Thursday, September 20, 2012

A f**king swearfest

As mentioned a few weeks back, Lexicon Valley is a regular language podcast from Slate magazine. The latest edition is great if you're a fan of profanity, obscenity and vulgarity. And let's face it, if you aren't, you really should be, you dumb fu....sorry, getting carried away there. In this edition, the guest linguist is Geoff Nunberg who talks at length about the word asshole: where it comes from, what it means and who can be one.

He argues that a child can't be an asshole; only a person who knows better can be one. But what is an asshole? It appears to be a term applied to someone (almost always a man) who is arrogant, unpleasant, and showing an overblown sense of entitlement. Does it really have anything to do with the body part it refers to? Well, yes and no. And that's why the word is so interesting, because like so many other swear words, it appears to have slipped its mooring and drifted into completely new territory, referring to things it never used to.

But does it have the same meaning in the UK? To me, it seems to be a specifically American term and  - as this article makes clear - ass and arse aren't quite the same thing, meaning that asshole and arsehole aren't necessarily the same thing either. After all, why say asshole when you can say dickhead, which is a much more British word?

Anyway, swearing aside, the interview sheds plenty of light on how swearing is used, its roots in culture and society and people's attitudes to it. Go on. Don't be an asshole. Give it a listen.

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