September 13, 2005

Effing avoidance (cont.)

The mail is in on pronouncing "unpronounceable" characters, and it appears that in addition to a growing conventional use of the verbs heart (for the <heart> symbol, once pronounced like "love") and bleep (for strings of punctuation marks that stand for some nonspecific profanity), a convention is spreading for the use of  eff in reading things like "f*ck" and "f**k" and "f***", and in fact, for replacing the word fuck in "polite" language, both in speech and in writing.

Eff has, of course, been available for quite some time, along with other avoidance words (frig, fug, freak, etc.) catalogued by Jesse Sheidlower in The F Word.  What's new is that many people seem to be unwilling to go all the way to fuck itself (as John McWhorter proposes in Doing Our Own Thing, a suggestion that I'd endorse) and are instead settling on eff as the substitute of choice.

In my e-mail, David Landfair (9/6/05) noted that he reads the second word of the title "Totally F***ed Up" as "effed", but wouldn't read, say, "s***y" as "essy".  I certainly agree with him that ess (or for that matter esh) just won't do for  "s***" or "s**t" or "sh*t".  Jesse Sheidlower himself (9/7/05) agreed on "effed" in the Araki title, but introduced a subtlety: the title of Araki's film is, in print, "Totally F***ed Up", with three asterisks in it, and the titles of Johnson's books have "F*cking", with an asterisk, in them; what about titles that have full frontal orthographic obscenity, like the Arthur Neresian book titled "The Fuck-Up"?  Here, Sheidlower goes for the reading "fuck", honoring the author's evident intentions.

Yet another subtlety from Jesse, who noted that when the New York Times referred to Mark Ravenhill's play "Shopping and Fucking" as "Shopping And..." (others used "Shopping and F*cking" or printed Ravenhill's title unamended), he read it, at least to himself, as "shopping and", reproducing the Times's ellipsis dots as, well, phonetic ellipsis.  And he suggested that he'd probably realize "#$*!" not as "bleep", but as a pause, as in "what the [pause] do we know" for "What the #$*! Do We Know?!"  I don't know how popular the pausing strategy is for rendering these conventions of print, but someone could study it.

The "eff" strategy, which also deserves study, was taken by the Palo Alto Daily News on 2/7/04, when it reprinted Jan Freeman's Boston Globe "The Word" column of 1/25/04 about taboo-avoidance strategies (reported on by Mark Liberman here on Language Log that very day) under the headline "Ban cuss words? Effing unlikely".  The Globe itself, no eff-up, chose the head "The eff factor".

Meanwhile, Lauren Squires (9/6/05) wrote to say that in her blog she has several times questioned the contention the asterisks, <heart>, etc. are unpronounceable, and notes that these entries contain some interesting comments by readers.  Check the entries for 11/5/04, 1/26/05, 5/30/05, and 8/24/05.

And Alison Blank (9/6/05) reported on other names that present pronunciation difficulties:

there is a band that goes simply by the name "!!!".  As explained by Jesse Ashlock, "the name is subject to myriad pronunciations, as the utterance of any repetitive sound in triplicate (for example, "Chik Chik Chik" or "Pow Pow Pow" -- or "Prince Prince Prince," if you like) is considered acceptable."  In practice, the pronunciation of the name is not as unrestricted as this implies; "Chik Chik Chik" is definitely the accepted title here, although, for all I know, at Stanford "Pow Pow Pow" may very well be more common.  As with phrasal names, this seems to be another instance of band names helping to introduce new conventions into English.

Finally, Lissa Krawczyk (9/7/05) noted that the avoidance characters almost always replace a vowel letter (or, I amend, a string of letters including a vowel letter) and goes out on an interpretive limb to speculate that "immorality or general uncouth behaviour" is "associated with the open mouth".  Ingenious, but a sufficient explanation for this fact comes from schemes for telegraphic writing in English -- "f u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb" -- which eliminate most vowel letters, on the grounds that enough information remains in the consonant letters to allow readers to reconstruct the original.  Same with taboo avoidance: enough needs to be left to allow readers to home in on the word the writer intended, but vowel letters are generally dispensable.

Well, not exactly finally.  I just wanted to point out that unpronounceable is a hard word to spell; not all of my correspondents managed it, and I fairly often fall into error myself.  Some raw figures from a Google web search:

unpronouncable: 34,300
unpronoucable: 1,160
unpronouceable: 576
unprouncable: 509
unprounceable: 488 [I incline to this one]
unpronunceable: 214
unpronuncable: 179
unpronucable: 11
unpronuceable: 6

And I can't tell you how hard it was to type that table.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 13, 2005 01:46 PM