Category Archives: language

If You Can’t Hate on Child Rapists…

Some indeterminate number of thousands of atheists held a rally for reason in Washington DC this weekend. I would have loved to attend, but I suffered a lack of sufficient funds.

Most of the speakers and comedians and musicians who took the stage at the rally hail from Western nations, and hence the religions with which they are most familiar are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, probably in that order. So it makes sense that, while discussing the insensibility of religion, the Abrahamic faiths took most of the hits, with Christianity getting the lion’s share (yes, that was deliberate). But that’s just what would make sense. I haven’t seen the rally talks and I’ve not seen an objective accounting of which religions were targeted and how often.

That certainly won’t satisfy the put-upon resident of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, who complains that atheists get especially “jacked up” about Catholics. Because the Catholic church deserves not just respect, but deference. Unquestioning deference.

This short, dishonest piece by Donohue provides a wealth of material deserving of scorn, but I’ll focus on one issue. Donohue complains about Tim Minchin’s Pope Song, which he quotemines the lyrics egregiously. The lyrics Donohue includes in his piece are these: “I don’t give a f*** if calling the pope a motherf***er means…You see I don’t give a f*** what any other motherf***er believes about Jesus and his motherf***ing mother.”

You see that ellipsis up there, right after the word “means”? The entire rest of the verse follows that word. The sentence is “I don’t give a fuck if calling the pope a motherfucker means you unthinkingly brand me an unthinking apostate.” Donohue had to cut out 69 words to get from “means” to “You see…” Those 69 words are important, but they undermine Donohue’s case that the song is about Catholic people in general and not about the pedophilia scandal that will not die due to the level of pervasiveness it apparently achieved through the hierarchy’s insistence that the church’s reputation is more important than the safety of children.

Then there’s the next verse, the one that starts with “You see,” that states explicitly that Minchin is not complaining about the rank and file Catholic, as Donohue wants his readers to believe. “You see I don’t give a fuck what any other motherfucker / Believes about Jesus and his motherfucking mother / I’ve no problem with the spiritual beliefs of all these fuckers / While those beliefs don’t impact on the happiness of others.” See? If you’re not raping children, he’s not talking about you. Unless you’re covering for the child rapists, because he rightly thinks that child rape is wrong.

But Donohue doesn’t want his readers to know what Minchin really sang about. He wants them to avoid the song, and he wants them to think the reason is that it’s vulgar and not that it has an important message buried in all those fucks and fuckers. He certainly isn’t going to mention that the song is about the RCC’s pedophilia coverup, because the sooner he can get his followers worked up over Tim Minchin calling the pope a motherfucker and Richard Dawkins exhorting atheists to ridicule religion, the less likely it is that he’ll have to deal honestly with what the reason rally was about.

Donohue concludes, “Catholics take note: The fact that the atheists always attack us more than any other religious group is a backhanded compliment. They know who the real enemy of hate is, and who they must defeat. They don’t have a prayer.”

I’ve already handled Donohue’s persecution complex, but I don’t think the Catholic church is an enemy of hate. It’s an enemy of anyone who doesn’t fall into line with its dogma. The RCC can call its dogma “love,” but for those of us in the real world, words mean things, and much of what the RCC would inflict on the rest of us does not look, sound, taste, or feel like love.

And as for atheists not having a prayer? Why would we want to waste our time with that? We’ve got better things to do.

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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in atheism, language


A Few Hundred Words About Fuck

I used to have a book about fuck and its variants, as well as archaic words that meant the same thing but which now mean something else entirely or have fallen into disuse. It described “swive” as the female version of fuck, but for any number of possible reasons, it has been lost to history. It’s tempting to attribute it to the attitude that women should not take an active role in sex, but I think it’s probably more likely that “fuck,” with its hard sounds at either end, was more aggressive and so more satisfying as a cuss word.

The book, whose title is lost to some neuron playing hide-and-seek, suggested the possibility that the etymological origin of “fuck” may have something to do with early warfare involving bows and arrows made from the wood of the yew tree. The strings on the bows were plucked with the middle finger, and the men who used bows and arrows in battle were said to have approached their victims with their middle fingers extended, yelling “pluck yew.” As I recall, there was no evidence to support this claim, so while I’m willing to recount this story as an example of how colorful people’s imaginations can get when discussing unknown etymologies, I’m not willing to say that it’s anything more than imagination.

I also saw a sort of documentary called “Fuck,” available on netflix as “The F-Bomb,” but it was more entertaining than informative. Several people, including some famous comedians, tried to say that “fuck” stood for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Under Consent of the King.” Cute, but not likely. There was no evidence to support either as the source for “fuck.” The filmmakers acknowledge that, but spend an inordinate amount of time on it. It’s not that entertaining, and its informative value is almost nonexistent.

As for modern usage, “fuck” (and its variants) has become one of the most versatile words in the English language. I won’t go into its many uses, as I’m sure anyone even vaguely familiar with the word is aware of them.

I wrote the other day about my personal distaste for the use of the names of body parts as insults. I also mentioned in comments that I didn’t have a problem with fuck because it names an action and not a body part. I’m not satisfied with my own position.

It took me a long time to overcome my religious upbringing, and doing so involved, among many other things, the ability to say without embarrassment what religious people call dirty words. It surprises me to this day that people are still stunned to hear me say “fuck.” I don’t swear often. But at this stage in my life, I’m not going to revert to saying “you know” when I mean “fuck.” And if I think something is “fucking brilliant,” I’m going to say so, because “very” just doesn’t cut it as a modifier of “brilliant.”

I rarely say “fuck you,” and when I do, it’s usually to politicians on television saying stupid shit. Sometimes I say it to pundits on television saying stupid shit. I’m sure in the past I’ve written it to someone online, but I don’t recall whom or when (or under which pseudonym). I don’t recall saying it to anyone’s face, but I have thought it plenty. On at least one occasion, I was the very model of restraint in not saying it, but that was then.

I am aware that there are different cultural norms for the use of offensive language. I know that the words for certain body parts don’t carry the same weight in Australia or Scotland that they do in the United States. I live in the US, so that’s my cultural context. I also know that norms vary within countries, and people in the US vary widely in the ease with which they are offended by language. I’m not going to refrain from using foul language just because someone somewhere might get offended. Foul language enriches our ability to express ourselves fully and accurately.

Expressing ourselves fully and accurately does not include begging off the offensiveness of foul language or denying its etymology when someone is offended by its use, especially if its use is directed at them. By the same token, no one has the right not to be offended. It’s a balancing act that I doubt anyone has completely mastered.

As a (currently would-be) writer, I face a dilemma with fuck and its friends every time I write fiction. I have rules for how I use language, but I have to be willing to write characters who use language differently than I do. I don’t call people cunts, but I have to allow for the possibility that a character I write might. I have to decide if that person belongs to a culture that allows for it, or if that person is a sexist shit, or both. Or neither.

If, or more likely when, it happens that I write a character with no apparent limitations on the use of dirty words, I will likely have to rethink my position on my own use. That sort of thing happens from time to time. For now, I think my judgment regarding language use is fair.

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Posted by on August 7, 2011 in language


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Here there be “Language”

Recently on twitter, @drskyskull and I had a bit of back-and-forth about whether “testicular” was an appropriate description of the GOP (he said that while it’s good to have testicles, it’s not good to be them; I think testicles might disagree, but the science there would be… challenging). Also recently, Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels wrote a post about sexual epithets and (white male) privilege. It got me thinking.

It’s a peculiar thing to use the names of sex organs as insults. These are the fun bits of the human body, but are we supposed to be reviled by them? The Abrahamic religions (and several other religions as well) will say yes, of course, because… well, because some 4,000 years ago, some dude got squicked out by a woman’s vagina, or something. Believers wouldn’t put it that way, though. They’d dress it up in florid language about how Yahweh/God/Allah/Thor wants people, especially women, to be pure and holy and the only way women can be pure and holy is by remaining virginal at least until marriage (and if she can swing it, even after giving birth the first time).

How does this ever not mess people up? Before you get married, sex is badbadbad. It’s so bad, you shouldn’t even call it “sex.” You should call it “making love,” or something even more euphemistic. You shouldn’t use the proper terms for sex organs, because if you were to say “penis,” some delicate flower of a woman might swoon, and we can’t have delicate flowers swooning. That would be too tempting for men, who for some reason can’t control their “manhoods” in the presence of a woman who can’t offer resistance. Or something.

(I’m saying “or something” a lot in this post.)

However, once a (heterosexual) couple is married, sex magically becomes a beautiful expression of one’s love for one’s mate. That’s a major frameshift. And it occurs the instant someone in funny clothes says some magic words. (In the exceedingly unlikely event that I get married, I’d like the Elvis impersonator to replace “I now pronounce you husband and wife” with “abracadabra.” If it’s about magic words, I want magic words.)

I think it would be a fine thing for people to refrain from using the names of the fun bits of human anatomy as insults, especially the names of the fun bits of female anatomy as extra-strength insults of men. History is against me. Even the words “woman,” “womanly,” “girl” and “feminine” are used as insults, so how can the names of our sex organs not be epithets as well? We have been denigrated for thousands of years just for being women. The epithetical use of our sex perpetuates our second-class status, and I can’t help thinking that people who spit words like “cunt” and “twat” like it that way.

Years ago, when I was preparing for college, I participated in a seminar or class that was supposed to prepare us for the SATs. The instructor of this class digressed a bit from his plans and asked the students to come up with as many words we could think of that were insults of men. We filled up one of the four chalkboards in the room. We then repeated the exercise with insults of women. We filled up all four chalkboards, and could probably have filled another if we’d had one.

As a matter of principle, I try not to insult people, and especially not by reducing them to their body parts. It doesn’t help anything, and it usually hurts more than just the intended target of the insult. And in the case of using the names of sex organs as insults, it reinforces the attitude that sex is sinful (in a bad way).


Posted by on August 6, 2011 in language


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