F-Bombs Away! Obscene Words and Your Dictionary

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.”



Filed under general, lexicography, making word sausage

62 responses to “F-Bombs Away! Obscene Words and Your Dictionary

  1. This reminded me that the GOP presidential campaigns have brought a resurgence of one of my old favorites: batshit.

    • korystamper

      “Batshit,” along with “crazy as a shithouse rat,” are two of my faves.

      • I noticed that neither “apeshit” nor “batshit” is in the online Merriam Webster. Is the online edition censored heavily?

        I’m old enough to remember some of their origins, by the way:

        “going ape”, “bats in the belfry” becoming “batty” or “bats”, eventually becoming “apeshit” and “batshit”.

      • Michael

        crazy as a shithouse rat….cormac mccarthy?

        • korystamper

          Hmm, not to my knowledge (though I haven’t read much McCarthy). It’s been around for years and years. Maybe I’ll do a bit of looking through the citation files to see if we have anything on it….

        • Michael

          well just an amusing coincidence that i was reading ‘all the pretty horses’ where one of the characters says it, at the same time i found your blog on obscene words.

  2. The requisite reply to people who are upset on discovering that the dictionary has “bad words”:

    “A literary lady, expressing to Dr. Johnson her approbation of his Dictionary, and in particular, her satisfaction at his not having admitted into it any _improper words_–‘No, madam,’ replied he; ‘I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however, that you have been looking for them.'” — Boswell, _Life of Samuel Johnson_

    • korystamper

      I’m glad you’re the one who quoted that bit, as I didn’t know the anecdote until I read your book.

      • johnwcowan

        Some more Johnsonisms:

        “If you find faults [in the Dictionary], I shall endeavour to mend them; if you find none, I shall think you blinded by kind partiality.” —in response to Charles Burney, who wanted to know when the Dictionary would be published.

        “Ignorance, sheer ignorance.” —to a lady who wanted to know why his definition of pastern was wrong

        “Yes, Sir, I knew very well what I was undertaking,—and very well how to do it,—and have done it very well.” —to Boswell, when he suggested that Johnson didn’t know what he was getting into when he started work

  3. Marc Leavitt

    Some years ago I worked with a printer, who proved daily that “fuck” can be used as any part of speech. Once, when the assistant publisher asked him a question, the printer responded with his usual versatility, to which the publisher replied, ” John, you certainly do have an interesting vocabulary.”

    • korystamper

      I’d be absolutely useless in that situation as I’d be scribbling down everything John said.

    • Any six-year-old can use any given word as any part of speech.

      I remember doing that while young just to experiment with morphology and syntax. Nothing unique about the F-bomb in that wise.

  4. johnwcowan

    Well, if at one’s wits’ end for a definition, one can always fall back on the strategy of Collier’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1899):

    HORSE, n. A well-known quadruped.

    Indeed, it uses the same definition for goat, adding “allied to the sheep”, and “the well-known animal covered with wool” for sheep.

    On the other hand, the Century Dictionary defined horse as “A solidungulate perissodactyl mammal of the family Equidæ and the genus Equus: Equus caballus“, which is almost as useful, followed by a third of a page (!) of encyclopedic information in small print. If you don’t know what a horse is after reading that, you’re not trying.

    • korystamper

      Heh, John, you’re stealing my thunder: I am planning a post on encyclopedic information (to be published…sometime). That said, I am happy to let you reveal the glory that is the Century definition of “horse.” Solidungulate perissodactyl mammal! There are the makings of a great Shakespearean insult in those three words.

  5. nwhepcat

    Years ago in the course of writing an article on fire-eating, I interviewed Penn Jillette and a friend of his who also did fire-eating in his magic act. The friend told me a story about Penn, who was appalled at a home (even a small mobile home) without a dictionary, so he took his friend shopping for a paperback that wouldn’t take up much space. Penn declared that it had to have the word “cunt” in it, because then they would be assured it had everything. After a frustrating search for a suitable dictionary, Penn bought a runner-up and inscribed it, “Cunt means pussy. Everything else is in here. Penn”

  6. Mark Twain supposedly (and, I believe, genuinely) said: “In certain trying circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.”

    I love the anecdote with the international students. Good dictionaries do a vital service by not being coy about such words.

  7. I heard someone say once, “Oh, shit, I stepped in dog mess”. Loved the article.

    • korystamper

      That’s a great example of the tonal differences the same word can have in one sentence. Evidently the speaker thought that the interjectional “shit” was less offensive than the concrete noun.

  8. Is “Caveat lector” an example of parallel Latin-joke evolution, or did one of us get that from the other?

    • korystamper

      Hmm. I’m going to guess, just based on a very cursory look at the evidence, that caveat lector was a later coinage on the model of caveat emptor. The OED doesn’t enter the former, but enters the latter and dates it to the 16th century. Standard disclaimers apply.

  9. Garrett Wollman

    So how exactly does your company use “obscene”? I generally try to avoid the word unless what I’m referring to is actually Miller-Test Compliant.

  10. Brian Smith

    I just looked up “fuck” at http://www.merriam-webster.com and noticed on the Popularity Gauge that it was one click away from the end of the scale. Do you know how “popular” that word has been since you guys have been tracking look ups? Also, do obscene words dominate the Top 100 look up list?

    • Charming Charlie

      I’ve been hunting for a bottom 10% popularity word for a while. My suspicion is that anything below 20% is behind the Merriam-Webster “abridged” paywall. Any chance you can confirm, Kory? (Mrs. Stamper?)

      Speaking of which, I would love a post about the business side of dictionaries. Competition against other dictionaries, if any. Staff sizes, salary sizes. And the influence of the internet, specifically:

      I assume the Ask-the-editor videos are produced in order to drive traffic to the website. Do the website people work at the same offices as the lexicographers? Do they film in your offices or do you have to go somewhere else? Where’s the blooper reel, or are you three all so badass you can do it in one take? I suspect you write your own scripts, is that true?

      I also have noticed that I haven’t used a paper copy of an English dictionary since 2002 though I relied extensively on a pocket Chinese-English one while living in Beijing. Am I pretty typical? Is the only major revenue from pocket dictionaries and goddamn popups on the website? Come to think of it does Merriam-Webster publish any dual language dictionaries?

      • Matthew Hill

        Along these same lines…do you guys keep track of the lookups that are not found in your dictionary to get an idea of possible new words? Seems like this would be a pretty unbiased way to see if people are really using and coming across new words (in addition to what people submit or what you folks track). You’d probably have to sort through a lot of misspellings though…

        • korystamper

          So many questions! Short answers because I’m in the middle of entering silly words into the unabridged. (SPOILER)

          Brian, we do have historical logs, but I don’t have access to them. I can tell you that there’s always a spike in look-ups of “fuck” in September (kids back in school), but to my knowledge, it’s never been a top-10 look-up.

          Charlie, the paywall actually divides two separate references: W3 and the Collegiate. The Collegiate is in front of the paywall, W3 is behind it, and they are completely separate. More anon.

          Bottom 10% look-up word: “a” or “the.”

          I’m just an editor, so they don’t let me muck about in the business side of things, but I’ll offer two quick personal observations:
          1. We love our fellow lexicographers, regardless of who they work for. After all, there are only, like, 50 of us.
          2. There is no money in publishing, and there is really, really no money in reference publishing.

          The videos merit a post all their own, and I’ll get to it eventually. I even have terrible cellphone pictures of the set!

          Matthew, we have multiple look-up logs, and I would guess that one of them logs all words entered into the search field. But I only get access to one of the look-up logs. They’re evidently afraid I will go mad with power or something.

        • Charming Charlie

          Thanks for indulging my curiosities.

          According to the website,
          “A is currently in the top 10% of lookups on Merriam-Webster.com.”
          “The is currently in the top 10% of lookups on Merriam-Webster.com.”

          But I did finally attain my holy grail of a bottom 10% lookup by making my own words up, and then using the spelling suggestions to find actual words. I tried “terperidy” which suggested “trihybrid,” a bottom 20% (boring) lookup. Then I used “eptosidine” to find the suggested “epoxidize” which

          “is currently in the bottom 10% of lookups on Merriam-Webster.com.
          A green arrow indicates a fast mover: this word increased significantly in lookups over the past seven days.”

          Maybe soon “expoxidize” will move up into the bottom 20%? Who knows!? Check it out while you can! Man, I feel alive.

          • korystamper

            “A” and “the” are in the top 10%? That…that astonishes me. Really.

            Another bottom 10%er for you: “chlorine monoxide.”

        • My guess is that “a” and “the” would be in the top 10% of word lookups due to a brain dead log parser.
          I would guess if people do a search on certain nouns such as “the world” “the” gets logged as a word with the same weight as “world”.

          Of course it’s not really the log parser that is brain dead, it’s the person who chose or wrote it.

  11. H. S. Gudnason

    This reminds me of my days teaching a beginning German course to U.S. university students. The second semester was backloaded with all the hardest items–adjective endings, relative clauses, passive, and both subjunctives. The weather was getting warm. The students and instructor were getting drowsy. So some of us took it upon ourselves to use the model optative subjunctive II sentence the book provided, “If only he didn’t stamp his foot so loudly!” to teach other bodily noises and functions, which the students were all dying to know but too cool to ask about. It also gave us a chance to discuss things like levels of discourse, regional variations, and the cultural impact of excretory and sexual language in different cultures.

  12. Mercedes

    There’s a Dictionary of Argentinean Spanish published in 1910 that has the following entry for the adjecive “minetero” (a slang word that, applied to a man, means “that enjoys practicing cunilingus”):

    minetero. 1. May my pen be reluctant to print here what this infamous word means; men and women who have reached the extremes of degradation should define it, since it concerns them. It is known in the capital city.

    One of my favorite diccionary entries!

    • Mercedes, do you have a citation for this? I can’t find it on Google Books, and I’d love to know the actual source. This would be a great example to use….

      • korystamper

        Agreed! Mercedes, if you’d post the bib info–or, even better, a scan of the entry with the bib info, that would be amazing!

        • Of course!
          The dictionary is in Spanish, and that was my translation. The original entry is:
          MINETERO, RA. s. m. y f. Arg. La pluma se resiste a estampar aquí lo que significa esta palabra infame: hombres y mujeres que han llegado a los extremos de la degradación pueden definirla, pues los comprende a ellos. Es conocida en la capital federal.
          Citation: Garzón, Tobías. Diccionario Argentino. Barcelona, 1910.
          There’s a scanned version here
          And I’ve uploaded a snapshot to Flickr here

  13. Tom V

    Do limericks count as usage within a context? If so, take a look at http://www.santorum.com. (Unless, like Wikipedia, you require that citations be from printed matter only)

    • korystamper

      Eh, not really. We go for prose. We’re boring that way.

      • Thomas Winwood

        Does a comment on this blog count? I’m willing to define “santorum”, and you can probably retroactively use the veiled half-definition the newspapers gave (which are akin to Cicero’s “hanc culpam maiorem an illam dicam” from Epistolae ad Familiares 9.22 hinting at the forbidden landīca “clitoris”).

        • korystamper

          Oh, Cicero. Catullus coulda taught him a thing or two.

          Sadly, my blog is not considered “edited prose” by anyone. Nice try, though.

  14. Your foreign students should be referred to urbandictionary.com for the various meanings of slang words. It can make as much confusion as clarity sometimes, but should give them something to start with when a completely unfamiliar word or usage comes up.

  15. My daughter (8) and I were disappointed to to find that there was not a single word for poo in her Scholastic Children’s Dictionary. Come on – poo is a thing! And surely some kid doing a project on lions is going to come across “scat” or “spoor” or “feces”. I need to send them a “your dictionary sucks” letter…

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  18. “While society tends to treat profanity differently than other classes of words,”

    The brain treats profanity differently, too. Some stroke patients lose the ability to speak but can utter expletives. Some sufferers of Tourette Syndrome let lose with profanity quite against their will, whereas non-profane words aren’t involved in their outbursts.

    This suggests that expletives are wired differently into the brain—my guess is that there’s a stronger emotional component—which might explain why some people are fairly addicted to their utterance.

    • Matthew Hill

      Profanity is also useful in that it helps to minimize violence by giving a intense verbal outlet for anger and frustration. And it builds camaraderie by establishing an interaction as not being formal or official. This is why maintaining its taboo status by dissuading children from using it, while using it myself, is not hypocritical. These are my observations but I wonder if any studies bear this out. Cheers.

  19. dicentra

    Oh, hey: coprolalia, “involuntary swearing or the involuntary utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks.”

  20. ASG

    I loved this post, but I stalled on this bit:

    “Um, ‘damned, usually used as an intensive.’”

    This strikes me as a strange definition, though it may well be because I’m too literal about the word “damned”. Even my most casual uses of the word maintain some very faint traces of the original sense “condemned, forgotten, abandoned by god(s)”. I imagine even people who aren’t up on the entire history of the word still think of it as short for God-damned. “Fucking” doesn’t seem to have any of those connotations for me. I mean, yes, it’s a curse, but it’s not a curse about forgetting something or sending it to hell, is it? Am I overthinking this? (I already know the answer to that last question.)

  21. Treesong

    ASG, ‘damned’ may still have some hellish connotations left, but I think ‘damn’ as an intensive is pretty well bleached. ‘Damn good book’ actually sounds more natural than ‘damn bad book’ to me.

  22. Olaf

    Kory are you a man?

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  24. KBRemote

    Whenever I think of F-Bomb, I think of a comment Gary Gaetti made in Sports Illustrated in 1989. (I have NO idea why I remember this…I guess it was my first exposure to the hint of profanity in a national publication.) It’s post Gary Carter…but probably not an accident that it’s a reference within baseball from a player two years removed from a championship who decided to clean up his act.
    It’s on page 2:

  25. Got to this blog post today, some years late, through a convoluted trajectory from your Word of the Day — my browser’s home page.

    I have been interested in swear words and their euphemisms since I first discovered both. My interest comes from the seemingly arbitrary societal decision to make some words “bad”.

    Why is “frigging” or “fricking” acceptable — to, say, the FCC — when “fucking” is not? The meaning, usage, intention, and homonymic (?) values are supposed to be equivalent, so …. why the difference to a censor? Shit vs. crap? Or your example of mofo vs, motherfucker? (Although, in truth, MILF is making motherfucker obsolete.)

    Ironically, I suspect that many children learn about the actual swear words from exposure to their broadcast substitutes.

    PS: I won’t marry you either, so there!

  26. pens & needles

    Wowser! Hubby read some of your work to me over this weekend and we are just dazzled. Thank you for a really great blog!

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