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War You, Buddy

by on December 13, 2014

                                                                  War You, Buddy

                                                                by Marco M. Pardi

Note: All comments are appreciated, read, and responded to accordingly.  The COMMENTS sections for all previous articles have been opened for use.  I will certainly look forward to your comments. 

“Dialect tempered with slang is an admirable medium of communication between persons who have nothing to say and persons who would not care for anything properly said.” Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Ponkapog Papers, 1903

When I was a child my friends, few though they were, favored a game in which a word was quickly repeated until it lost all meaning.  Don’t remember that game?  My friends were odd.

A related phenomenon is that in which a morpheme (word) acquires such social valence as to appear in contexts seemingly far from its original intent.  And, words often convey feelings mismatched with the images they evoke.  On a recent trip I listened to a federal officer along the Arizona-Mexico border crow over the capture of a person whom he had pursued with the blinkered single-mindedness of a heat seeking penis.  He said he was “happy as a dead pig in sunshine.”  Asked how a dead pig could be happy, he said “it is if it’s in sunshine.”

That words are intended to evoke imagery, and associated feelings was exemplified by the rapid metastasis of those insipid “Baby on Board” placards in car windows.  My daughter passed infancy before their appearance; mine would have read “RPG on Board”.

Unlike Latin, an almost uniquely concise language to which I devoted years in learning, English is rife with words and sayings which rely, for their efficacy, on a deep understanding of what is meant as opposed to what is said.  And, even that meaning is usually not intended to be probed too deeply.  For example, in learning English and its usage I wondered at the meaning of referring to someone as “a drip”.  Socially acceptable, even passing the media censorship of the 1950’s, it originally referred to post ejaculatory leakage from the penis, meaning a person was formed from leftovers and not the main course.  Some would counter that it referred to the annoying sound of a leaky faucet but the associated saying, “The best part of you ran down your daddy’s leg” put that nicety to rest.  In the same way as drip settled into polite parlance,  so too did SNAFU; Situation Normal: All Fucked Up, an acronym emerging from the 1940’s military.  The use of the acronym as a morpheme was acceptable; the full enunciation of its meaning was not.  It was assumed the listener knew the meaning without “having it spelled out”.       

Thus,  in linguistic exchanges wherein being specific violates a social code but we feel the need to evoke the image, we have references to words: “N word”; “F word”, and so on.  Because this blog has readers in many countries, and therefore language venues, I will clarify that “N word” refers to the word “nigger”, a simple bastardization of the Latin based negro, or black, a term which still appears in Romance languages albeit with various pronunciations.  That its use, especially derivative forms such as nigger, is socially restricted became obvious from my years of hearing it from Black patients using it as a term of reference to each other while I could not; nor would I have wanted to.

The “F word”, or “F bomb” as it is now commonly called, refers to one of the most flexible and adaptive words in English: Fuck.  Appearing as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and other forms, it may also, if the ubiquitous drug ads are valid, be – Oh Heavens! – a dangling participle.  Indeed, one could spend those much touted 4 hours we are warned of pondering the active vs. passive, the past perfect vs. the past imperfect and so on. 

Derivatives of this word, intended to allow the speaker to evoke the image without violating the social contract against open use,  include such terms as “freakin'”.  Everyone deceived by the word freakin’, raise your hand.  This briefly and partially replaced the idiotic terms “sleeping with” and “making love”, perhaps intended to allay the often violent subtext inherent in the use of “fuck”.  That “fuck” continues to spread into commonly acceptable parlance, albeit by wink and nod subterfuge, is evidenced by the increased incidence of WTF and MILF in mainstream media.  I doubt anyone renders those acronyms as What The Freak or Moms I’d Love to Freak. But I wander.

Several hypotheses suggest the etymology of the word fuck;  I prefer the Germanic pflugen, a similarly flexible word which can mean plow, furrow, plow a furrow and several related images.  Interestingly, just as agricultural plowing is seasonal, there seems to be a seasonal link to fucking.  Kevin Bakker and Micaela Martinez-Bakker, researchers at University of Michigan, recently tabulated “Nations by most popular birth month”.  Among the results were:  Norway – May; Sudan -June; United States (North) – July; Japan – August; United States (South) – September; Colombia – October; Panama – November;  and Bangladesh – December.  Ah, this evokes an image of astrology enthusiasts attempting to reprise the grievously flawed National Character Studies popularized by Ruth Benedict.  No need to ask a person’s “sign” when traveling; just reference the country.  

Another term which is broadening to the point of meaninglessness is War.  As time distanced sensitivities to World Wars I and II the word war appeared in new contexts.  We found ourselves in a War on Poverty, War on Heart Disease, War on Cancer, and a variety of other causes bringing us most recently to a War on Terrorism.  While it could be said that there were valid targets in most of those applications War on Terrorism is ipso facto idiotic and simplistic.  Terrorism is a tactic, or tool.  Declaring war on it is like declaring war on guns, not on the criminals using them.

As is so often the case, the concept war and its justifications have been enlisted in covert agendas.  Karen Armstrong,  in her recent book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,  reminds us that despite the currently popular Western meme of religions being the greatest cause of war,  the actual casus belli underlying most such events is access to resources.  For example, the Albigensian Crusade (Albi – the town and region in southern France; Gens – Latin – “people”) was veiled in dogmatic differences, Cathar (Gnostic) versus the dictatorship of the Imperial Roman Catholic Church.  The Gnostics rejected the need for priests, bishops, etc and were therefore a threat to the emerging “Holy Roman Empire”.  In fact, the war, in which pacifist Cathar populations of men, women and children were burned alive was prosecuted by the French under the auspices of the church, because the French wanted the rich agricultural regions of southern France.  The other Crusades, waged ostensibly to “retake the Holy Land”, were in fact wars of area denial, attempting to retain European hegemony over the rich trade routes to the Far East.  Meme: religion. Casus belli: politics/economics/power.   In the same way, the 20th century insertion of a “Jewish Homeland” (Israel) into the heart of the Muslim Levant was a religiously veiled ploy to ensure the regional instability which would allow oil companies to raise prices every time Abdul got his keffiyeh in a bunch.  From its inception, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was the most efficient and effective Intelligence Agency the world had ever seen, embarking on missionary exploits while compiling and transmitting social and economic country data that became the model for the modern CIA Fact Book.  While politicians and, to a lesser degree military commanders may invoke religious overtones in wars,  the facts on the ground speak otherwise.  Infusion of religious themes into warfare is a tried and effective means of enlisting simple minded cannon fodder, or Canon fodder as the case may be.

I should say here that I am not reflexively anti-war.  I was born in war.  I have voluntarily participated in war, and would do so again.  There are people who would harm and kill you, no matter the emblems on their banners or the chants or prayers they utter.  And, while it’s more messy at times, I personally prefer face to face over video game-like drone strikes.  

And so, when it comes to expressing an aggressive dismissive toward someone, I find it odd to say “Fuck them”.  It simply carries too many conflicting connotations and implications, not the least of which is some sort of physical contact, an experience I avoid.   In fact, if I do yield to the Fuck them I usually follow that up with “better yet, don’t fuck them.” I feel a more precise ejaculation of verbal disgust is “War them”.  Ambiguous though it may be in its origination and justification, it leaves no doubt as to its ultimate intention.       

 

 

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11 Comments
  1. I read this with the utmost interest ! I have always been fascinated by linguistics, and well, languages in any form and of any variety :-), so the first part of this post truly reawakened an inborn interest.
    The way the meaning and usage of a word can be so manipulated that it turns out into a totally different thing and is used in a thousand different ways intrigues me at best and appalls me `at worst` 🙂 .
    It is not that I am against change ( a language is truly an `alive` thing !), and I am not a conservative purist, but honestly sometimes I shudder at the new, and sometimes abusive, mis-usage of ancient words.
    Thank you as always Marco for sharing your thoughts !

  2. Thank you, Foal. Yes, I shudder when hearing the changes in usage and the frankly stupid use of language. For example, when people answer the question “How are you?” with “I’m good” my mind immediately registers that this person flunked out of 4th grade. And, when people say “I could care less” it tells me that they in fact do care – the opposite of what they are trying to convey. I find continued interaction with such people to be difficult. But, they are growing in numbers. Perhaps there is truth in the saying that the country is dumbing down.

  3. An emphatic “FROG” is my go-to response whenever the F-word seems appropriate. No one is fooled, especially myself, but it is less caustic to my ears, and to the ears of any youngster who happens to be nearby. They tend to repeat what they hear, and a bunch of little “frog”s jumping around is better than the alternative.

    • Thanks, Rose. I actually don’t utter things like this aloud. You are right; children pick things up. A truck pulled in front of me one day and I said “F….ing truck!” not thinking of my 2 year old in the back. Some weeks later it happened again and she beat me to it.

  4. My daughter majored in English. She has been a champion of if a person has clearly conveyed what they intended leave it be. It is my second nature to correct when someone uses I/me incorrectly. It is still like nails on a chalkboard, but she has gotten me to stop. I had a creative writing class in college where the teacher said spelling and grammar would not be taken into account in grading. It absolutely was the most creative writing I have done. I found this article on the topic quite interesting, especially the comments that follow.

    https://paintingthegreyarea.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/literacy-privilege/

    • Thank you, Mary. I’m glad to see you share my distress at some forms of common usage. When I was taking English classes in college I asked instructors how they differentiate between bad form and writer’s “style”. It seemed that, if a writer became famous, the rules were ignored. No one had a satisfactory answer.

    • Mary. Thanks so much for the article.

  5. pouryabakhtiyar503 permalink

    I remember that game, after a while the word was hard to annunciate and sounded more like a weird sound than a word, which I guess is what a word really come down to anyway. Things repeated over and over really do lose meaning… I feel like all the knowledge “wise men” would give is common sense that has been riddled into a sentence or two. Maybe the reason they riddle it in instead of just saying it is because we would all just say that we already know that and that its common sense, but when you have to do a little work to get to the common sense then it has meaning. Oddly enough I feel like common sense is always the hardest advice to take. Its like the Fools in Shakespeare’s plays. Love the post Professor!

    • Thanks, Pourya. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and replied. I agree. We hear and read things at a superficial level. Great reference to Shakespeare.

  6. Mike Stamm permalink

    I think Lenny Bruce used to have a routine about the cognitive dissonance between wanting to vilify someone and saying “fuck you!” His idea–a sound one, but helpless in the face of tradition, which doesn’t change easily–was that since fucking was a Good Thing, if you wanted to curse someone, you should wish on him (or her) the absence thereof and thus say “Un-fuck you!” instead. Not hard to imagine why it never caught on.

    I will confess that I try not to use the F-bomb too often in public, particularly around people I do not know very well, and then only often enough that its rarity makes its point. Otherwise I will resort to “Frick!” (from the sitcom SCRUBS), “Frak!” (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA [the reboot]), or “Gorram it!” (FIREFLY). Emphasis and context make the point clear, and I can fool myself that I’m being couth and virtuous.

    • Thank you, Mike. Yes, Lenny – probably the inspiration for much of Carlin, was ahead of his time. I, too, refrain if only because I detest the taste of soap.

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