Dagnannit!

hiccuppia

the author being visited by Hiccuppia

I think I’ve mentioned before that the use of vulgar language has grown apace (as they used say) in recent years. At least Richard Nixon spewed his vulgarity and profanity[1] behind closed doors (though the tapes were running). I can’t imagine Jimmy Carter or Ronald Regan saying BULLSHIT when addressing the nation as Trump did in a tweet last October.

I heard in person Beto O’Rourke say “shit” in a stump speech last summer, and on Twitter, oh do Lawd, even such staid conservatives as Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin will occasional tweet an obscenity.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not squeamish. Vulgar language doesn’t offend me.  I’m only pointing out a Late Empire anthropological trend.

For some reason, twenty or so years ago, the Muse of Light Verse, Hiccuppia, descended upon me and whispered the following in my tiny little ears:

 

A Meditation on the Sounds of Indecorous Words

                                                            By Gorgons with long whips pursued

                                                            How naked go the sometime nude!

                                                                                                            Robert Graves

Fellatio is a lovely word,

Operatic in a way:

“The role of Fellatio will be played

By Mr. Richard Cabot Clay.”

 

Sodomy, on the other hand,

Lacks that light Italian ring.

Biblical, confessional.

A cry of pain!  A serpent’s sting.

 

Cunnilingus could be a caliph

Thundering across desert sands,

Seeking long lost treasure troves

Guarded by jinn in distant lands.

 

Fuck, of course, isn’t exotic.

Its harsh cough can cause vexation,

But when a car door smashes your fingers,

it sure beats fornication.

 

 

jerry lee (original)

The idea, obviously, it that vulgar words can be beneficial in certain situations.  I used to encourage my students to use them sparingly, or those Anglo-Saxon monosyllables would lose their magic, wouldn’t be there for them when they need them to express rage or alleviate pain.

I can recall my late wife Miss Birdsong using the f-word only once, and it certainly got my attention. If I recall correctly (and I do), a second person pronoun followed the present tense verb.

On the other extreme, dig this cat who is featured in Sean Dunne’s documentary film American Juggalo.

cusser

Here he is ruminating on his adventures at a Juggalo gathering and how being a Juggalo has made him a better person.  You should hit the link and fast-forward to 5:09 and hear him for yourself because I can’t begin to do justice to his intonations, rhythms, phrasing.

Juggalo: The only way I got that vomit off me was to get to the fuckin raid.

Interviewer: What happened?

Juggalo:  I got fucked up.  I was drinking Caribou Lou on the fuckin carnival rides and fuckin got fucked up. Apparently, I fuckin passed out and then my fuckin homeboy fuckin comes, shows up out of nowhere, and gets me to the fuckin tent, and man, I fuckin fell out in the middle of the fuckin road. I had motherfuckers come ask me how I am. That how bad it was. I was a fuckin spectacle, and shit, I don’t give a fuck because it was fuckin righteous.

I’ll tell you for real about being a Juggalo, man. That shit made me the motherfucker I am today.  Honest to God, man.  If it wasn’t for Jay and [inaudible] that shit wouldn’t be on. I don’t wanna fuckin think about the kind of motherfucker I would be. I grew up a fuckin decent, fuckin good-hearted motherfucker. I’m a fuckin nice person. I can cook like a motherfucker who makes some straight up motherfuckin grub.  Fuckin  chicken fried steak, fuckin collard greens, fuckin mashed potatoes and all that. Fuckin sausage gravy biscuits, fuckin everything, man. I fuckin cook like a motherfucker.

I wanna find me a skinny ass little bitch and make her fat, and then we’ll lose weight together, and then we’ll bond.

[amiable maniac laughter]

But, o my brother, my dear Juggalo, what you gonna scream when you’re entangled in the metal mess of your wrecked car waiting on the Jaws of Life to extricate you?

O gee golly willikers – dagnabbit – ouch – Godfrey Daniels, muthafuckin muthafuckers!

Then again, an vulgarity can be sometimes effective when one is on the verge of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  Take it away Jeff Tiedrich:

And on that discordant note, I bid you, dear readers, a fond fuckin’ adieu.

 

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[1] Profanity refers to words that offend religion; vulgarity deals with excrement and genitalia.

How to Talk Mac Rebennack’s Oola-Ma-Walla-Malla Argot

 

Here’s a brief glossary of perhaps unfamiliar words and phrases from Mac Rebennack’s autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon.


ax a musician’s instrument, derived from Mafia lingo, according to Rebennack

B drinkers – uncool bar customers

belly rub – a dance

bomolatchee –  a huge reefer, e.g. a Rasta spliff.

bonnaroo – cool, great, swell

boost, booster – to shoplift; a shoplifter

Chang Moi rocks  – a type of heroin

companfonkilation  – merging two songs and pulsing them with syncopation

Of all the songs on the album, the one that probably gave me the greatest kick was “Litanie des Saints,” my compafonkification of two pieces of music, Louis Gottschalk’s classical “‘Bamboula, Danse des Negres” and the chants I heard at various gris-gris churches over the years.

 

decks of gage – stacks of rolled up joints

desitively – positively, absolutely

dope sick – needing a fix

When we started working on the record, Wayne told me, “I can’t work no more like this.  I’m dope sick.  I need some serious money.”

down-goings – a play on “what’s going down” but in the sense of the process of sinking into further trouble

dry hump – a dance

ear bead – a blind man locating someone’s bodily presence

Ray [Charles] got an ear bead on him [and] knocked Charley on his ass.

Fess – Professor Longhair

Professor Longhair

fessee – the argot of professor Longhair (see propedeller, propelacter, e.g.)

festoon – Professor Longhair’s term for fun

flusturations – incidents that frustrate and fluster

One of the flusturations of this job was that when I delivered something I thought was good, many times Johnny didn’t put it out.

FonkLiterally, “a syncopation on or around a beat.”

 Fonky, fonked– a derivation of funky, but more emphatic, more positive, having the positive vibe associated with fonk.

In the bat of an eye, I’m out on the fonky streets of Fort Worth, smelling rawhide and cowpies, headed for the airport and blue skies.

This approach fonked up the more abstract northern jazz sound.

funksterators – funk creators, musicians that play funk

forever-and-one-year – a long prison sentence

frolic presto – to play music fast

Come on, boys.  Let’s frolic presto.

funky – the music of funk, cool, but less emphatic than fonky.  Rebennack uses both spellings, but fonky seems richer then funk.

get a sick off  –  score narcotics to counteract withdrawal

He needed to get his sick off.  His habit was an oil burner.

goofer dust – a hoodoo concoction

a combination of dirt from a graveyard, gunpowder, and grease from [church] bells; if you throw it into somebody’s eyes, it’ll blind them, and throwing it behind them while they’re walking will put a curse on them.

gris-gris – New Orleans styled voodoo, magic

hang paper – forge checks

hipped – turned on to new information

He hipped him to the fine points of hustling gigs.

in need of a little brain salad surgery – needing to get high

jingle jungle – the business of writing jingles for advertisements

junk-a-dope-a-nals – any intoxicatingy pharmaceutical ending in “nal”

A lot of them went for goofballs: Nembutal, Seconal, tuinal, phenobarbital.  The nals we used to call them – the junk-a-dope-a-nals.

lushing – drinking, doping

making cake – earning money

marble-lized – immortalized

“I think I marble-lized you.” Rebennack to Queen Julia Jackson after dropping her name in a song.

marygeranium– of or relating to marijuana

The truth was, I think my mother unconsciously dug reefer, or at least enjoyed the idea of a marygeranium high.

methodonian – an addict who has transitioned from heroin to methadone

ministrations – technical applications

We were all loaded and Rose was screaming and the doctor was doing his ministrations and it looked like the child was just about to come out when the doctor turned to us, real annoyed, and said, “Man, y’all can’t be smoking and doing all that shit in here, Get out!”

mootahs – reefers

muscle – bouncers

They had their own muscle working in the clubs or out on the street.

oaks and herbs – splendid, irie, as the Jamaicans say

And the second one said, “Everything’s oaks and herbs” – which means everything’s cool because they had smoked lots of herbs.

ofays – white people

The source of their bigotry seemed to be that the West Bank ofays were scared that black guys would take off with their women.

 

one-to-too-long-a-time –  any prison sentence

Now he’s in Angloa Penitentiary doing one to too long a time.

oola-ma-walla-malla language – specialized argot created by cats to confuse squares

‘plexed out – seriously frustrated by

They were truly down characters and kept me from getting ‘plexed out behind all the changes.

pluck – booze

He was a garbage head, a cat who would drink cheap pluck, smoke a bag of reefer, pop all the pills he could pop, then chase it all down with a shot of dope.

propedeller, propelacter – a drum pedal

“John, that ain’t what I want you to play on your foot propedeller.”

John said, “Whaaat?”

Fess said, “You know, I want you to propel the groove with your foot propelacter.”

rum-dums – winos, sots

One night a couple of rum-dums got into a fight and started throwing cans of corn and tomato juice around and busted up the store, making a hell of a gumbo in the process.”

shucker – a pretender

My voice was low and froggy; Shine had a husky voice, too, but was a real singer, not a shucker like me.

slotted – transitioned into a niche

I slotted into a different musical groove.

spew – a drum fadeout

stone – solid, set in stone, unalterable

There was a whole language and lifestyle that went along with being a stone dope fiend.

Leonard just didn’t have the stupidity to become a dope fiend or a weed or pill head; he was never anything but a stone character.

Cutting the album [Gumbo] was a stone kick from first to last.

tighten – to pay back owed money

Tomming – being an Uncle Tom

tragic magic  – heoin addiction

trashers – rock stars who wreck hotel rooms or ballrooms

traumatical – traumatic

All of this was very traumatical for me.  I’ve seen friends’ throats slit, my partner on the morgue table, kids getting turned out – it’s all very heavy, and a lot of it was stuff I’d forgotten until just recently when I went through rehab.

tricknology, tricknologists – the act of conning, fooling someone; con men, scam artists

 

 

 

 

Dr. John’s Dr. Johnston, Mad Props for the Malaprops

 

 

Polonius:  What do you read, my lord?

 Hamlet: Words, words, words.

 

Samuel Johnston in 1755-ish published the first ever dictionary in English.  He accomplished this Herculean feat single-handedly.

Imagine, idle reader, the enormity of the project.  How would you go about collecting words and defining them with no dictionary to consult? Would you start with aardvark and work your way alphabetically to zygote or start with verbs, assembling the gamut, so to speak, from states of being to acts of doing, and once you’d worked your way from is to zapped, would you then turn to the vast realm of nouns?

I ain’t know cause my mind be blown.

In 1994 with the help of a writer named Jack Rummel, Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) published an autobiography entitled Under a Hoodoo Moon.

Like Samuel Johnson, Dr. John, who just now died June 6, was a lover of locutions.  Like James Joyce, Mac, the Dr. (also known as the Nite Tripper) found the English language inadequate for his needs.

“So weenybeenyveenyteeny.”   James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

“Posilutely honorifficatedly medicatedly doctoratedly yours thank you.  Dr. John, from the liner notes of Desitively Bonneroo.

Sam Johnson was an eccentric. Obsessive, compulsive.   Before crossing the threshold of door, he’d go through a series of ritualistic gesticulations and when walking down the street feel compelled to touch every single post he passed.

Mac Rebennack was also an eccentric and was no stranger to wild gyratin-i-ficatin’,  as he might put it.

I’m now reading Under a Hoodoo Moon, and it occurs to me that I could honor these two doctor heroes of mine by doing a little lexicography myself, i.e., by compiling a Dr. John dictionary, a handy go-to reference when you run across a term like junk-a-dope-a-nals  or marygeranium.

The project is underway, and of course, I’ll publish it here, free of charge, despite Dr. Johnson’s oft-quoted observation: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

But, as Dr. John says, “You can’t shut the fonk up.  No, the fonk got a mind of its own.

Caricature of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to Wiktionary.com (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.


[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.) Wikipedia.com

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”

A Failson, Trustafarian, and Jared Kushner Walk into a Bar

I approve of the way James Joyce combined English words as if he were writing in German.

He especially liked fusing adjectives as in “snotgreen” or “chalkscrawled” or “sanguineflowered.”

Dig this: “bluesilver razorshells.”

Unfortunately, if you’re dumbassspeller like me and need your spellchecker to autocorrect, you’re not likely to follow Joyce’s lead because of those goddamn redunderlinings. Undoing them by doublechecking every possible error results in tedious timewasting.

Anyway, sometimes a fusedword will sneak into the language. Today, I learned a new one: failson.

Here’s the Urban Dictionary’s ungrammatical definition:

White, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty.

Felix, the failson of the family, goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.

 A failson is not to be confused with a trustafarian, which is gender neutral:

Privileged white kids who subscribe to the hippie lifestyle (because they can) since they have no worries about money, a job etc. They can then devote their lives to eating organic, following Phish, and wearing dreadlocks (no need for job interviews).

 Sarah is a trustafarian. It’s totally evidenced by the combination of her brand new car[1] and nice digs with her “earthy” clothes and dreadlocks.

I suspect failsons tend to hole themselves up in their rooms and suffer from an EmilyDickinsonian/EdgarAllanPoeish pallor whereas the tanned Trustafarian I know who lives on Folly Beach frequently appears in public and is a ubiquitous source of putoff. When he’s not tripping on shrooms, he’s smugly pontificating in a hauterladen voice.

Him, me no dig.

But what about Jared Kushner? What’s the word for him?

How about nepotistickleptocrat?

 

In English, a hybrid language, there’s almost a word for everything.


[1] Or, as Joyce would put it brandnewcar.

 

The Sky Flashes, the Great Sea Yearns

 

I can remember as a boy lying on a pile of leaves I had raked the day before, bored, staring up at the clouds. For whatever reason, years later, I recalled this incident (if you can call it that) and told my mother, “Some of my best memories are of being bored.” For whatever reason, this nonsense delighted her, and over the decades she would sometimes remind me that I had uttered those syllables, as if they embodied some great truth about the human condition.

Balderdash. Poppycock.

Truth be told, my best memories do not include that time our broken-down train sat motionless for four hours somewhere between Edinburg and Inverness nor those hours spent sitting through seemingly interminable high school productions nor glancing up every three minutes at the slow clock ticking in Mrs. Waltrip’s Algebra class (even if she did occasionally enliven things by pointing at integers on the chalk board with her middle finger).

Of course, there’s a distinction to be made between mere boredom (languishing in a waiting room) and ennui, which might be best embodied by John Berryman’s poem “Dream Song 14.”

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving

behind: me, wag.

Ennui is malaise, enduring, beyond the cure of looking up the etymology of “balderdash” (originally a weird mixture of liquids like beer, milk, Nu-Grape soda, etc.) or “poppycock” [which comes from the Dutch pap (soft) and kak (dung), so poppycock = soft-poop].

No for ennui, we need something stronger, maybe a serotonin enhancer, a love affair with Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker, something more substantial than watching PW Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Diary of a Lost Girl (my morning’s entertainment).

The fact is I wasn’t really bored when I was lying in that pile of leaves looking at the clouds. I was using my imagination. I was happy.

 

 

Fun with Grammar Nazis

A few posts back, I mentioned Practically Painless English, a grammar primer by Sally Foster Wallace, mother of the famous David Foster Wallace, the brilliant novelist and essayist who gave us Infinite Jest and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Here’s a riff from one of David Foster Wallace’s infamous footnotes, a description of his favorite “tablemate” on a luxury cruise that Harper’s sent him on, despite his being more than a touch agoraphobic:

Trudy was 56, the same age as my own dear personal Mom, and looked – Trudy did, and I mean this in the nicest way possible – like Jackie Gleason in drag, and had a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that was a real arrhythmia-producer, and was the one who coerced me into Wednesday night’s Conga Line, and got me strung out on Snowball Jackpot Bingo, and was also an incredible lay authority on 7NC Luxury Cruises, this being her sixth in a decade – she and her friend Esther (thin-faced, subtly ravaged-looking, the distaff part of the couple from Miami) had tales to tell about Carnival, Princess, Crystal, and Cunard too fraught with libel-potential to produce here, and one long review of what was apparently the worst cruise in 7NC history – one “American Family Cruises,” which folded after just sixteen months – involving outrages too literally incredible to be believed from any duo less knowledgeable and discerning than Trudy and Esther.

Look what I found: Jackie Gleason in drag!

In the above-mentioned post, I mentioned that I actually taught from Practically Painless English in the ‘80’s but that now copies were going for $138, but lo and behold, I have scored a copy of the second edition for pittance — $34.

What a hoot. Sally Foster Wallace is brilliantly subversive. Dig this explanation of the capitalization of pronouns:

Remember that I is the only pronoun that is always capitalized, no matter where it appears in the sentence. Capitalize a pronoun referring to God, too:

God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I know He watches me.[1]

Here’s an example with the polite instruction to “please circle each pronoun you find in these sentences”:

Lassie is teaching her pups to chew with their mouths open.

Another treat is that she creates a cast of idiosyncratic characters who sort of evolve – or at least provide behavioral motifs — as we travel from “Parts of Speech” through “Paragraphs.”

These include Peony McAllister, Rambo and Rambette, Inertia and Aphasia. Grandma and Grandpa Pringle, and Chively Sneed. Fedonia Krump and Mongo.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Please circle the adverbs in the following paragraph:

Peony McAllister was so excited about her extremely interesting Japanese flower-arranging class that she completely ignored the bright red stop signs randomly placed here and there on her route to school. Suddenly, her very cold ears picked up the hauntingly familiar sound of a skull-shattering loud siren, and she saw dazzling lights in her rearview mirror. Frantically, she began to create convincingly pathetic excuses for going too fast. As she slowly pulled over to the side of the road, she patted her motorcycle gently and smiled bravely at the very large person who was slowly approaching.

Brava!

Identify the part of speech of the italicized words.

Ezra pounded the steak and then smothered it in onions.

If you call your sister a dweebazoid again, I’ll be forced to turn you into a toad.

Obviously, no remedial student is going to pick up that allusion.

Identify the subject and verb.

Rambette took her parakeet for a walk.

Wild horses dragged the tall leprechauns to a boring movie.

Here’s one from a punctuation exercise.

Fedonia’s pet lion fell into the paving machine so she calls him Leotarred.

You catch the drift – DFW didn’t fall far from the maternal tree, at least as far as surrealism and an obsession with English usage (go, goes).

It’s interesting to note that when he taught college, he was, by his own admission, fanatical about correct grammar and mechanics. Here he is in another footnote, this one from the essay: “Authority and American usage” describing what happened every semester when he taught lit.

Once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug users. When it emerges (as it does every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just stick in a comma after a noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and I mean it. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, not a healthy one – it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else.

Good God, how I miss DFW. What a loss to literature.

David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie


[1] Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.  Matthew 10:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible