The practical science of verbal abuse?

It is well known that the British paper called Daily Mail is engaged in a brave odyssey to classify all matters known to man as either causing or curing cancer.

It is likewise common knowledge, though there is no website to track it, that the great community of Christian communities has a project to decree all acts, from genocide to gay marriage, as both sinful and okay. Not in the same church, because that would be silly; but in some branches of the great Body and Bride of Christ.

Now: there is a third subject that could do with such classifications, clarifications and collations.

If I were to speak of big “melons”, or “warm sea sausage”, or a “Sarlacc’s pit”; if I were to call you a “douchebag” or a “hair shirt puritan”, you would…

Well, you would be puzzled given I made two of those up, but you would assume they were used as circumlocutions or offensive references for something.

Now, take “Sarlacc’s pit”. To me that seems to be an anatomical reference, probably for the asshole, but I could see it used, with an undercurrent of fear, for the female pit in the front parts. “Douchebag” would not benefit from analysis: it is something unpleasant and dirty, but doesn’t really have any meaning beyond that.

I know there are dictionaries, online and offline, where euphemisms (so to say) like this are collected: but is there any study of how their euphemistic meanings overlap? Is there any systematic work done in the field of descriptive or creative fuckistics? If not, that could be mighty useful.

To see this, consider these two problems.

One: It is an unfortunate fact that many euphemisms/dysphemisms have sexist or racist baggage: as a consequence, dropping a term such as “media whore” can cause a firestorm in certain places online. It would be good to have a term that says, in a suitably derogatory manner, “an unprincipled attention-seeker” without tacking to the end of it, “in a manner which is typical of loose women”.

Indeed, what Internet needs is a whole new vocabulary of cursing, demeaning and abuse; “gay” and the like will not do no more. Since the world is not divided into swearing teenage brutes and prissy nice people, but has a third group in between — being the interesting people — that new vocabulary will come, given enough time. Maybe someone could help it along, not with deleting old words (because that is almost certain to backfire), but with encouraging the use of the new.

(Just remember that — if you ask me — going against “foul language” is a futile, destructive little crusade. As long as there are hateful people, there will be hateful words used to describe them. And most people, both the nice ones and the jerks, have plenty of situations where to find someone hateful, and need the release of describing that person as such. And for that use the new words need to be just as potent and visceral as the old; getting rid of gratuitous sexism doesn’t mean being against hard, heated, venomous abuse.)

(I’m all for hard, heated, venomous abuse! The fouler, the better! Let me be your red ears, o world of hurt — the heat sink for your overflow of anger!)

(Ahem. Continuing.)

What I guess is that the new vocabulary of abuse will not be much like the old. In a world where homosexuality is not sinful, and the concept of “sinfulness” daily becomes less meaningful, in a world where sexual promiscuity is not the mortal stain it once was; in a world where epithets based on race, ethnicity and the like are less effective because the old stereotypes are weaker; in a world where “hell” is a place seen in comic books and TV series and not a real town of torment — well, if you take religion, race and sex out of cursing, there’s not much left! And if you remove the offensiveness gained by a comparison to a bad race, of invoking a distasteful sexual act, of waving a middle finger in God’s face, you remove the potency of curse words based on those offenses.

(I’d guess that’s why “hell” and “God” are such mild words today: they don’t have the fear behind them they once had. Or am I painting all of past with the brush of Victorian prissiness?)

Slurs that indicate stupidity may keep (but remember that “retard” and similar ex-medical terms are touchy); and there may be a lot to be mined from “new vices” like selfishness, ecological irresponsibility, and being-fulla-hate. That mining just needs to discover that necessary vein of visceral disgust; cleverness alone is not enough.

Interesting, and colorful, times will be had before our curses are made anew. (Ah, you say, but our contemporary curses are durable and old — to that I say, our morals are new, and different from all those before.)

I nominate “phelps” to be used with the definition “a person of such outrageously offensive and unhinged opinions that they are enough to make him/her a celebrity”. Thus, “Michele Bachmann is such a fucking phelps.”

Two: The problem with invective is, sometimes, that it is so vague. It is fine and probably true to say that Dick Cheney is a douchebag; but that says nothing about the why. Unless we want to aggravate the proponents of “dictionary-douchebaggism”, we’d better leave that term alone: and go looking for some that is just as foul, hurtful and satisfying, and tells the listener which particular reason is, at that moment, considered for the purposes of the word.

Pharyngula, PZ Myers’s domain of atheism and science, and some other Scienceblogs blogs are splendid breeding-grounds and depositories for words like this: a heinously stupid creationist is a “creotard”, and a theist with a listening problem is a “godbotter” (bots are machine spammers). And while “quackery” is an old term for medical cheats, “sCAMmers”, found while writing this post, is news to me.

(Me, I always struggle with “creotard”, because while it is creationist plus retard, it sounds to me like creationist plus leotard, and that’s not an image to have associated with Ken Ham or Ben Stein.)

It would be kind of useful to have a dictionary for these: that way one could say “chickenhawk” instead of “douchebag”, and feel more satisfied, having better (and hopefully just as foully) uttered the emotion asking for utterance. There would be gaps in such a collection, and it would not be easy to magick up new expressions to fill them: but if one knew the gaps, the inspiration might rise quicker. What word of abuse, for example, would malign and describe a person whose ability to judge the merits of claims consists of asking who said them?

These two problems, then, the pressing need for new words of visceral hatred, and the need, sometimes, to express not only hatred but exact hatred, seem to me to point to a need for a semi-scientific research and development project into verbal abuse.

Any takers?

(This all is in no way related to the Scienceblogs-National Geographic amalgamation, and the consequent threat of “aim[ing] for a higher level of debate that is respectful and doesn’t offend in an unjustifiable way”. Yeah right, you prissy douche-clenchers, as if there’d be a way to justify a single “fucktard” to someone using such language.)

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