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Category: swearing (page 1 of 2)

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

Talk the Talk: Retard

I don’t like the term ‘retard’ and won’t use it. But isn’t it possible that this is just another case of semantic shift? Have we successfully uncoupled the ‘loser’ sense of the word from the ‘intellectually disabled’ sense? Probably not yet, but in that case, how long is it going to take?

One-off show: Here
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Show notes: Here

Prescriptivism with attitude

A graphic from Facebook. Honestly, some people get so touchy about correct usage.

Better do what they say, though. Looks like the writer of this has been driven to the brink by one too many “your”s. One more dropped apostrophe, and they might snap.

Published papers that are giving me the fits right now

There are a few pieces of research that are giving me a bad case of skeptitis: an inflammation of the part of the brain that makes us skeptical. I’m not saying I have the expertise to refute these, but something about them doesn’t smell right, and that makes me feel twitchy. See if you don’t agree.

Number 1: More Facebook Friends Means Bigger Brain Areas, U.K. Study Finds

A strong correlation was found between the number of Facebook connections and the amount of gray matter, or brain tissue responsible for processing signals, according to research led by Geraint Rees, a senior clinical research fellow at University College London. The results, based on magnetic resonance imaging of 125 college students’ brains, was published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

This reminds me of Dunbar’s primate brain size hypothesis: Primates that have bigger brains have larger social networks. But I think this is meant to apply on the species level, not on the individual level. Sounds fishy.

Number 2: BYU study: Hearing profanity may lead to more aggressive acts

BYU researchers found that middle school students who watched TV and played video games with profanity were more likely to use profanity. And dropping swear words was in turn related to being physically violent and aggressive in how they treat others.

The results were published Monday in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics.

“It’s not like you hear profanity in the media and go and punch somebody. I think of it as a trickle-down effect,” said Sarah M. Coyne, a BYU assistant professor of family life and lead author of the study. “It represents a lack of respect for parents or whoever you’re using it towards. It’s like a slippery slope. You start using it, and it becomes associated with other aggression.”

This one sounds like a theory that your mom might make up, and the fact that this study comes out of the BYU doesn’t help the credibility. It’s very easy for someone to accept a conclusion when it’s something they already believe.

Does swearing really represent a lack of respect? Sometimes, but it could also be used to establish solidarity between people in a social setting. Does the study reflect that usage? How did this get past peer review? Is something broken at Pediatrics? What is an “assistant professor of family life”?

I don’t know if swearing leads to aggression, but I do know that junk science makes me want to jack someone in the gut.

Number 3: Origins of human language: They differently talked

“The man killed the bear” may seem like the obvious ‘right’ way to structure a sentence to an English speaker, but a linguistic duo suggests that the original human language did it differently, saying instead “The man the bear killed.” In a paper in a recent edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they dispute the assertion by some linguistics that the original human language was organized by Subject-Verb-Object, as English is.

Many comparative linguists believe that it’s simply not possible to know what languages were like further back than 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. But [Merritt] Ruhlen and [Murray] Gell-Mann believe it’s possible to make inferences about language going back much further, by studying the broad outlines of all the world’s languages.

It is possible to reconstruct past languages by looking at what current languages are like, and if you’re a historical linguist, this is the kind of thing you might do for languages from 1,000 or more years ago. But this gets harder to do the farther you go back, and by about 6,000 or 7,000 years, it’s awfully hard to separate the signal from the noise. Ruhlen and Gell-Mann are trying to go back perhaps 50,000 years, and tell us what the word order of Proto-World is like. This would be very hard to do.

Take a language family like Indo-European. Lots of languages are SVO (or Subject-Object-Verb), lots are SOV, and some have more or less free word order. It would be very difficult to select just one as the indisputably correct word order, and that’s for a language group that’s been well-studied and well-documented. Proto-World? That’s gotta be guesswork.

Am I off-base? Do any of these papers sound fine to you? Put it in comments.

Bonk this

Chickens, meet roost. Georgia passed a stringent anti-immigration law, and now they’re having trouble finding field workers.

Unless the cucumbers come off the vine soon, they will become engorged with seeds, making them unsellable. Mendez’s crew of Mexican and Guatemalan workers will keep harvesting until 6 p.m., maybe longer. Not so for the men participating in a new state-run program aimed at replacing the Latino migrants Georgia farmers say they’ve lost to a new immigration crackdown with unemployed probationers.

Schadenfreude is one thing, but the interesting part for me is this euphemism, said by one of the probationers:

“Those guys out here weren’t out there 30 minutes and they got the bucket and just threw them in the air and say, ‘Bonk this, I ain’t with this, I can’t do this,'” said Jermond Powell, a 33-year-old probationer. “They just left, took off across the field walking.”

While I’m willing to bet the guy didn’t say those exact words, it is a taboo avoidance I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard ‘screw this’ and ‘blow this’, but not ‘bonk this’.

Other expressions I haven’t heard:

  • Root this
  • Shag this
  • Intercourse this

Wait, I have heard that last one.

Victoria: Fine for swearing

What’s with the state of Victoria? They’re modifying their decades-old anti-profanity law so you can be fined on the spot.

The Victorian Government plans to introduce laws this week that will give police permanent power to issue on-the-spot fines to people who swear.

If I were fined for public swearing, I’d be fined twice, because the next thing I’d say is “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Under the proposed legislation, people could be fined close to $240 for language that is considered indecent or offensive.

Considered offensive by who? The local constable? The organist at church? Are ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ swearing? Is ‘bullshit’ on the shit list? What about racial terms of abuse that are offensive, but not actually profane? This opens up some tricky issues of definition, and more worryingly, controlling the language behaviour of the public.

And how are they going to enforce it? Oh, right. Ad hoc.

The Attorney-General, Robert Clark, confessed to a bit of colourful language himself yesterday. “Occasionally I mutter things under my breath, as probably everyone does,” he told ABC radio. “But this law is not targeted at that. It’s targeted at the sort of obnoxious, offensive behaviour in public that makes life unpleasant for everybody else.”

Well, swearing in public can be unpleasant, to be sure, but so can a lot of public activities, like farting or shirtlessness. Will they be illegal, too?

I don’t know, Victoria. Fining people for swearing is so Puritan. They used to bore a red-hot poker through your tongue for blasphemy, including profanity.

I’d say there’s an opportunity for some civil disobedience here. Could they fine everyone in a mass swear-in? What if we form a huge choir and sing Tim Minchin’s Pope Song? Or, if we don’t want to spend the money, we could taunt police by saying ‘Bloody crap! It’s hot today!’ The possibilities are many.

Talk the Talk Twofer: Google and Bing + Shit happens

Two Talk the Talk episodes have come down the pike today.

One is the “Google and Bing” story about dueling search engines and why being clever sometimes looks the same as being very stupid.

The other is about the phrase “shit happens“, which can get you into a lot of trouble if not handled correctly.

You can find older episodes on our Facebook page. Be sure to like us!

Thinking about Hitch

I’m no Hitchens, but since clomping about in his enormous rhetorical shoes on ‘Collision’ evening, I’ve been thinking about the guy. He’s published an article about his illness.

My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

And appeared for an interview with Anderson Cooper.

And since I’m now teaching The Swearing Class at UWA Extension, here’s a thought from Jeffrey Goldberg:

As for the few of you who wrote to Goldblog to say they were praying for Hitch’s death, I can say that he does not care one way or another what you do or think or pray, but on behalf of myself and the entire team here at The Atlantic, let me just say, Go fuck yourselves.

I concur. Who said profanity was in poor taste?

I’m pulling for you, Mr Hitchens.

Expletives may now fleet

Some taboo words are becoming more accepted, but it’s rare to find a definite point in time when this occurs. One appeared this week in the USA, as a federal appeals court struck down a rule concerning ‘fleeting expletives‘. Before this, TV networks could be fined if, say, Bono said ‘fuck’ on the air during an awards show (which he did). Now, the FCC will have a harder time making it stick.

The court said that policy on so-called fleeting expletives was “unconstitutionally vague” and created a “chilling effect” on the programming that broadcasters chose to air. The court echoed complaints from network executives that the FCC’s standards were nearly impossible to gauge, noting that the agency allowed the airing of the f-word and s-word in broadcasts of the World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan” but not in the PBS miniseries “The Blues.”

The FCC may appeal, but it looks unlikely; FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski hasn’t yet put profanity on the front burner.

So, for now, free speech: Fuck, yeah.

‘Prick’ is no longer offensive

It’s official.

Australian court clears student on offensive language charge

An Australian student who called a police officer a “prick” has been cleared of verbal abuse charges after a judge ruled that the word was in “common usage” and therefore not offensive.

Henry Grech insulted the senior constable during an argument at a Sydney railway station last year but the offensive language case against him fell apart after the magistrate said the word was in common use.

“I consider the word prick is of a less derogatory nature than other words and it is in common usage in this country,” Robbie Williams, the Waverley Local Court magistrate, told the court on Monday.

It’s not very nice to call a police officer a prick, but if we had a few more test cases like these, it could be useful to linguists in finding out what’s considered offensive and what’s not. What a judge finds offensive may not reflect public opinion perfectly, but it does have the seal of officialdom.

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