Frak! Has Your Mother Sold Her Mangle?
Language—even profanity—evolves faster than it can be regulated
MAY 22, 2014 by SARAH SKWIRE
I was all ready to write a column about Anthony Trollope, Francis Hodgson Burnett, and women’s property rights, when Brighton, Michigan, decided to start enforcing $200 fines against people who swear in public.
This was such a perfect demonstration of the extension of Skwire’s First Law from politicians to those who enforce the laws enacted by politicians that I had to shelve my original plans and devote this week’s column to the question of cussing. (Skwire’s First Law, by the way, cannot be stated in Brighton, Michigan, without incurring a fine. Suffice it to say that it addresses my opinion of politicians.)
What the fine law enforcement agents of Brighton are failing to consider, however, is that language is a Hayekian spontaneous order. That means language changes and evolves faster than it can be regulated.
Charles Mackay discusses the rapid evolution of nonsensical slang phrases in his book Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Though Mackay may have been too much of a gentleman to discuss actual profanity, he does record the speedy shifting of popular phrases of the day from “Quoz!” to “What a shocking bad hat!” to “Hookey Walker!” to what may be one of the earliest recorded “your mama” jokes, “Has your mother sold her mangle?” As Mackay notes, the inscrutability and the ephemerality of such slang insults drive their popularity. “Like all other earthly things, Quoz had its season, and passed away as suddenly as it arose, never again to be the pet and the idol of the populace. A new claimant drove it from its place, and held undisputed sway till, in its turn, it was hurled from its pre-eminence, and a successor appointed in its stead.”
My guess is that language—especially profanity—evolves even faster and more creatively in response to attempts to regulate it. W. C. Fields, for example, charmingly evaded rules about swearing in film with epithets like “Godfrey Daniels!” It’s still a fairly satisfying response when a small child steps painfully on one’s foot. In similar fashion and for similar reasons, smart kids have been using “shut the front door” and “see you next Tuesday” for ages.
In fact, it is my hope and expectation that the young skate rats and adolescent flaneurs of Brighton are, even now, innovating new curse words and resuscitating old ones in order to confound the cops and maintain the great teenage prerogative of insulting geezers in language they can’t understand.
To further that noble end, I have a few suggestions for areas where Brightonians might wish to focus their research.
Science fiction movies and literature have long been a productive source of alternate curse words. From Battlestar Galactica’s “frak” and “felgercarb” to Farscape’s “frell” and Firefly’s “gorram,” there are a host of useful and satisfying epithets to explore. The extensive and apparently very well-researched Chinese language cursing in Firefly also serves as a realm that the citizens of Brighton should explore.
Anyone who grew up in a multilingual household knows the utility of cursing in a language that most people around you can’t understand. I grew up learning the emphatic pleasures and subtle distinctions of Yiddish cursing, but friends give me to understand that—satisfying as shmendrick and shmeggege and paskudnyak are—other languages offer equally profane pleasures.
The past is a foreign country as well. They curse so differently there. My high school French teacher taught us curses from the pre-war era. So, to this day, I cause Gallic hilarity with my tendency to exclaim “Ma foi!” and “Zut alors!” when I am in France and incensed. But resuscitating earlier curses from English will work as well. Recall the episode of The Simpsons where Bart notes:
Bart: That ain't been popular since aught-six, dag-nab it!
Homer: What did I tell you?
Bart: No talking like a grizzled 1890s prospector. Consarn it.
This may be my favorite option, because I cannot keep myself from envisioning the perplexity among Brighton’s law enforcement agents when confronted by a populace who take their cusswords from The Scarlet Pimpernel. “Sink me! You can’t really intend to ticket me for that, can you? Zounds, you rogue!” Those wanting to explore this fertile source of filth will want to pay particular attention to the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Rabelais.
The difficulty with all the foregoing options, of course, is that if one is sufficiently unlucky, one may encounter an officer who is familiar with the obscure curses one has chosen. To evade this problem, I suggest a solution that has been popular with parents of young children since time began.
Curse Words That Aren’t
Titmouse. Ballcock. Christological. Zeugma. Fractional reserve. Bassinet.
And I will cheerfully pay the $200 fine for the first Brighton-area citizen who can show me a citation for having called a cop a “bilabial fricative.”