You’ve Got To Admit It’s Getting Bonkers

What an exciting time to be a language blogger.

From reading the transcripts of Trump interviews to an digging into an oral history of the ‘dumpster fire’ (linguistic and pictorial), there is a lot of material coming out of the political scene these days, language-wise, to chew on. Needless to say the language blogs are ON IT—here is an excerpt from a very thorough blog post about an on-air expletive from last night’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.” The political strategist Rick Wilson used the phrase “ripshit bonkers” to describe how Trump might “go” on Republican congressmen who abandoned their support of him. The language columnist, linguist, and lexicographer Ben Zimmer wrote:

I’d posit that rip (the) shit out of contributed more significantly to the formation of ripshit. (I acknowledge this is pure speculation, since the word wasn’t previously part of my idiolect, though it totally is now.) Rip the shit out of fits the construction “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something),” which I’ve discussed here in the past: see my posts on “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” and “I agreed the fuck out of it.” (There’s also scare/bore the shit out of, which, as Brendan O’Kane noted recently on Language Log, has generated the “fecal intensifiers” scared/bored shitless. I’ll return to that in another post.)

Strong Language is a language blog dedicated specifically to discussing swears. How dorky and perfect is that? I like it because I sure feel like I’ve been doing a fuckton more swearing than in past administrations. Four days prior, another Strong Language contributor, Nancy Friedman, dove even more deeply into a seemingly growing pile of shitshows she’s noticed piling up since January 20, 2017:

The origins of shit show or shitshow are, alas, murky. Although it sounds like an expression that might have been invented by Americans serving in World War II (like fubar) or Vietnam (like clusterfuck), shitshow appears not to be American in origin at all. The major U.S. dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, have not yet added it to their online word hoards. The online Collins Dictionary, based in the UK, received a reader-submitted “new word” entry for shit-show (yes, hyphenated) in 2012: “A chaotic, freewheeling state of affairs characterised by rampant disorder and the apparent absence of any thoughtful organization.” The OED added its own entry for the term (spelled shitshow) only within the last couple of years; it’s labeled “U.S. coarse slang” and defined as “a situation or state of affairs characterized by chaos, confusion, or incompetence; a mess, a shambles, a debacle.”

Over at Language Log, the OG lang-blog, tha god Mark Liberman looked into the age-old question “flipped off” or “flicked off?” (Just kidding—the real question is “who would ever say ‘flicked off’ on purpose?”) His jumping-off point is a tweet about Republican Darrell Issa’s rather rude response of a hand gesture to a reporter’s question about James Comey.

As Liberman writes, it’s like the “bu?? naked” case (where the answer is obviously butt, not buck).

Anyway I have found at least some comic relief in these little explorations into the way we use words to express how completely batshit the first 120 days of the Trump administration have been. The way some people gravitate towards math and numbers to make sense of the world, I gravitate towards words and their utter dissection, from etymology to spelling to pronunciation to usage. My biggest sporting event of the year, The Scripps National Spelling Bee, will be here in just 11 more days (the website has a counter). But what I will not stand for is the spreading of false facts. So I must insist on telling you that despite its perfect illustration with a Tim and Eric GIF, this tweet is sadly false:

Given how popular this tweet was, maybe this new apocryphal definition will just supplant the old! But “slang” is much older and more Scandinavian than you think. From the Online Etymology Dictionary (I couldn’t for the life of me track down the Liberman citation; please send it if you can):

1756, “special vocabulary of tramps or thieves,” later “jargon of a particular profession” (1801), of uncertain origin, the usual guess being that it is from a Scandinavian source, such as Norwegian slengenamn “nickname,” slengja kjeften “to abuse with words,” literally “to sling the jaw,” related to Old Norse slyngva “to sling.” But OED, while admitting “some approximation in sense,” discounts this connection based on “date and early associations.” Liberman also denies it, as well as any connection with French langue (or language or lingo). Rather, he derives it elaborately from an old slang word meaning “narrow piece of land,” itself of obscure origin. Century Dictionary says “there is no evidence to establish a Gipsy origin.” Sense of “very informal language characterized by vividness and novelty” first recorded 1818.
A word that ought to have survived is slangwhanger (1807, American English) “noisy or abusive talker or writer.”

Slangwhanger! I can think of quite a few. It’s fucking Friday. This week has been bonkers. Let yourself enjoy the sweary shit. It feels fucking great.