Insults, Profanity, and Metaphor

Laurie and Debbie say:

Lindsay Beyerstein at Majikthise is talking about sexual metaphors and profanity.

One interesting thing about “swear words” is that they’re conventionalized. You can’t paraphrase expletives, except by substituting a culturally approved euphemism. For example, you can’t use “sexual congress” in place of “fuck” in real swearing situations. “Screw you!” will work as a substitute for “Fuck you!”, but “Get laid!” just won’t get your point across.

Only certain words can be used to telegraph that kind of raw emotion. Kids are very interested in figuring out exactly which words are on the list. Do you remember intense debates on the playground whether some racy word was “a swear” or not?

This reminded us of an interesting post from a couple of months ago by Chameleon at Redemption Blues, about the evolution of language describing the human body.

Chameleon starts with new words being added to the British Chambers Dictionary, including “bingo wings” to describe a flap of loose skin in the upper arms, and “muffin top” to refer to a roll of fat that hangs over a waistline.

“Every time we create a new edition we get a snapshot of how the world has changed in the three years since we last did it,’ says Ian Brookes, editor of the Chambers Dictionary. Of the 500 new words that will make it into the dictionary in two weeks’ time, unsurprisingly the majority come from technology … but a significant number focus on our obsession with physical appearance. ‘It is particularly noticeable,’ says Brookes, ‘because it is not an area where you always expect new words to come from. It certainly reflects out ideals of beauty’”.

As the main burden of maintaining a physique as close to the “perfect” as possible falls upon women, the bulk of the new vocabulary (the distillate of social disapproval) applies to them: “Brookes’ team of lexicographers scour publications looking for repeated examples of new words or phrases. Some magazines have made an art form of circling celebrities’ flaws and coming up with ever more cruel ways of describing them.”

Thinking about these two posts together leads inexorably to thinking about how body epithets are used, and whether or not they fall into the metaphoric area that Lindsay discusses:

Some abusive taboo words function more as similes than others. “Bastard” used to be tied to the stigma of illegitimacy, but not any more. … “Idiot” used to be a direct allusion to mental retardation. Nowadays, most people consider it an interesting bit of trivia that the term was originally a legitimate medical classification for developmental disability. …

Maybe taboo words have a life-cycle. They start out as ordinary words for taboo things. For whatever reason, some of them get picked up and conventionalized as expletives and/or terms of personal abuse. As language and norms change, the insulting connotation can remain long after the original taboo has eased.

In case you think Lindsay isn’t on to something here, spend a little while Googling what happened after Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) used the “n-word” in a racist tirade in reaction to black hecklers during a stand-up comedy act at an L.A. Club. While just about everyone agrees that this was inexcusable (and Richards has apologized), no two African-American blogs agree on the importance or the implications of the use of the word, which says to us that the n-word is clearly in transition in some contexts, while still retaining its profoundly painful power in other contexts.

What ties all this together for us is thinking about body image insults. Interestingly enough, we can’t think of any that have actually become swear words: while there are hundreds of critical ways to describe the human body, many of them describing or implying fat, none of them are things your work site will block from your email or your teacher will send you to the principal for saying.

At the same time, none of them have reached the generalized metaphor stage either: “you’re fat,” or “you’re a whale/cow/pig” or “fatso” or “fatty” all refer specifically to your body. We’ve heard them directed at extremely thin people, but nonetheless they are about size, weight, taking up space. (Hip-hop’s “phat,” a compliment frequently directed to the quality of a piece of music or other entertainment, does not seem to have generalized to a body size compliment. As far as we know, “phat” and “fat” are still two words with different connotations.)

If this all pulls together to mean anything, it might be that insults become swear words only if they have sexual or scatological context (religious context used to be in there too, but it seems to have slipped away), and they become generalized when what they refer to is no longer culturally central, as with Lindsay’s comments on “bastard” and “idiot” above. So when we start hearing “fat cow” used to describe someone’s driving, or irritation level, maybe the new dictionary words won’t be about ugliness any more, but about whatever else the society focuses on to take the place of appearance.

Edited to add: Because of the craziness of the holiday season, we won’t be doing our second radio show in December. We’ll return in January with at least two shows. Meanwhile, we encourage you to listen to the podcast of the first show by clicking the button on the upper right-hand column of this weblog or by going here.

insult, profanity, swearing, fat, n-word, body image, language, Body Impolitic

7 thoughts on “Insults, Profanity, and Metaphor

  1. Calling someone “fatty” will get you in big, big trouble at elementary schools around here, at least in kindergarten through second grade. Principal’s office for sure. They are forbidden to say the s-word or the f-word: “stupid” and “fat”.

  2. I wish that more people were doing work with children on body image & fat acceptance & raising children to own “fat”, so that that particular word would have no more meaning than “you have blue eyes”. If someone tells me I am fat, I can simply say, “yes, you are right, I am fat”, & move on. As for stupid, I think it is always insulting & unkind to say that to anyone.

    It is, however, a good sign that kids are sent to the principal’s office for insulting someone about body size. It used to be that the usual adult reaction was something like, “Well, if you just didn’t eat so much &/or lost some weight, he wouldn’t be able to say such things to you.”

    When I was a child, I was only mildly plump, but I was the only kid in school with a visible disability. I was “weirdo/nerd/freak”, “cripple” (a word which is still a strong trigger for me), “Hopalong Cassidy”, &, from one boy in high school to whom the word “stupid” might be a compliment, “Fat ugly crippled four-eyed freak.” No one was ever sent to the principal’s office or punished in any way for treating me the way 90% of my classmates did all through school. The burden of the shame & the belief that was I was all the things I was called fell squarely on me.

  3. Once upon a time, in my grandparents’ time and earlier, the word “Jew” was so much used to insult (by Father Coughlin, etc) that it lost its value as a neutral descriptive label. Kids weren’t allowed to say it on well-supervised playgrounds, just as today they aren’t allowed to say “fat” or “retarded.” In my grandparents’ youth, the polite term for “Jew” was “person of the Hebrew faith,” and the “Union of American Hebrew Congregations” was recognizable as having been named during that time. The UAHC was renamed recently, by American Jews uncomfortable with even the hint of inherited stigma clinging to the name.

    On the well-supervised playgrounds of today, there doesn’t seem to be a non-derogatory way to talk about fat. (My witness for most of this is 6.) It’s obviously something derogatory that kids aren’t allowed to talk about where supervising adults can hear. It’s not a secret that some people are fat–it’s really obvious to everybody. And some adults talk about it all the time, either talking about their own weight, or other people’s. Kids just learn it’s an unspeakable topic.

  4. A couple of friends and I were talking, and started to wonder about the origins of cuss symbols – such as the middelfinger. I have searched on the web but could find nothing to answer my question; Maybe someone can help me out?

  5. Nixie,

    I don’t know if this is true. I was told that it was originally extended horizontally to ward off the evil eye.

    If this is true, and it turned vertical and changed meaning, there’s a nice conversation there about metaphor.

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