachronism, too, like the guy in an online movie forum who wrote,

One character says something like ‘I’m supposed to sit here like a douche?’ Douche and douchebag didn’t become ubiquitous insults until pretty recently. (And aren’t you glad they did?)

and the one who wrote,

I wasn’t aware that “douche” was ’79 slang. I thought that was a more recent thing.

This obvious hater was called out by another participant, who wrote,

I am utterly amazed at the depths to which people in the forum are willing to stoop, just to try to find something to criticize about this film. … Oh, and “douche” as a pejorative has been around since at least the 1960s, and probably a lot longer than that.

No, I don’t think so. Douchbag, yes; douche, no. I first came across douchebag in Pat Conroy’s book The Lords of Discipline, which was set, if I recall, in the 1960s. Of course, Conroy could have been using some anachronistic language himself, but a search through COHA turns up this 1951 attestation in From Here to Eternity:

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice … said savagely, “is you cant see any further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

It also shows up as a derogatory (I assume) nickname in the 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty, for a character called Jimmy Douchebag.

But as for douche, the earliest definition submitted for it in Urban Dictionary is in February 2003. Three months earlier was the original airdate of an episode of South Park titled “The Biggest Douche in the Universe“, and that’s the earliest I’ve been able to antedate douche as a term referring to a person. I totally could see South Park popularizing a new piece of obscene slang, and maybe even inventing it, but can’t say for sure yet. If you heard it earlier than November 2002, or find an earlier attestation, leave a comment. (And not just any comment; a comment giving that attestation.) As for Donny’s line, a more era-appropriate insult would have been dork, but since he uses that one at least twice at other times in the movie, maybe J.J. Abrams wanted something else. Something else beginning with D. In that case, since The Dukes of Hazzard began airing in January 1979, my humble suggestion would have been dipstick.

Mar. 2, 2012, UPDATE: Had I checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I would have found out that douche as an insult is attested in at least one population from the 1960s, as I learned from this

Posted in Diachronic, Music, Syntax, Taboo | 6 Comments »

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 Comments »

Dickheads, Buttheads, and Assholes

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2010

In his “On Language” column this Sunday (available online already) Ben Zimmer talks about the language used in Mad Men, and at one point has to use the circumlocution “a scatological slur for a person’s head”. In a companion post at Language Log, where he can write more candidly, he reveals that the actual word was shithead. He adds:

On further reflection, I’m not terribly fond of the phrase “a scatological slur for a person’s head.” After all, shithead is a slur for a person, through a metonymic reference to that person’s head (or the contents thereof).

OK, that’s it. It’s time for me to dust off my post from Sept. 17, 2004, the post that my brother was kind enough to call “Best. Linguistics. Post. Ever.” At the time I called it “Endocentric and Exocentric Insults,” and gave only a disclaimer followed by a link (which I later removed) to the actual post elsewhere. The post stored elsewhere had the title you see here, with a handful of images illustrating possible interpretations of the insult dickhead. It was primarily the pictures that persuaded me to keep the main post off the blog, but now I’m putting it on, minus the pictures, and slightly edited for clarity.

*************************************************************************

Years ago, someone called a close friend of mine a dickhead. It just so happened I was there when he did it, and I was reminded of a question I’d had about this word. So I asked the guy, did he mean to say that this good friend of mine was:

    someone whose entire being consisted of the head of a dick?
    someone who had a dick for a head?

I received the pitifully uninsightful (and patently false) answer: “It doesn’t mean either! It’s just an insult!”

It doesn’t mean either? Of course it does! The fact that it has one of the above meanings, figuratively applied to a person, is what gives the insult its sting. That’s why it’s more cutting than, say, nerd. When you call someone a dickhead, you’re saying that you find this person as offensive as a walking, talking head of a penis! Well, either that or a creature that looks like a human being from the neck down, and like a penis from the neck up.

Perhaps comparing dickhead to a few other model insults would shed some light on its meaning. If dickhead the insult means “head of a dick”, then it is an example of an endocentric compound noun — that is, a noun made up of words X and Y, where Y is a noun, and XY denotes a kind of Y. Y is said to be, no pun intended, the head of the compound. For example, in doghouse, X = dog, Y = house, and a doghouse is a kind of house. Similarly, in dickhead, X = dick, Y = head, and a dickhead is a kind of head, specifically the kind you find at the end of a dick. (The end without a man attached, that is.)

Are there other insults that are endocentric compound nouns? Asshole comes to mind. In its literal sense, asshole is a compound noun, with hole as its head: An asshole is a kind of hole. Figuratively, an asshole is someone offensive and obstinate enough to be compared to an anal sphincter. (And just to reiterate that asshole is not “just an insult,” the expression tear [someone] a new asshole is proof that the literal meaning is still there, to be enjoyed by those who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it out.)

On the other hand, if dickhead the insult means “having a dick for a head,” it is an example of an exocentric, or headless, compound noun. In this kind of compound, it is not true that X is a kind of Y (or for that matter, that Y is a kind of X). In other words, neither X nor Y is the head of the compound. So if dickhead means “having a dick for a head,” then a dickhead is not a kind of head. It’s a kind of person.

Are there other insults that are exocentric compound nouns? Yes again: butthead. Since butts, unlike dicks, don’t have heads, the ambiguity seen in dickhead doesn’t arise here. A butthead is not a kind of head; it’s a kind of person: someone who (figuratively) has a butt for a head.

Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, the analysis so far hasn’t given a definitive answer. It’s time for some empirical evidence. Now I could have surveyed 100 people on what dickhead means to them, but I imagine most would have said it’s an insult, just like the guy who put the label on that good friend of mine. So instead, I did a Google image search, and got 400-some hits for the word. Many of them were just pictures of ordinary people who evidently were dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 18 of them provided clear evidence. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.

So the exocentric meaning clearly more prevalent than the endocentric one. But wait, there’s more! The other 12 images I collected illustrated meanings for dickhead that I hadn’t thought about.

Four of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. This meaning looks to be almost as prevalent as the “dick for a head” meaning, but I was surprised by it. It really had never occurred to me. It’s a little tricky deciding if this is an endocentric or an exocentric meaning. It’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t have to mean “head of a dick”; it just has to denote a head that has something or other to do with a dick, and a head with a dick on top of it would certainly qualify. But referring to an entire person as a dickhead because they have a dick on their head seemed a bit strange to me at first. However, that’s starting with the word and imagining a referent. If you start off with a referent, the word comes naturally. If you want to talk about someone standing right there with a dick on their head, what other word would you use? There is precedent for this meaning, too: Google image searches for butthead, shithead, and meathead all returned more images of heads with butts, shit, or meat on them than of heads consisting of a butt, shit, or meat. And of course there are also cheeseheads. I’m calling this as an exocentric meaning, since these dickheads are still a kind of people, not a kind of head. To capture both meanings — someone who has a dick (or dicks) for a head and someone who has a dick (or dicks) on their head — we have to think of the exocentric compound as having a more general meaning: “someone whose head has something to do with a dick,” whether by being one or possessing one. (Or more.)

This “for a head” vs. “on a head” dichotomy appears in the last eight of the images I found. Two of them pictured people with dickheads for a head, and one of these two went further in having not only the person’s head as the head of a penis, but also the body as the shaft of the penis. The other six images pictured people with dickheads on their (regular) head. I have to tell you, I don’t think dickhead should have this “someone whose head has something to do with a dickHEAD” meaning. I think the word that is called for here would be dickhead-head, but probably nobody who hits upon that word likes having the two heads in a row.

So to conclude, dickheads are more like buttheads than assholes, and there are more kinds of dickhead than you’d probably care to imagine.

Posted in Compound words, Lexical semantics, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo | 3 Comments »

At the Zoo

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2009

Cyclone at Zoombezi BayDoug has been spending his days this week in a day camp at the Columbus Zoological Garden, and while he’s been there, Adam and I have been entertaining ourselves at the zoo and its adjacent waterpark. Here are some linguistic items that have caught my attention in the course of doing that.

First, here’s something Adam and I heard while we were waiting in line for the Cyclone, a waterslide that uses inner tubes that will seat four people. (Digression: Funny we still call them inner tubes. Of course, water parks have never used actual inner tubes for their slides, but when the tube is like two or four inner tubes fused together, the name seems especially inapt.) In front of us were four girls in their early teens. As they contemplated the 55-foot drop in the slide, and wondered which of them would end up sliding down backwards, one girl said that she thought she might “hurl.” They discussed how this might bear on where she sat in the tube; Hurl Girl asked one of the others:

Do you want hurl on you?

Well, why not? The verbs vomit, throw(-)up, and barf all work as nouns, so why shouldn’t the more recent verb of regurgitation hurl be allowed to do it, too? All the same, it was new to me, and sounded funny. Are there other synonyms for the verbs vomit that can’t be used as nouns? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that there was a puddle of ralph on the floor. And of course, verb phrase idioms don’t lend themselves well to turning into nouns — I don’t think English speakers would say He got {toss-his-cookies, worship-the-porcelain-urn, lose-his-lunch} all over his shirt. Do you?

redtailed hawkA while back, I wrote about how as a child I was confused by my mom’s two-syllable pronunciation of striped, and one day decided I would henceforth use the one-syllable pronunciation /straIpt/ (to rhyme with griped and sniped) because I just couldn’t see any reason why striped shouldn’t pattern with other words that added an -ed suffix to a word. I never made similar adjustments for words like wicked, naked, or crooked, maybe because I didn’t perceive wick, nake, or crook as words unto themselves. (Or maybe not, since I certainly knew the word rag, but still pronounce the adjective ragged with two syllables.) I was suddenly reminded of these words as Adam and I attended “Raptorama,” a lecture on various birds of prey. As the docent pointed out the red-tailed hawk’s hunting adaptations, he referred several times to its “crooked beak”, pronouncing crooked as /krʊkt/, to rhyme with booked and cooked. Or, now that I think about it, hooked. It could be that he was saying hooked beak, which would make more sense, but it sure sounded like crooked. I pronounce the past tense of the verb crook that way, as in “He crooked a finger at me,” but not the adjective crooked. What about you?

I also noticed that he consistently pronounced talon as /’tælɘn/ to rhyme with gallon, with the second syllable unstressed and the vowel accordingly reduced to schwa. So did Adam, when the docent called on him. I, however, pronounce talon with two stressed syllables, so that the second vowel is not reduced: /’tælɐn/. Who’s with me?

langurIn the Asia Quest section of the zoo, Adam and I saw langurs. A sign said that langur was Hindi for “sacred monkey”. “I’ll bet it’s not,” I thought. “I’ll bet that langur is Hindi for langur, and that it so happens that langurs are considered sacred in India.” I was right. The Hindi word for sacred is dharmika or any of several other words, none of them forming any part of langur. Monkey in Hindi is kapi or bandara. Meanwhile, as far as I’ve been able to tell, langur in Hindi just means “langur”, and that the word is related to the Sanskrit word for “tailed”.

Their etymology for panda is a bit more accurate: The sign said it came from a Tibetan word meaning “bamboo eater”. The OED backs this up, saying it’s “probably an alteration of the second element of nigálya-pónya“. However, it’s the nigálya part that means “cane-eating” (in Nepali, actually); the Tibetan word pónya, which actually evolved into the current name, just means “animal”. But it’s still true that panda came from a word meaning “bamboo eater”.

In the Australia section, the koala exhibit had a sign saying that koala meant “no water” in the Aborigine language. Their reference to “the” Aborigine language didn’t inspire confidence. Which one did they mean? Aside from that, though, I haven’t found anything to contradict this claim. Do you know anything about it, Claire?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Phonetics and phonology, Taboo | 13 Comments »

That’s So Disabled!

Posted by Neal on May 28, 2009

The good news: Adam has picked up some more of the language of his peers. The bad news: It’s the adjective retarded. The good news: He’s not using the word to insult people. The bad news: He’s using it to describe things that only someone with mental retardation could appreciate, as in That’s retarded! This usage makes sense only with the support of a presupposition that mentally retarded people like things that other people find stupid, but that kind of argument is going to be hard to explain to a kid. This is the same kind of semantic shift as happened with gay — from describing a person to describing something that only that kind of person would like, with the hearer implicitly asked to agree that gay people like things that other people find stupid. There are kids for whom this connection is so attenuated that they refuse to believe it, saying, “It’s not insulting to say something is gay! You’re not insulting a person, you’re just saying the thing is stupid”, and I’m sure I’ll hear the same kind of defense of retarded as a thing-describing adjective.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Diachronic, Quantity and Relevance, Taboo, The darndest things | 19 Comments »

The Put-Down From Which There’s No Pick-Up

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2007

Today was a sad day for us. After two years of steady weight loss (and one month of precipitous weight loss), and having more or less constant kidney problems, our 18-year-old cat Barney finally reached the point where his prognosis was a matter of days. We decided earlier in the week that we would kill him today. Or to be more accurate, have the vet kill him.

Ugh. All I’m doing is avoiding the euphemisms for this kind of thing — put him down/to sleep/out of his misery, euthanize him — and all of a sudden it sounds so heartless. It was a tough decision, since Barney hadn’t reached the point yet where we could say, “He’s obviously in constant pain, and we need to end it”; but he had clearly declined enough that we didn’t want to wait for him to die during a frightening, painful crisis, the way his brother did a few years ago. And in the midst of questioning ourselves about our decision, we had to explain it confidently to Doug and Adam. They cried about it off and on for the past three days as they got in their last Barney-petting, and Doug continually pointed out how he thought Barney had gained a little bit of weight (his spine didn’t stick out quite as much as before), that he seemed like he was feeling OK today, and if we somehow got up to, say, eight pounds, would they put him to sleep then?

During one of these discussions, Doug told me about the time a couple of years back when he learned what it meant to put someone to sleep. His neighborhood friend’s dog had had to be euthanized, and his friend tearfully told him, “They had to put Rocky to sleep.”

Trying to cheer up his friend, Doug offered, “It’s OK, I’m sure he’ll wake up soon.” It didn’t work, and Doug said it a few more times, figuring his friend just hadn’t heard him clearly. Finally another friend who was there couldn’t stand it anymore, and clued Doug in.

Ah, Doug, you have so many euphemisms yet to learn!

Posted in Taboo, The darndest things | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 419 other followers