Words & Stuff

III: Don't Put It in Your Mouth

(23 April 2000)

[Warning: This column contains various words generally considered not suitable for polite company. I won't tell if you won't. A couple months ago, I wrote that I wanted to try to "keep this column from descending entirely into the gutter"; what with that last column and this one, I seem to have given up on that attempt entirely.]

Many writers have gone to great lengths to avoid using the word "fuck" in print. One story took the option of simply leaving out all overtly sexual words -- you could tell what word was missing from context. Robert Anton Wilson, in one book, replaced all overtly sexual words with the names of anti-pornography public figures (as in "He stroked his Potter Stewart as he looked at her firm round Brownmillers"); again, there was never any doubt about what the intended words were. Norman Mailer apparently used the word "fug" in place of "fuck" (prompting Tallulah Bankhead, on meeting him at a party, to allegedly say, "So you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell 'fuck'!") And Dashiell Hammet used this elegant device to sidestep the word while retaining the coarseness of the phrase:

"The boy spoke two words, the first a short guttural verb, the second 'you.'"
The Maltese Falcon, p. 98

A lot of humor depends on making the listener think of off-color words without actually saying them. This approach appears in a couple of sports cheers, for instance; I'm told that when UW (the Huskies) once played the University of Oregon (whose mascot was a duck), they used this cheer:

You've got a husky, we've got a duck;
Put 'em on the floor and watch them -- fight!

And then there's:

Rah rah ree,
Kick 'em in the knee!
Rah rah rass [or Rah rah resticles],
Kick 'em in the other knee!

(To which Josh Smith responds:

Rah rah rass,
Kick 'em in the ass!
Rah rah ree,
Kick 'em in the other ass!)

That one always reminds me of a somewhat more explicitly off-color cheer, allegedly for a sports team from Norfolk, Virginia:

We don't smoke!
We don't drink!
Norfolk!

Another little verse that always comes to mind in this context is a parody of a few lines from the song "I Want Your Sex":

Sex is natural, sex is good;
Not everybody does it, but everybody...
talks about it.

There are plenty of jokes that suggest off-color words and then present clean answers, such as "What word starts with f and ends with uck?" (The answer is firetruck.) And "What goes in hard and comes out soft and sticky?" (Bubble gum.) Such riddles have long been the hallmark of the Turtles, an international society of clean-minded people. All Turtles are assumed to own donkeys, so when a Turtle is asked "Are you a Turtle?" he or she is required to respond "You bet your ass I am!" or else buy drinks for everyone within earshot. A perhaps-apocryphal story claims that Mission Control once asked one of the astronauts "Are you a Turtle?" during a space mission that was being broadcast live across the world....

Opus Maledictorum quotes this graffito:

I told him how to do it, how to hold his lips just so.
I told him to be ready when I gave the signal go.
He tried his best to please me, and he did as he was told.
But it's hard to learn to whistle, when you're only three years old.

Such jokes are sometimes taken a step further, as in the old story of the young man who comes back from college and tells his father a riddle: "What's long and hard and leaks?" The father is a bit distressed, but the student says, "It's okay, the answer is a fountain pen." The father is amused, and repeats the joke -- to his wife's bridge club. "What's long and hard and leaks?" The ladies all look shocked, so he hastens to reassure them: "It's all right, ladies, it's not a prick, it's a fountain pen."

On another off-color topic, the best sophomoric-humor game I've seen in a while consists of taking quotes from Star Wars and replacing key words with the word "pants." (Sometimes you have to change the wording a little to be grammatical.) For example:

Of course, you can do the same thing with lines from the other Star Wars movies, and even the novelization:

And with lines from Star Trek:

And Babylon 5:

Very silly. But somehow these tickle my funnybone, especially the Star Wars ones.


Thanks to Alex Weirich for the line from the Star Wars book. The "Sex is natural" line was written (or else quoted) by someone named Suma. The column's title is from an Uncle Bonsai song about advice your mother gives you, "[not] when you're ... going away to college, but when you're a child, to keep you from bodily harm."


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>