November 08, 2006

Swear it

To celebrate the publication of Keith Allan and Kate Burridge's Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (Cambridge University Press, 2006), I reproduce today's poem on the Writer's Almanac, "Swear It" by Marge Piercy (from The Crooked Inheritance, 2006):

Swear It
My mother swore ripely, inventively
a flashing storm of American and Yiddish
thundering onto my head and shoulders.
My father swore briefly, like an ax
descending on the nape of a sinner.

But all the relatives on my father's
side, gosh, they said, goldarnit.
What happened to those purveyors
of soft putty cussing, go to heck,
they would mutter, you son of a gun.

They had limbs instead of legs.
Privates encompassed everything
from bow to stern. They did
number one and number two
and eventually, perhaps, it.

It has always amazed me there are
words too potent to say to those
whose ears are tender as baby
lettuces--often those who label
us into narrow jars with salt and

vinegar, saying, People like them,
meaning me and mine. Never say
the K or N word, just quietly shut
and bolt the door. Just politely
insert your foot in the Other's face.

The new Allan & Burridge follows their 1991 Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, the two volumes together making a thorough survey of the field of taboo language, its uses, and its regulation, discussed "with deep erudition and a light touch" (as Steve Pinker puts it in his blurb on the back cover).  Full disclosure: I am one of the helpful friends and colleagues thanked in the Acknowledgements.  (I was surprised to see my name so early in this list -- third, right before Bill Bright -- but then I realized it was alphabetized by first name.  Bill Leap comes last, my usual place in such lists, because he appears under the name William Leap.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 8, 2006 10:43 AM