The New York Times has an excellent survey of profanities, expletives, vulgarisms, obscenities, execrations, epithets and imprecations. This taxonomy pleases me greatly. Practically anything that is incongruously formal pleases me. (Such as Neil Gaiman’s explication of the theory that musicals can be best understood in terms of hardcore pornography.)
Anyways, I’m a sucker for etymology of questionable taste:
An epithet is a derogation or slur not as “dirty” as a vulgarism or as explosive as an expletive, with which it is often confused. Tagging an intellectual as an “egghead” or labeling a passionate partisan as a “nut case” is using an epithet, or mildly disparaging word. In “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser,” sometimes used in the locker room, the last “loser” is an epithet.
Imprecation brings us full circle to religion. Based on the Latin precare, “to pray,” the noun imprecation — along with its synonym execration, which shares a root with “sacred” and has nothing to do with excrement — are curses, usually married to the verb “mutter,” calling down punishment from on high. These bookish terms of excessive condemnation are out of critical fashion, merely evoking the exclamation by Snoopy, the cartoon character from Peanuts, “Curse you, Red Baron!”
This got me thinking of other obscenities in popular culture. People admire Battlestar Galactica for making up their own “minced oath” (“frack”), but I’m afraid that Harry Harrison got there first (with “bowb”) in Bill, The Galactic Hero back in 1965.
[Side note: fräck is the Swedish word for audacious, shameless or bold]
Bill, The Galactic Hero, is a hilariously broad space opera satire (a little bit like Robert Heinlein, the way Patrick Swayze is a little bit like Patrick Stewart), and holds a special place in my heart for having a character named Deathwish Drang.
I also thought of Todd Solondz's Storytelling, where a strategically placed red box obscured an interracial sex scene. In the DVD commentary, Solondz somewhat proudly characterized the lurid oblong as a “Stalinist red box.” Maybe he was just proud of the riposte.
Though I myself do not think this justifies censorship in any way, it does sometimes provoke brilliant elliptical bits, such as the immortal exchange between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity:
His eyes fall on the anklet again.
I wish you'd tell me what's engraved
on that anklet.
Just my name.
As for instance?
Phyllis. I think I like that.
But you're not sure?
I'd have to drive it around the block
a couple of times.
(Standing up again)
Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by
tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.
He'll be in then.
My husband. You were anxious to talk
to him weren't you?
Sure, only I'm getting over it a
little. If you know what I mean.
There's a speed limit in this state,
Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
How fast was I going, officer?
I'd say about ninety.
Suppose you get down off your
motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Suppose I let you off with a warning
Suppose it doesn't take.
Suppose I have to whack you over the
Suppose I bust out crying and put my
head on your shoulder.
Suppose you try putting it on my
That tears it.
Neff takes his hat and briefcase.
Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then,
That's what I suggested.
They both move toward the archway.
A-27 HALLWAY - PHYLLIS AND NEFF GOING TOWARDS THE ENTRANCE
Will you be here, too?
I guess so. I usually am.
Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
(Opening the door)
I wonder if I know what you mean.
I wonder if you wonder.
Finally, I’d like to close with something I heard quoted recently that sounds obscene, but which isn’t. Ladies and Gentlemen, a line from the poetry of Leonard Nimoy:
“When you touch me, I am deeply touched.”