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B-, surrounded by her bastards, innit?

Gentle Readers will be aware that Your Humble Blogger has an interest in and an affection for the profanity of our English Language. Ah, profanity. It’s the turmeric in the grammatical spice rack. Adverbs are the garlic powder, presumably, as there amongst the Best People a bizarre proscription against using more than the slightest amount, which led to a startling lack of tastiness in the resulting recipe. Prepositional phrases would be the cinnamon. No reason, I just like cinnamon. And the subjunctive mood would have to be the saffron, rarer and more valuable than gold. The passive voice would be … um, something that you don’t really notice, but it’s there anyway. OK, Your Humble Blogger isn’t a good cook. And I wasn’t talking about spices, anyway! I don’t even know what you’re on about. Spices.

What I was talking about was profanity.

Digression: The FCC says that “Profane language” includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a “nuisance.” This is no help at all. I mean, I understand that the FCC can’t give a full and comprehensive list of all words and contexts. Still. And of course they won’t view things in advance to give a prior judgment, which would very likely be found unconstitutional. Stations are on their own. An excellent way to harass any station found to be unfriendly to the powers that be, right? End digression.

So, the word bitch. I hate it. I almost never use it. As a noun, I mean. I occasionally use it as a verb, and I sometimes describe a tone of voice or anecdote or story as bitchy. But I don’t describe people as bitches. Part of this is a general reluctance; I would rather describe an action profanely than a person. On the other hand, I do occasionally describe a person as a dick or an asshole or a fuckhead or more rarely a fuck. I think that’s a small amount of the profanity I use (I am far more likely to use intensifiers), but I do it. So that can’t be the whole reason I dislike the usage, although I do think it contributes.

Mostly, it was brought to my attention that the word was misogynist. Or, more accurately, that it has been largely used in a context of misogyny. I’ve grown to think of it as a slur, more like sheenie or sheygetz than shithead. And although I love the English language in all its fecund outrageousness, I don’t actually use slurs, nor anyone should. In my opinion. These days. There was a time when I leant toward the Lenny Bruce angle that if we used all the words all the time in public, they would lose their slurrishness. I’m less optimistic these days. On the other hand, I do think that the (public) use of an outrageous slur can be a positive thing, if it’s done just right. The song “Colored Spade” from Hair, for instance, or the Word Association skit. I don’t think I would try it, myself, and I think if anybody had asked me whether it was a good idea, I probably would have advised against it even in those cases. I’m risk-averse, when it comes to slurs.

But back to bitch. It’s become more and more common (it seems to me) in the last ten years. I overhear the word in conversation between men, between women, and in mixed groups, used in its generic sense as well as referring to a particular person. So here’s what I want to know: is it a slur? Is it a cuss? What’s going on with it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I've been vexed about this sort of thing over the past several years, with the words "pussy" and "dick". I would like a profane way to call someone a jerk, and a way to call someone a wimp, but the two just don't seem symmetric. What, the fuck, is up with that?


The two aren't symmetric. I think it's that calling someone a pussy feminizes them, and that's worse (in a misogynist's mind, anyway) than calling them a dick.

Also, speaking as someone of the feminine persuasion, I am irked at the idea that "pussy" refers to someone being weak (footnote about etymology notwithstanding). I don't mean that you yourself feel that this is the case, since I know you and all. I'm irked at the *language*.

Furthermore, though this is getting off your original train of thought: I will always be frustrated at the use of slang for genitals as *insults*.

(Stephen reminds me, correctly, that the original use of pussy as an insult might have been literally "soft", as in pussy willow or pussy cat, so not referring to female genitals. However, I think many people nowadays do think of it as referring to the latter, so I don't think the comparison of the insult "pussy" with the insult "dick" is unreasonable.)

Yeah, that's a fair point -- calling someone a pussy is more like calling them "girly", whereas calling them a dick isn't like calling them "manly", unless you think an important (and negative) part of manliness is being a jerk. Well, I guess I will try to avoid misogynist language. (And I agree that it's probably more about girliness than physical softness.)

A lot of our insults seem to involve sexual and excretory bits. Are there languages where they don't?

It seems to me that to profanely call somebody a wimp, it makes more sense to attack their virility than their inherent masculinity. Thus limpdick or dickless would be traditional. It's possible, of course, to see dickless as referring to womanhood, but it seems more likely to me to refer to castration or impotence. Also a reference to the miniscule size of the wimp's testicles or their lack of function might be what you're looking for; balls frequently stands in for courage. Again, there's some inherent ... misogyny? At the very least stereotyping going on, with males being presumptively courageous and females normatively meek. But what can you do.

I should probably add that actual men with actual sexual disfunctions (of various kinds) are not unlikely to exhibit physical courage beyond the norm. A limp dick in the pants does not weaken the sword arm, and certainly does not keep the itch from the trigger finger. If you want to avoid that issue, you can go with the equally traditional imputations that the wimp urinates or defecates on himself in fear. There's also a recent (and somewhat ugly) meme of calling the fear-mongers who support Our Only President whiny-ass titty-babies, impugning not their masculinity but their maturity, portraying them as squalling for the security of their mother's breast.

As for your last question, many cultures/languages focus on blasphemy for their curses.


A lot of our insults seem to involve sexual and excretory bits. Are there languages where they don't?

Linguistics answer: It's culture-based, not language-based.

Digression: “Profane language” includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a “nuisance.”

So examples of profane language would be saying "subpoena" around the White House, or "President Clinton" around a winger, or "crimalien" around me.


This is, I think, the only profanity that I've become more sensitive to over the years, but only when it's used by white men and women to describe a woman. I think my increased sensitivity to it is almost entirely from how it's used by wingers, and primarily against Hillary. The word seems to express a truly venomous misogyny in that context, and has really corrupted what used to seem like a perfectly versatile way to describe certain people.

I cannot hear/read the word "dickless" without immediately thinking of this brilliant scene from Ghostbusters and chuckling. That the insulted character's name is "Walter Peck" makes the scene even funnier, of course. (And this provides us evidence that the word was well-used in this exact virility-insulting manner in 1984.)

This use of the word "wingers" is new to me, and these sentences become particularly odd with my normal parsing for the word (a deep-fried chicken-and-wings delivery chain around Philly).

Well, I admit it: I am the commenter above who always chuckles thinking of Dr. Peter Venkman saying "yes, it's true... this man has no dick", despite "dickless" being such an awful word that ABC famously replaced Dr. Ray Stantz's utterance of "dickless" with "Wally Wick" (WTF?!) and Venkman's line above with "yes, it's true... this man is some kind of rodent, I don't know which" (a castrated one, clearly).

Your LJ signin seems to be broken, you knucklehead :-)

Actually, when I saw Ghostbusters on TV, the lines were "Everything was fine until birdbrain here turned off the power grid" and "Yes, it's true. This man has the brain of a bird."

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