Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language Hardcover – Jul 5 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
If you find obscenity in print shocking, skip this review and stay away from Wajnryb's very objective—and entertaining—study of the etymology of taboo expressions. Australian linguist Wajnryb, a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, doesn't shy away from listing the most offensive English terms. Her wit and informal, anecdotal style are supported by a prodigious amount of research. According to Wajnryb, "cunt" is easily the most insulting word in English—whether applied to a man or a woman. The origins of "fuck" are shrouded in mystery (contrary to common belief, it is not Anglo-Saxon); since it's the most widely used curse word and can be employed as a noun, verb or adjective, the author says, it has recently lost some of its impact. Wajnryb points out that men curse, or are reputed to curse, more than women, and frequently designate female organs in a hostile manner intended to humiliate women. Wajnryb also examines blasphemy, utterances that derive their power from degrading religion. Especially interesting is the author's exploration of cross-cultural cursing. Even in Japan, where there are allegedly no taboo words, a closer examination uncovers a complex tongue in which insults are hidden in language that serves to enforce social rank. (July 13)
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Fans of the extravagantly profane HBO drama Deadwood now have a boon companion in Wajnryb, who will edify them on the finer points of swearing. And she also appears to have Al Swearengen's refined sense of humor; she opens each chapter with remarks from a famous historical figure (Michelangelo is attributed with the quote, "You want what on the fucking ceiling?"). Wajnryb notes the strong cultural taboos against profanity--even her fellow linguists have a longstanding aversion to investigating its history--and the existence of the language police in the form of an Illinois institute called the Cuss Control Academy and their futile efforts to clean up our vocabulary. She then launches into a detailed categorization, noting the differences between, for example, blasphemy, invective, and vulgarity. She observes that all cultures engage in swearing and analyzes their motivations for doing so, such as the need for letting off steam. She then discusses individual swear words in terms of their flexibility and historical context. In the words of Bono, who was duly fined by the FCC, it's "fucking brilliant." Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I would argue there is still something noble about that juvenile side of ourselves, however. I remember getting into arguments with my parents at a fairly young age over why some words were considered “dirty” while others weren’t. Why was it okay to say I had to “poop” but not okay to say I had to “s***”? Why was it okay for couples to have “intercourse” but not “f***?” I love my parents and both of them are pretty amazing people, but their answers never satisfied me. The concept of swearing or cussing just didn’t make sense. So my interest in cursing was more than just snickering with friends over the F-word in the dictionary or trying to test my parents’ patience. It was about words, what they mean, how they evolved, and understanding their power.
Ruth Wajnryb does an excellent job probing this issue. She highlights all of the most obvious offensive words (F-word, C-word, “blasphemy,” etc.). She examines the subtle differences between swearing, cursing, blasphemy, expletives, obscenity, and profanity (did you know they’re all technically different?). She focuses both on the individual words themselves and the cultures in which they arose. She discusses why we cuss and how different cultures cultivate their swearing.
The best part of the book is that–even as an accomplished linguist–Wajnryb pulls it off without making it read like a textbook. This is highly engaging, funny, and accessible to the lay reader. If ever you have longed to learn more about dirty words, now is your chance. Appease your inner child and learn something in the process.
This is the best book ever! I found this gem at a small book store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when dodging heavy rain. There she was, flirting with me. As a professional speaker, I often am challenged about the use of "bad language" in my workshops and speeches. Even more regularly, a participant will inform me that I am using words or phrases that often offend people yet they don't find themselves offended.
Language is fascinating and the building blocks of my career. I find myself making judgments and assumptions about particular campuses, participants, etc., on the walk from my rental car to the venue about how much "bad language" is appropriate or not. There are venues where I purposely carefully choose my words and others where I feel more comfortable speaking as I would normally. I don't use "bad language" to appeal to the younger crowd (yes, I have actually been asked this many times). I use "bad language" because that is how I talk, how many family spoke, and what I am used to doing when I want to express myself. The question is why? What makes good language good and bad language bad?
As Wajnryb states in the subtitle, Expletive Deleted is an in-depth review linguistically and anthropologically of the use of words throughout a mostly western historical perspective. I loved this book. Cussing, swearing, and blasphemy, are complicated characters in a humorous and dramatic soap opera involving the Catholic Church, wars, politics, and geography. I now know why the language I use is considered "bad" and feel even more justified in my word choices. :-) I will continue to monitor the impact of my language choices, AND giggle knowing that my words are themselves a form of activism.
Jessica Pettitt is the "diversity educator" your family warned you about. Through teaching, writing, and facilitating tough conversations, she has figured out how to BE the change she wants to BE. Now it is your turn!
As she travels around the country, you can catch up with Jessica on:
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