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Synecdoche and lese majeste

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Scott has already noted Jon Chait’s objection to the quasi-royalist subtext of Mark Halperin’s suspension (Halperin is a juvenile hack, but if that were a firing offense there would be no cable news channels). So this seems like an ideal time to review the relative strength and meaningfulness of various genitalia-associated figures of speech in our political discourse.

First, perhaps anthropologists can explain why a penis is an insulting synecdoche but testicles are invariably positive (in English anyway). If Halperin had said Obama had “balls” or “stones” or “sack,” or “cojones” this would be considered a form of vulgar but highly positive testimony on the president’s behalf. (BTW cojones is an extremely vulgar term in Spanish, with a profanity valence roughly comparable to “cocksucker” in English An anglophone should probably avoid using it in front of his Spanish-speaking future mother in law. I am told that a similar problem of cultural translation exists or at least existed with regard to “schmuck”).

Second, it’s clearly better for a male politician to be a dick than a pussy. I suspect Halperin’s calculated little stunt would much more likely have involved the use of the p-word prior to Obama displaying that he had the stones to kill Osama bin Laden. (Of course male Democratic politicians bear the burden of persuasion to display their non-pussy bona fides, which they can do by conducting at least two wars simultaneously, or one war and numerous assassinations).

Third, another oddity of our practices is that it isn’t possible to insult a woman politician — or any other woman — by calling her a pussy (that attempted insult reads culturally as nonsensical on its face), but calling, say, the Secretary of State a cunt would certainly get someone like Halperin fired on the spot.

This is true for American English anyway (strangely to my ears “cunt” is apparently a far less fraught word in British English — perhaps comparable to “prick” in American English).

Jeff Greene: He’s taking a leave of absence from HBO because you called him a cunt.

Larry David: What? It’s what you call somebody when he’s not being manly.

Jeff: It’s a bad word Larry.

Larry: What’s so bad about it? People call me a prick all the time.

Jeff: Cunt is much heavier.

Larry: That’s absurd! Prick, cunt — same thing!

Jeff: I never questioned it.

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  • mark f

    Let’s stick with Curb, specifically Cheryl’s aunt’s obituary. I’ll ignore that the fuck-up was only possible because of a typo. Would “beloved pussy” have the same meaning as “beloved cunt”? I would think not, but I’m not really sure. For the former it would seem to me to mean “A babe I loved to shag,” while the latter would be, “What a ballbuster, but we were all so fond.”

    Similarly, “beloved prick” is almost certainly the male equivalent of “beloved cunt,” as is “beloved dick” and even “beloved cocksucker,” while “beloved cock” would seem to match up with “beloved pussy.”

  • wengler

    Halperin is a dick. And MSNBC is the pussy news channel that loves him.

  • Fighting Words

    Shouldn’t there be a “Team America – World Police” reference here to the “dick, pussy, and asshole” speech?

    I couldn’t remember the specifics (as I haven’t seen the movie in years), but wasn’t it better to be a “dick” because you are the one doing the fucking while the “pussy” and the “asshole” gets fucked?

  • Malaclypse

    I find it hard to believe nobody has mentioned this.

  • Michael

    Third, another oddity of our practices is that it isn’t possible to insult a woman politician — or any other woman — by calling her a pussy (that attempted insult reads culturally as nonsensical on its face)…

    Agreed that it reads as nonsensical, but didn’t GHWB get tut-tutted for calling Ferraro a pussy after a VP debate in ’84? The Googles are no help here.

    • I think Barbara Bush called her a bitch, and GHWB was criticized for saying that he “kicked a little ass”.

  • The McK

    “Balls” isn’t as invariably positive as you suggest – Casual use ’round here (Canada) uses it as a milder synonym for “shit”, as in “Transformers 3 was total balls”. This can be contrasted with the positive “tits”; both presumably regard the aesthetic appeal of the region in question.

    • dave3544

      My favorite bit of The Fountainhead was the line:

      “Balls,” said Gus.

      My favorite bit because it was the only “naughty” word in the book and Rand was using to show just how debased the Toohey crowd was.

      Gus was using the word to show disdain for an idea and dismiss it. A variation on the substitution for “shit.”

    • NonyNony

      I’ve been told that the word “bollocks” in the UK is much, much ruder than any synonym for testicles here in the US. I don’t know if that’s true.

      The word shit itself is an interesting one too, because you can add the word “the” to it and end up with a completely different meaning. Compare:

      “Transformers 3 was shit”

      and

      “Transformers 3 was the shit”

      Can “balls” do that?

      • Kadin

        I don’t think “bollocks” is that rude.

      • Nigel

        It can be the dog’s bollocks. But Transformers 3 is almost certainly just bollocks, at the very least.

      • skidmarx

        It’s the dog’s bollocks.[Note: I’ve never heard the phrase “Chuffed to one’s bollocks”]

        On vaginal comparisons. See also

        This might suggest that penis is just more obvious.

  • “Balls” = guts

    “Dick” (“prick”) = bully, self-involved

    “Pussy” = cowardly

    “Cunt” = whiner

    I can’t believe I’m giving lessons in basic rhetoric here.

    • Walt

      Did you think we didn’t know what they meant?

    • Prick your finger all you want,
      just don’t get caught fingering your prick.

      George Carlin

  • I’ve always felt that “dick” had connotations of hapless bumbling with some mean-spiritedness, and “prick” evoked a wanton, deliberate viciousness.

    Sort of like the difference between bullshit and horseshit (as per George Carlin).

  • Daragh McDowell

    In UK and Irish English ‘cunt’ is generally the equivalent of ‘prick’ and is bandied about more freely but only when directed at men. Calling a woman a ‘cunt’ is still really, really vulgar and insulting.

  • jeer9

    If Halperin thinks Obama was a dick in yesterday’s presser (why, the president had the nerve to talk about taking away corporate jet loopholes!), then Halperin’s a fucking twat. And that’s because BHO is still a pussy when it comes to economic policy because the only ejaculations of pleasure that can be heard emanating from that congressional backroom are Republican in nature. BHO’s negotiation tactics inevitably result in a submissive dog-like posture with the middle class and poor getting rogered.

  • Tony

    ‘“cunt” is apparently a far less fraught word in British English — perhaps comparable to “prick” in American English.’

    Speaking as a Brit, I don’t know about that. It’s become somewhat more socially acceptable recently, but only to the degree that all swearing has become more common and socially acceptable. I’d say that in the UK there are still many people who consider “The C word” to be pretty much the last great sweary taboo. It’s widely viewed as worse than “fuck”.

    And as Daragh notes, anyone in the UK and the RoI referring to a woman as a “cunt” would be seen as being very crude and unpleasant indeed.

    • Daragh McDowell

      I should have noted its also very contextual. There’s a world of difference between referring to a friend as ‘cunt’ while in the pub/whatever, and using it as a term of abuse. There’s an ‘affection gap’ there that I would argue just doesn’t exist with ‘prick.’

    • dave

      In the UK, ‘Cunt’ used towards a man, unless you know him very well indeed, is fighting talk of the most extreme kind.

  • Janet

    Part of it is the difference between “has” (balls) and “is” (a dick). Equating a person with a particular body part is almost invariably an insult, while than attributing to them a quality that is associated with a particular body part may or may not be.

    • nanute

      Well Janet, some people will tell you that Chris Christie has balls. He is still a prick/dick nonetheless.

      • Janet

        There’s no reason why that couldn’t be true, but I’m not sure why you mention it.

  • Barry Freed

    This is an informative post on what the author calls the British-English lexicon of insult.

  • DrDick

    First, perhaps anthropologists can explain why a penis is an insulting synecdoche but testicles are invariably positive (in English anyway).

    Speaking as the house cultural anthropologist (or one of them anyway), I have no freaking clue. Testicular terms all reference virility, but I am not sure why penile terms do not (unless it is an implicit reference to the flaccid state).

    • Malaclypse

      Testicular terms all reference virility,

      I think I heard about that in a seminar once. Or maybe it was a seminal paper that I read.

      • DocAmazing

        A testament to their incontestibility.

      • Nigel

        There’s a vas deferens between the two, you know.

    • Mexicancanuck

      Perhaps because of Cheney.

    • richard

      Not necessarily the case in spanish. Huevone means testicle but when used to describe a person means lazy.

      • Mexicancanuck

        Richard — I always resort to my Anglo-Saxon roots for swearing. Haha. Nothing beats the hard F, P and B words.

    • Janet

      Well, again, there’s a basic difference between equating a person with a body part (“you’re a dick”) vs. saying that they HAVE a body part and the qualities it symbolizes (“you’ve got balls”).

      My guess is that the more positive associations with testicles have to do with generativity. This is where the “seed” (though if you’re going to use a botanical metaphor, “pollen” would be more accurate) is made. The penis merely delivers it, and not always to the right place.

  • I don’t find the “royalist” charge terribly persuasive.

    It’s morning television, and they guy used a profanity. That’s a no-no, regardless of the target. Ask the FCC.

  • Mexicancanuck

    The ‘c’ word with an English accent has a softer and perhaps less harsh sound because of the long U. At least with a geordie ( Newcastle ) accent.

  • Greg G.

    This is true for American English anyway (strangely to my ears “cunt” is apparently a far less fraught word in British English — perhaps comparable to “prick” in American English).

    Interesting–I myself hadn’t thought that the c-word was all that terrible in American English when I was younger, but when I did a year abroad in Canterbury, the English kids there all told me it was one of the worst names you could call someone, and should absolutely never be used of a lady.

  • Hob

    I assumed the perceived vulgarity of “cunt” for Brits was a class thing and/or regional, because I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions about it, as seen here on this thread. Still it’s pretty clearly way, way more casually used there than in the US. My favorite sight gag in the movie Hot Fuzz is the swear jar in the police station, which has a sign on it listing various expletives and the monetary penalty for using them at work; “cunt” not only has the smallest fine, but is the only one they’ve spelled out in full without asterisks.

    Still it’s not like France, where con and its derivatives aren’t really even considered swear words.

  • pc

    In Mexico, the whole male anatomy is positive. You can say that someone has “huevos” or that he is “bien verga”, both of them quite positive, the emphasis is a bit different. Having “huevos” is like “ballsy” or “bold”, whereas being “verga” refers to more to talent or performance. Slang for female genitalia doesn’t figure as much.

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