Sunday, January 6, 2019

'Up against the wall'

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 wall
     Up against the wall, motherfucker
     Tear down the wall.
     Tear down the wall. 
      She sings it clear as day.
      Which brings to mind another song, this one by Peter Allen:
      "Everything Old is New Again."


  1. I was (I guess still am) a huge George Carlin fan, and whenever he'd be in Chicago, we'd be there. The Seven Dirty Words seems so tame now; you can now say shit, piss, tits, and on some commercial cable channels , fuck. Wasn't Carlin arrested in Milwaukee in the 70s for doing this bit live? By today's standards, Lenny Bruce would probably be performing at your kid's graduation party.

    Sorry to be obvious in quoting Cole Porter but I can't help it: "in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes" and that was in the 1930s.

    I'm exhausted from pointing out the hypocrisy of Republicans, but I've seen some of Donnie's campaign speeches where he used "fuck" quite liberally. Now they're all passed out on their fainting couches, fanning themselves with their MAGA hats.

    1. and the next line...
      "Good authors too who once knew better words
      Now only use four-letter words
      Writing prose.
      Anything goes."

    2. You are right. Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for doing the 7 words you can't say on tv

  2. If "Everything Old is New Again" then "The Times They Are a Changin'" is once again relevant.

  3. If they go low we go lower! Poor political instincts on the part of Ms. Tlaib. For a change Nancy Pelosi seems to be getting it right. Junior members of congress should follow her lead. the democrat party needs to not splinter itself or allow trump to push wedges into the small segment of government they now control.

  4. What Shari said. Anyone who voted for, and/or now supports, someone who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy forfeits all right to be shocked by obscenities in politics.

  5. Considering the extremely bizarre & suggestive photos Trump has had taken with a teen aged Ivanka, shouldn't therm be daughterfucker?

  6. Also, if memory serves, the estimable Dick Cheney used the first half of that invective on the floor of the Senate.

    I also first encountered motherfucker in military service, and usually part of the discourse of my Black shipmates. But I can believe it has an earlier lineage in Spanish, which is generally richer in invective than English.

    Although not incorrect it is etymologically odd, is it not, to find "exegesis"
    and "motherfucker" paired in the same sentence.

    About the Congresswoman's public use of the term, I suppose its my older generation standing, but still tend to subscribe to what Mark Twain said about women swearing: "They've got the words, but they ain't got the music."


    1. I first encountered the word in a non-fiction book I read as a kid, about New York street gangs in the Fifties. If someone's name on a wall had "LAMF" scrawled underneath it, it meant "Like a motherfucker"---and was a tribute to their skills in urban a shooter or a "blade man" or a fist-fighter.

      I also encountered a whole new vocabulary that was completely unknown in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. There was "rumble" of course, but also "bopping" for fighting, and "japping" meant ambushing rival gangs and taking them by surprise. This last term obviously stemmed from Pearl Harbor and WWII, which had ended less than fifteen years earlier. It appears to have been exclusive to NYC. Nobody I've ever met from elsewhere has ever used it, or even heard of it. And "gangbanging" certainly didn't mean what it does today.

  7. or a little ditty from Jerry Jeff Walker...

  8. In high school (mid-60s), calling someone either a motherfucker or the c-word (one who gives oral sex to another male) meant that you were prepared to engage in fisticuffs, which is what usually resulted. During track practice, one of my teammates often used a clever substitute..."Mother Fletcher"...which pissed off our coach, but highly amused the rest of us.

    1. Grizz 65, the first ‘street slang’ I remember hearing was in high school as well. Early 60’s, private school, South Side Chicago. The term was “Bogartin” referring to acting as the tough guy on the basketball court; hard fouls, etc.

      Bob Y.

    2. That's a totally new one on me. Meant something else entirely after weed-smoking became widespread: "Don't Bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me..."


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