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Category: language (page 1 of 22)

Shitgibbon frequencies

Discussion in the linguistic world has been swirling of late around a set of peculiar sweary compounds like shitgibbon, wankpuffin, and jizztrumpet. Ben Zimmer reveals their history, Taylor Jones describes their construction, and Gretchen McColloch discusses their constraints. She also proposes the term shitgibbon compounds, which I think is smashing, and I’m going to use it here.

Shitgibbon compounds aren’t new; Arika Okrent pointed out in a recent episode of Talk the Talk that one such construction, scumbucket, has been popular since the 70s. It appears in print as early as 1976.

For this post, I’m showing the frequency of many possible shitgibbon compounds, measured in raw Google hits, as a way of getting an idea of their popularity. (See the drawbacks of this method here.) This might give us some ideas about what works and what doesn’t. I chose these parts because these are the ones most commonly mentioned in the aforementioned articles. (A note to anyone who wants to recheck these results: After 75 searches, Google asked me to confirm that I wasn’t a bot. It did it again after 150 searches.) Although I enclosed these terms in quotes, Google appeared to include versions with spaces and hyphens into the count.

Per Zimmer, each of these shitgibbons start with a monosyllabic sweary word, and the other two syllables are a trochee; a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable. Jones and McColloch point out that not every trochee works, though: ass-master is not an insult, and you can call me a cock-ninja anytime.

Here’s the chart. I’ve sorted the rows and columns by total frequency.

Let me make some observations along traditional the usual lines.


Swear words in English appear to have a strong tendency to end in a stop. This puts some constraints on what kind of trochee is likely to follow. Trochees that start with a stop (these are sounds like /p/, /b/, /t/, /k/, and so on) are the least popular, staying largely at the bottom of the chart (except bucket). Trochees that start with a nasal or with /w/ are popular. Something striking: no fricatives (except /w/)Carrie reminds me that /w/ isn’t a fricative, so no fricatives.

Going along with McColloch, it looks like similar consonants don’t play well together. These are unpopular:

  • pisspuffin
  • cockcanoe
  • wankweasel

Additionally, having the swear end with the same sound as the trochee seems to be a no-no. Not very frequent:

  • twattrumpet
  • cunttrumpet
  • (but note the popularity of shittrumpet)

Having two of the same vowel is great.

  • twatwaffle
  • shitgibbon
  • fucktrumpet
  • fuckbucket
  • fucknugget (especially notable when –nugget doesn’t go with much else)
  • cockwaffle
  • cockwomble
  • (however very few examples of scumtrumpet)


Some of these shitgibbons appear to be lexicalising. Fartknocker was popularised as an insult by Beavis and Butthead, so it’s had a headstart. Same with douchecanoe, often used on the net and popular despite canoe not being a trochee.

For the well-publicised ones (cockwomble, jizztrumpet, wankpuffin, and of course shitgibbon), some of the hits seem to be part of the discussion around these terms.


With the evident lack of popularity for trochees that begin with a stop, how do we explain the popularity of bucket? Bucket goes well with excretions that you might actually keep in a bucket (jizz-, spunk-, shit- — though strangely not piss-)

Some of these appear not to be insults, but as something else, and this might be adding to their count.

  • fartnugget – the result of a really severe shart
  • douchenozzle – they really do have nozzles

The trochee waffle is popular across the board, and I think this might be because waffle is a funny sort of word. So is bucket. But wombles are funny, and yet not widely taken up, with the exception of cockwomble.

Which raises a question: The fuck’s a womble?

A womble is a fictional animal that picks up rubbish. Animals are good, the siller the better.

  • weasel
  • puffin
  • gibbon

Perhaps we should expect to see the appearance of lemur, but its spelling makes it difficult to find the boundary between swear and trochee. Spot the boundary on these:

  • shitlemur
  • fucklemur
  • jizzlemur
  • cocklemur, which my computer wants to correct to cocklebur

Hyphens and spaces might help lemur join the ranks of sweary animals.

Let me know what you think about this chart, or if there’s anything obvious I should have included. My email is

Daniel font rundown

Loads of creative people are using my typefaces, and I love to give shout-outs. So here’s the latest.

• First up, Mark has a great blog and YouTube channel about language, called “The Endless Knot”. He breaks down the origins of English words in a way that’s fascinating and easy to watch. And what’s he using? Why, it’s Du Bellay, the weathered and antique font with the renaissance feel.

Looks great; makes you smarter. What’s not to love?

• Next, it’s Jenifer Brady, the author of Camp Spirit Fiction. She’s used the Daniel font on her website and books, and it gives it a campsite feel. Sit up close and smell the smores!

• There’s a new game that makes extensive use of the Daniel font. It’s called Pigments, and it gives you a chance to play with colour mixing. I love the papery feel. And look at that logo!

• Sirade is working on some manga. The blog is here. Keep going, Sirade!

• And finally, James has used the Daniel font in the logo for his website ‘Mind‘, and it’s looking quite sharp.

Thanks to everyone for using my work! It’s very encouraging. You can download these fonts for free on the Page of Fontery. If you make something cool, send me a link.

Extra Talk the Talk banter

I always upload Talk the Talk episodes on Tuesday morning, but today I decided to have a chat with the smooth-voiced James Hall of RTRfm. He had a question about hyphens. So here’s the clip.

Your browser does not support this audio

Talk the Talk: Esperanto

I’ve never been an Esperantist, but ever since finding out about Esperanto at a young age, I’ve always kind of wondered about it. So this was a good chance to find out more. Will it ever take over the world? Or will it fizzle out? My prediction would be fizzle as lots of minority languages are losing ground, but at this stage in history it looks robust.

Many people emailed me about selfie becoming Oxford Dictionaries Online’s Word of the Year. I just think it’s cool that a) this is an Australian word, and b) we can trace it back so far. But we still don’t know who the ABC poster ‘Hopey’ is. Hopey, if you’re out there, get in touch with us! We want to know how you heard the word.

And here’s my favourite selfie. Because cheeky.

One-off show: Here

Show tunes:

‘Because Before 2’ by Ulf Lohmann
from the album Because Before

No video, but check out this cool player. We played Track 2, but you might like the whole thing.

‘Free of This World’ by Guided by Voices
from the album The Best Of Jill Hives

Also no video, but listen at the Juno Records site. It’s track 2.

School bans texting at breaks

Most school administrators are doing a great job, and are generally motivated by concern for their students. But this concern sometimes makes them do silly things. Like this:

School bans phones at breaks

Prestigious girls’ school Penrhos College has banned students from using mobile phones during their lunch and recess breaks because of concerns students are losing the art of conversation.

Principal Meg Melville said, even though girls were sitting in groups during breaks, teachers had become aware students were texting their friends instead of talking to each other.

“We decided we wanted to really encourage them during their break times at school to have conversations with one another, face-to-face,” she said.

Mrs Melville said technology was embedded in the curriculum and mobile phones had become an important part of that.

But it was just as important for students to develop conversation skills such as understanding the nuances conveyed by people’s reactions and body language.

“You can gauge how a conversation is going by looking at the way people are responding – you can’t do that in texting,” she said.

Schools can make their own phone policy — that’s valid. But here’s what I think is wrong with this.

First, electronic communication is still communication. I don’t know why people think it’s not valid, or needs to be restricted.

Second, we don’t have to worry that young people will somehow become unable to read people’s reactions and facial expressions. Human brains have been good at doing this for 200,000 years, and someone’s not going to lose that ability if they text on a phone for fifteen minutes a day. (Or, if they are going to lose it, they’re not going to get it back by having an extra 15 minutes of face-to-face.) Is f2f important? Sure, but they’re already getting some from their teachers and friends at school — their teachers are doing a great job at that.

There is no empirical evidence to show that texting makes people worse at reading facial expressions, at least not that I could find with diligent searching. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that digital communication (including texting) correlates well with literacy, including spelling.

Finally, while these educators are trying to help kids communicate, this won’t do it. They’re simply banning a form of communication (in writing, nonetheless), and then assuming that whatever’s left over will be the right sort of communication. That’s not how it works. If they’re serious about teaching communication — which is a laudable goal — then they’re going to need to do some modelling, with examples of the kind of conversation they want to see. I’d definitely get behind a programme like that; hell, I’d help them write it. But banning phones? An irrelevant distraction.

I’ll tell you what’s going on here. This is adults looking at kids with new technology, and thinking, “Oh, I don’t like that.” It’s bringing all their preconceptions to the front. And why do they have these preconceptions about texting? Unfortunately, a lot of adults are of the opinion that young people are kind of dumb. (And some of them maybe are, but I think they’re smarter than we give them credit for — and that’s true of most people.) Then they try to figure out why they’re dumb, and they leap on the first answer they can find: it’s those damn phones! Adults routinely blame texting for turning kids into morons, just like they used to blame television, comic books, and the fountain pen.

So let me be the voice of reason here: Smartphones are not some scary magical brain-draining thing. They’re getting students to communicate in writing like they never did a generation ago. Schools can and should have policies about their use, but these policies can be informed by data, and not by irrational fears.

When do you really use ‘who’ and ‘whom’?

The Oatmeal has made a cartoon about when (and why) to use who and whom. This is not his first foray into grammar; he’s got a number of others. This one’s funny, and I like his examples.

Who/whom did you invite to this FABULOUS Slip ‘n’ Slide ‘n’ Mayonnaise party?

He also points out that we sometimes use the faintly archaic word whom if we want to be fancy. Couldn’t agree more. I’d say that’s a major reason for using whom these days.

But there’s something about this cartoon that’s a bit off, and I thought I’d comment.

Why do we have grammar?

Or rather, why do languages have grammar? A linguist sees grammar a little differently than most people. For a linguist, a grammar is a way of explaining how the parts of language fit together — how words get built up into sentences, and how the parts of words attach. A grammar is a description of the patterns that speakers use. People don’t use these patterns to be polite, or correct, or to maintain the social order. They do it because without arranging words into orderly patterns, too would to the be interpret sentences hard. Sorry! I meant that ‘the sentences would be too hard to interpret’.

And there’s a really interesting fact about the grammar of a language: it’s mostly unconscious to its users. Consider the way we use the 3rd person singular -s:

I eat.
You eat.
He eats.
She eats.
It eats.
We eat.
They eat.

You might not have thought about what that little -s is doing, and that’s my point: you don’t have to. Over and over again throughout your life, you’ve used it correctly without even thinking, never getting it wrong (except for slips of the tongue). That’s your internalised grammar of English at work.

Now to the cartoon.

In explaining who and whom, the Oatmeal has decided to start with an explanation of subject and object. This is kind of tricky for grammar n00bs, but he’s got some great examples, and if you’re fuzzy on the difference, you should check it out.

So the explanation goes: if your who (whoever it is) is the subject of its sentence, use who; if it’s the object, use whom.

The Oatmeal even gives a mnemonic:

If you can say that he does it, it’s who
He punched you. Who punched you?
If you can answer that question with him, use whom
You punched him. Whom did you punch?

Good in theory.

The problem is that in practice, English speakers use who instead of whom all the time. These are all okay:

Who did you give the present to?
Whom did you give the present to?
or perhaps To whom did you give the present?

though that last one is a bit grand for everyday conversation. And the Oatmeal says as much in the cartoon.

But here’s the thing: it works the other way, too. People use whom even when it’s the subject of the sentence. I took a look through a corpus — a body of language data. I used, which gives you lovely charts like this:

Click to enlarge.

This is part of the chart that you get when you search for whom, and you’ll see that whom appears in blue, right down the middle column for each sentence. You’ll also find that the words that appear nearby are coloured by part of speech (nouns, verbs, and so on). Here’s the funny part: if you hunt around through these sentences, you can actually find lots of examples where the writer has used whom, even though it’s the subject. Here are some:

yes , the economy goes up and down , but whom do you think is going to protect you the most ?

Who will protect you? He will (not him will), so by the Oatmeal rule, it’s a subject and it should be who. Nope, it’s in the corpus as whom.

mother ‘s harsh stares and accusations . He , a man whom I later found out had not one drop of blood running through

Who didn’t have one drop of blood running through something-or-other? He didn’t (not him didn’t), so it should be who, but again, here it’s whom.

patient probably had hostile wishes toward her older brother , whom she felt was always her mother ‘s favorite child .

Who did she feel was the favourite child? She felt he was, not him was, so it should be who, but it’s not.

And on and on.

Now you could say, well, these writers are getting it wrong. Maybe. And this is my point. Doesn’t the fact that native English speakers don’t obey the subject/object rule indicate that the who/whom distinction is not really a thing that English speakers are doing? Remember our -s example. No one has to sit down and make cartoons explaining that we say ‘I eat’ but ‘she eats’. It’s automatic. Who and whom isn’t.

The classic case of who/whom swapping is “Whom shall I say is calling?”

He is calling.
Him is calling. ???

Obviously he sounds better, so people should really say “Who shall I say is calling?” And yet if you look through Google Ngram Viewer, you can see that people have been conflating the two for the better part of a hundred years. The subject/object rule isn’t explaining the data.

So when should you use whom?

Let’s go back to the blue chart again. According to the data, there’s a really obvious indicator of whom. Look at the word just before whom, and see what colour it’s painted.

A lot of these words are in yellow, and that’s the colour they use for prepositions. There’s by whom, for whom, to whom, of whom, with whom, and even against whom. When you say that, doesn’t that just sound right? Kind of natural? That’s a sign to you that this is a real pattern in English that you’ve internalised.

So my rule would be: after a preposition, use whom. In other cases, use what sounds good. Using who is always okay, but you can use whom if you want to impress. The Oatmeal would surely approve.

Don’t call it religion.

It seems that religious people are fleeing the word ‘religion’.

Sociologists say we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life, but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular.

We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.” We talk about what ”the Gospel compels us to do” or “gospel living.” Or “sabbatical living” and “God-oriented behavior.”

No wonder the word is poison. Religion’s characteristic blend of narrow-minded dogma, superstition, sexual busybodyism, and hypocrisy has rightly made it toxic, especially to younger people.

Polling shows that young Americans are considerably less apt to have religious affiliations than earlier generations were at the same age. They attend religious services less often and fewer of them say religion is important in their lives.

I think this thesaurus-trawling is merely cosmetic. Call Christianity a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ if you want, it’s still a religion. As one interviewee says:

“The bottom line is: Christianity is a religion. You can’t get away from it,” he said. “If it walks like a duck, with doctrines, dogma, structures, everything a religion has, it’s a duck.”

The article’s pretty critical of religion, but one criticism goes untouched: Religion is a very poor way of reasoning and understanding the world. It relies on confirmation bias and evidence mining. It places preconceptions higher than facts. And this is true, not just of religion, but of all the other things that religious people are making lateral moves toward; supernaturalism, spirituality, god-oriented behaviour (how long before we hear GOB?), call it what you will.

Different name, same tactics. This ploy to alter the language of religion is a transparent semantic dodge.

Talk the Talk: The Longest Word

For some reason, the other kids at my school thought you were smart if you could spell. And the ultra-hardest word was ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It was my ticket to fame, and all I had to do was spell one word.

My dad, for his part, once read somewhere that people with bigger vocabularies got paid more, and so encouraged me to learn lots of words so I’d make more money. A classic case of mistaking correlation and causation, I’m afraid. But it did start me building my empire of language podcasting and world domination, so maybe Dad was onto something there. Anyway, he thought the longest word was ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’. It’s either not the longest, or not a word, but what is? All will be answered in this week’s podcast.

There’s also something about the longest word in German, which Ben liked.

The offer stands: If you think you can pronounce any of the words in this podcast better than I can, make a video and post it!

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Show tunes:

‘Schaufensterpuppen’ by Kraftwerk
from the album Trans-Europa Express

‘Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’ by Outkast
from the album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik

Talk the Talk: GIF

I’ve always called it a GIF (like ‘gift’ but with no ‘t’). That’s the only way I’ve ever heard it — on two continents, no less. But I’m aware that some people call it a ‘jif’. I guess I don’t move in those circles. But I can accept that both are okay because, hey, I can accept the validity of things I don’t actually do. What a concept!

Seriously, isn’t it weird that intelligent people can accept other people’s right to do things they don’t do themselves — eat meat, have threesomes, wear plaid — but when it comes to language, they’re like “ERADICATE THE DEVIATORS!”

Anyway, this show’s about GIF, and it’s a fun one. We even strap into the time machine and find out about the letter G.

And if that’s not enough, there’s even a blooper from today’s show.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Show tunes:

‘Gigantic’ by the Pixies
from the album Surfer Rosa

‘Gila’ by Beach House
from the album Devotion

Talk the Talk: Navajo

As language preservation efforts go, I think this one’s a keeper. Star Wars is getting the Navajo treatment. Or should I say Diné? because that’s what its speakers call it.

But there’s something even better than Star Wars — there’s also verbs. Yeah, there’s some really intense verb stuff going on. And then to round everything out, I bring up the Code Talkers. A fun show.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: HereShow tunes:

‘El Caminos in the West’ by Grandaddy
from the album Sumday

‘Western Eyes’ by Portishead
from the album Portishead

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