A Good Look at Bad Language
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A classy drive through the streets and byways of swearing, from Australian linguist and journalist Wajnryb.

Wajnryb is out to have some fun here—witness the epigrams she concocted to introduce each chapter: “You want what on the fucking ceiling?” asks Michelangelo, while Amelia Earhart wonders, “So where the fuck are we?” As an applied linguist, she is fascinated by taboo language, and, while we’re treated to a wide array of foul word usage, she will also be delving into the semantics (meaning) and the pragmatics (context) of the usages. First, she identifies the meta-language of swearing—what cursing is as opposed to blasphemy, what epithets and expletives are, insults and invectives and oaths, what is obscene, what is profane, what is plain vulgar—only to wade immediately into the magisterial grammatical opportunities, the morphological flexibility, of the word “fuck.” “The word cunt,” on the other hand, “has never been innocent,” leastwise not for centuries, and a prime example of an inflexible swear word. Social usage, then, is Wajnryb’s concern as much as grammar is, and she will dissect the clean-equals-godliness equation with as much vigor as she might examine infinitives and gerunds. She explores swearing as meaningful verbal behavior, discusses its cathartic effect, identifies when it is abusive and when social and when it mingles the two. She notes the gender imbalance of expletives and the way snobbery and classism impinge on what is socially considered right and wrong in word use. She also takes on the word police, such as the Cuss Control Academy (an actual institute in Illinois), and shows how they are fighting a losing—not to say absurd and censorious—battle. The effect of taboo so often achieves its opposite: making words forbidden shows, like Prohibition, that people will go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish the proscribed, even producing gems like “frigamarole.”

Wajnryb is the grammarian you always wanted: wise, wearing her erudition lightly and enlivening it with sly, exegetic humor.

Pub Date: July 3rd, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-7434-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2005


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