Ed. note: This post is full of words that may, as we say in the office, “offend the tender sensibilities” of some. Caveat lector.
The first thing you cover in Style and Defining class is that any word that meets the three criteria for entry (widespread edited use, sustained usage over a certain period of time, and lexical value) is eligible for entry. From your first moments as a lexicographer to your last, this is the core rationale for everything you do. It is the rule which underlies the work of any descriptivist lexicographer; the practical extension of our defining philosophy; and the mechanism by which we attend to this noble calling in the service of education, literacy, language.
That said, you will still be flustered the first time you dip into your defining batch and pull out a handful of citations for “fuckwad.”
Profanity presents the descriptive lexicographer with a few unique challenges. Obscenities and vulgar terms are a veritable treasure trove–so many! such richness!–but very few of the truly original ones make it into print. Witness the New Yorker‘s recent article on Rick Santorum, which touched briefly on the generic noun “santorum,” coined in 2003 in response to some controversial comments the Senator made on homosexuality. The article says that the definition of “santorum” is unprintable. This, it’s worth mentioning, is coming from a magazine that routinely prints “fuck” in all its various incarnations. Much of our printed evidence for the lower-case “santorum” sadly reads just like that New Yorker blurb: “blah blah blah santorum (a word so vile that we cannot possibly tell you what it means, but we’re going to use words like “leak” and “backdoor” and “frothy” in the next paragraph in a veiled attempt to euphemize “santorum” and thereby escape an obscenity fine or court injunction).”
Uses like this are lexicographically infuriating. We write our definitions, after all, based on the contextual meaning of a word as it appears in edited prose. All you can definitively eke out of these citations is that “santorum” will probably need a usage note.
Speaking of, usage notes and register labels can also challenge the lexicographer. If you can believe it, cusswords can be incredibly nuanced. If that sounds like a ludicrous statement, please get up from your computer, find a 13-year-old, and ask them to explain the difference between “fucker,” “motherfucker,” and “mofo” to you. (Here I must tell you that the manifold glories of the F-bomb have been covered by Jesse Sheidlower in his book, The F-word, which any scholar of dirty language or ironic hipster will want to own. Now you, too, can impress a lexicographer or a 13-year-old!) Lexicographers have different usage labels for the naughty words–my company uses vulgar and obscene–but sussing out which label to give a particular sense comes only with practice. My own, admittedly imperfect, litmus test for picking a word’s label: if I were to use this word in a sentence around my dad’s ironworker buddies and they respond with “fuck yeah!”, it’s vulgar. If I were to use this word in a sentence around my dad’s ironworker buddies and they respond by hollering, “Hey, watch your fucking mouth!”, it’s obscene. To add to the confusion, there are always–ALWAYS–citations that use naughty words in ways that are neither vulgar nor obscene. I swear, about 40% of the words in Trainspotting are variations on “fuck,” but only a handful of them are lexically vulgar or obscene: most of them are just used, as we say in the biz, “for intensity.” By page 6, you don’t even notice them anymore.
Once you get past the fact that you have very little evidence for a word and that you have to think long and hard about the nuances of its use, you have other, more mundane, hurdles to clear. First, it is very hard to maintain the proper sense of professional decorum when you are reading citation after citation for “numbnuts.” You may start to snicker, and then your coworkers will begin exhaling sharply and perhaps even sighing audibly–the universal signal for irritation within lexicographical circles. Don’t worry, though: the giggles will wear off after about the first 15 citations.
Additionally, it can make for awkward watercooler conversation. I learned the hard way to append the phrase “the entry for” to any answer I gave to the question, “What are you working on?” (“Fucking. UH WHOA I MEAN…”)
The sad reality of defining naughty words is this: the definitions will never be as interesting, sparkling, or titillating as the words themselves. I was out with some friends when one of them asked me what I was working on. “Well,” I swaggered, “I just entered the adjective ‘fucking’ into the dictionary!” Everyone’s eyes grew wide with mischief and delight. “Well?” someone asked. “What’s the definition?”
“Um, ‘damned, usually used as an intensive.’” And like that, everyone deflated. It was as if they had gone to a striptease only to find that, when the feather fans were lowered, the dancer was wearing a Victorian-era bathing suit.
While society tends to treat profanity differently than other classes of words, the lexicographer cannot. The goal, remember, is to attempt to concisely and accurately communicate the lexical meaning of a word, and obscene and vulgar words, with all their shades of meaning and many, many, many uses, need the clearest definitions of them all. In fact, when I buy a new dictionary–something that I’m sure you all do on a regular basis, right?–I judge it on two criteria: treatment of the Big 8 and treatment of profanity. A dictionary written for an adult English speaker should cover profanity. (School dictionaries tend not to include profanity because classroom materials tend not to drop f-bombs. This is because I do not write classroom materials.) If I pick up a dictionary and can’t find a single cussword, I begin to wonder what else the editors decided not to include.
Even in modern society, where previously genteel publications will print the occasional “shithead,” bad words are still stigmatized and stigmatizing. We call them bad words: their very name carries a moral charge. Sometimes, when I am answering another e-mail from a parent who sent their child to the dictionary and later found them looking up filth and smut, what is this world coming to, I wish we had taken the easier way out and just omitted them. After all, we all know these words already. No one learns profanity from the dictionary. (The parent whose child has been soiled by my filth disbelieves this claim of mine.)
Then I think about the afternoon several years ago when a group of international high-school students were piled onto my couch, flipping through one of my dictionaries. One girl’s casual thumbing evolved into a susurrous cluster of girls, heads together, dictionary at the center. Their whispery knot would occasionally burst open with an “oh!” and a clatter of laughter. Now, dictionaries do not usually elicit such a response from teenagers, so I asked what they were doing. They all blushed deeply, and then one of the girls spoke up. “Please do not be angry, but we hear these words, like ‘shit,’ but sometimes you don’t understand how to use the word. These words are not in the dictionary in class. So how do you use it? If you use it wrong, the students think you are stupid.”
I did what any compassionate person would have done: I made them cookies, sat in their midst, and taught them how to “give a shit” and not “take shit” from their classmates, who were all, for the record, “full of shit.”