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Synecdoche and lese majeste


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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