Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Adventures in **** and vinegar: What do you mean? or, Drawing a net around slang, vulgarity, and vogue words

Mainstream English usage is getting looser and coarser, and I may be guilty of elitism just to suggest that NPR is my notion of "mainstream."

But here's the immediate provocation: I am disturbed that "piss(ed) off" is no longer bleeped out of NPR interviews, nor is "ass" as in "pain in the...."  As far as I'm aware, on-air staffers don't go there, but interviewees seem to be free to express themselves that way unbleeped.

In addition to vulgarity creep,  such looseness is disturbing because vulgar slang – and words that are neither vulgar nor slang but come into vogue, like "awesome" — is characterized by vagueness.

You can't tell what is meant by the slapdash application of "awesome," for instance. Overuse (and this includes vulgarisms) leaches away meaning. During my newspaper career, I once handed in a self-evaluation as a required part of the annual performance review. The boss received the submission with "Awesome!" Clearly, there was nothing awesome about what I turned in — and that goes for the entire performance review process, frankly. I think she meant "Thanks."

Similarly, people who refer to someone else as "a pain in the ass" seem to be indicating every kind of behavior from mildly annoying up to the threshold of threatening. On the positive side, the durable slang word "cool" is now so broad an indication of approval that it's often applied to someone or something considered "hot." Quick, get a thermometer!

But back to "pissed off." Its wide spectrum ranges from explicit rage through vexation to annoyance.
And yes, I think there's a useful distinction between being vexed and being annoyed. "Pissed off" is a spicy but expressively bland sauce spread over all those distinctions, however.

Language issues: Nigel and Roy are convivial at the bar, up to a point.
What's worse, the ambiguity can be compounded if one slang source runs up against another. This is especially true with "pissed off" when, as is common in the U.S., the "off" is left off. Let's say Nigel, an Englishman and recent transplant, and Roy, an American, are new friends and urban professionals who have started meeting on Fridays after work at a favorite big-city watering-hole. In Nigel's lexicon, "pissed" means drunk; in Roy's, it means angry, annoyed, irked, etc. Here's what could happen:


(Roy joins Nigel at the bar, heaves a weary sigh.)

Nigel: Rough week at work, eh?

Roy: The worst.  Told my boss today the report he wanted by the end of the week would be late. Boy, I've never seen him so pissed.

Nigel: Well then, you had something on him, didn't you?

Roy: What do you mean?

Nigel: If he was pissed, you know,  it was sort of even-steven. He was as vulnerable as you.

Roy: No, it's a boss's prerogative.

Nigel (skeptical):  To be pissed at work?

Roy: Sure. Happens all the time.

Nigel: I should think that might impair their effectiveness.

Roy: Well, it's not as fashionable as it used to be, I guess. But if it puts the fear of God into  their underlings, a lot of bosses have absolutely no problem with it.

Nigel (shaking his head):  Makes them look a bit ridiculous, it does. Though just about everybody gets pissed from time to time.

Roy: And you can't blame people, the way things are today, can you?

Nigel: I suppose not, but there can be hell to pay in the morning.

Roy: In the morning? If you're not careful, you get it back in your face — right away. No need to wait!

Nigel: You've just got to be careful to get out of the way then. (Chuckling.) It can be messy.

Roy: Messy I can handle. I can give as good as I get, if I'm in the mood. Depending on the situation, of course.

Nigel (cautiously): So many opportunities.  There's always risk involved. Right now, even. Over a friendly chat.

Roy (looks at Nigel with narrowed eyes, then shrugs): Sure, but you have to learn to control it. Bottle it up sometimes.

Nigel (laughing uneasily): Stuff's bottled up to begin with, isn't it? Opening the bottle, there's the problem.

Roy: Uh....right. And trying not to provoke other people. Don' t make them go there.

Nigel:  Right you are. Not being a — what you call it — an enabler. A gentleman, which I try to be, for example, will not lead a woman in that direction.

Roy (nodding): I try to stay out of the way of all that. You can't win. Women — hell hath no fury. You get my meaning.

Nigel: Uh, belligerent when they're pissed, you mean.

Roy (slightly annoyed): Of course. It's just about the same thing, isn't it?

Nigel: Mmm, sometimes. But then there are those who will get morose, or giggly, or sentimental. Can't forget them. Whatever the case, you might just have to guide them back to the loo and hope they feel better.

Roy (looking quizzically at Nigel). The loo.  The loo. Ah yes, that's what you Brits call the bathroom. So that calms them down when they're like that, does it? I hadn't thought of that. (Pause.) Might make them all the more pissed, don't you think?

Nigel: Well, you have to cut off access,  of course.

Roy:  Access to what?  I don't follow.

Nigel: Access to WHAT! What the hell are we talking about?

Roy: Don't raise your voice to me, pal. I'm only asking for a little clarification. You Brits can be so, I don't know, cryptic sometimes.

Nigel: Well sod you, mate! Cryptic we may very well seem to dense Yanks.

Roy: Sod me? Sod me! What a language! And to think you folks invented it. (Trying to defuse the situation, tensely amused). Sod my lawn, I wish someone would. It's in lousy shape, all brown and weedy. The neighbors look over at it from their green, well-manicured yards. I can tell they're pissed.

Nigel (trying to reestablish a friendly tone): That's the pot calling the kettle black, then, isn't it? In that condition, what right do they have to criticize you?

Roy: Duh.  They like green lawns. (Tense silence.) They are in favor of conscientious lawn care. Am I making myself clear?

Nigel (warily): Say, you wouldn't be a little pissed yourself now, would you, my friend?

Roy (through gritted teeth): Not yet, but I could be heading that way.

Nigel: You're feeling a little off-kilter, I'm thinking. Want me to help you over to the loo? Clear your head a little before you go home. That should help.

Roy: And maybe you should take a flying leap.... (Checks himself.) Oh, hell. Sorry, buddy,  if I seem pissed. I should be leaving.

Nigel: No problem. Occasionally a chap simply can't hold it as well as he can at other times.

Roy: Not sure what I'm holding or not holding, Nigel, but let it go. Have a good weekend.