|Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 by James McNeill Whistler|
"Bullies don't win," Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told a cheering room of supporters Thursday night, recalling something she told her son. "We're going to go in and impeach the motherfucker."
An informal remark, not an official statement. But the all-important video was taken, and the first Palestinian-American member of the House was instantly the talk of Washington, along with her use of the king of George Carlin's famed Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.
The obscenity caught notice, particularly, of Republicans ever eager to play the victim and fixate upon someone who seems more vile than themselves. Though to me, the ... well not offensive, but regrettable part of the statement was not the multi-syllabic obscenity, but the word that came before: "impeach." Trump's high crimes and misdemeanors are of yet undocumented, and should impeachment come, it is hoped that it can be in the sense of patriotic duty and seriousness of purpose entirely lacking in the GOP, not tossed out in a moment of profane exuberance. Rep. Tlaib reminds us, as if it were necessary between anti-vaxxers and safe spaces, that the right wing does not hold a monopoly on bush league ridiculousness.
The New York Times bit the bullet and printed the word, undashed in a front page story on Saturday, though let it rip at the end of the 11th paragraph, deep inside the paper.
Needless to say, this is not the first time the word has been used, and curiosity sent me reaching for my well-worn Second Supplement Edition of Wentworth and Flexner's "Dictionary of American Slang," only to initially find it missing—no separate entry, no usage note after "fuck . [taboo] v.t. To cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly..."
Nothing where it rightfully belong, before "Mother Machree" (defined as "an alibi; a sad story, usu. fictitious or exaggerated told to elicit sympathy, avoid punishment, etc." a useful word to have in the verbal arsenal when dealing with our president).
This couldn't be, not in a book published in 1975. And sure enough, there it was, tucked into the appendix of "terms that have come into use since 1967:" "motherfucker [taboo] 1 a low, despicable, base person. This is now the most derog. of all common U.S. epithets."
The note goes on, tracing mother-based obscenities to Spanish-speaking countries, then this pops out, "The dislike may apply to any characteristic: selfishness, rudeness, laziness, unethical behavior, etc." which makes me suspect that, rather than being criticized for her crudity, Rep. Tlaib should be lauded for her precision: the right tool for the right task.
Flexner (who wrote the appendix; Wentworth died in 1965) traces the word to African-American argot, spread to the general population through military service in World War II, and points out that it replaced the weakening "son of a bitch."
But that's a mere foretaste to the full treatment found in Oxford University Press' highly useful (though timidly-titled) "The F-Word," edited by Jesse Sheidlower, whose dozen page exegesis on "motherfucker" begins with a memorable usage from 1918, cited in a letter in Journal of American History of all places: "You low-down Mother Fuckers can put a gun in our hands but who is able to take it out?" Full examination is given to the term as a compliment, particularly among people of color, including this, spoken by a Puerto Rican drug dealer, overheard by John Cheever and recorded in a 1971 letter: "Oh what a cool motherfucker was that Machiavelli."
I have to admit, it isn't a word that I can recall ever using myself—I blame those four syllables, which are a lot to squeeze out in the highly-charged situations where it might be used. Though now that I reflect, in my mouth the word would also carry an echo of cultural appropriation. Samuel L. Jackson can use it in "Pulp Fiction;" I can't. (Not only can Jackson use it, he does, 26 times in the film, conveying the full range from compliment to insult, often in the same exchange. "You're a smart motherfucker, that's right," he says to Brett, interrupted his Big Kahuna Burger breakfast toward the beginning of the movie then, when Brett is slow to answer a question: "English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?")
That should suffice for our purposes for today.
Though I should note, in parting: George Carlin was wrong. Not only could you say "motherfucker" on television, but three years before he first performed that bit, someone already had—Grace Slick, singing with the Jefferson Airplane on the Dick Cavett Show on Aug. 19, 1969, the day after Woodstock.
During the song "We Can Be Together"—at about 3:58 in the video—she sings the word once, and, for you fans of irony, I will post a little context. Lyricist Paul Kantner said he was inspired by the popular Black Panther battle cry:
Up against the wallShe sings it clear as day.
Up against the wall, motherfucker
Tear down the wall.
Tear down the wall.
Which brings to mind another song, this one by Peter Allen:
"Everything Old is New Again."