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Whose #$&@^’? Mine, Yours, Theirs?

January 9, 2012

“Even native speakers of English who habitually use this expression seldom think about the original meaning.”
— Victor Mairs,  “Not just any sale, it’s a #$&@^’ sale”

“Even in the textual history of the Hebrew Bible a word such as šagal [שגל], close to the vulgar *“#$&@^’” (Deut 28:30; Isa 13:16; Zec 14:2; Jer 3:2), is changed to the less direct šakhab [שכב], “to lie with,” because the Masoretes (those who handed down the codices of the Hebrew Bible) thought the former verb too obscene.”
— Calum M. Carmichael, Sex and Religion in the Bible

“The etymology of שגל continues to be obscure in modern times.”
— Aron Pinker, “ON THE MEANING OF šgl,” Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal

*“#$&@^’” is a stand-in symbol for a word Victor Mairs is blogging about.  Similarly, in pop culture, “Forget You” is the stand-in phrase for the vulgar one that Cee Lo Green made more popular world-wide.  (Mairs should have noted that in Japan the Cee Lo Green song didn’t break into the top 50 as it did so many other places).  Likewise, “the less direct šakhab [שכב]” seems to be a stand-in biblical phrase.


1. What is the lowest word or phrase you’ve read in high literature?

2. Which are the most interesting stand-in phrases for vulgar terms that you know of?

3. Do vulgar words tend to lose their meanings when appropriated across cultures and read in the context of second-languages?

4. If you don’t live in Japan, do you also ask, “So what’s wrong with ichiban 一番 (‘number 1’) t-shirts?”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2012 6:57 pm

    Regarding “ichiban” tee-shirts, I’m not sure of his interpretation. First, a quick google search reveals that ichiban is a popular name for restaurants, both abroad and in Japan.

    Moreover, the shocked reaction of Americans (and Chinese) to Amy Chua’s incredibly offensive and immodest “Tiger Mom” book shows that self-promotion can be offensive outside Japan as well.

    I do think the f-word is inappropriate in public discourse. More than anything else, it reflects a lack of imagination.

    Finally, I don’t know how you got through this entire post without saying frak.

  2. January 10, 2012 10:47 am

    Have you read Christopher Fairman’s article …?

    Now I have, thanks. The opening sentence and the concluding sentence are hilarious. The best sentence in the whole article is this one: “Frak is all about sex and nothing about sex all at the same time.”

    There, I said it, swapping Fairman’s word for yours. There’s no lack of imagination in that stand-in phrase, interestingly.

    On the Japanese, I think the notion of “self-promotion” is very contrastive when Japanese people and American people who seem to know the two cultures start talking about it. For example, Jack Seward’s writings generally and John Condon’s With Respect to the Japanese both compare an American tendency to self promote with a Japanese tendency to group promote. And this Spaniard blogger (writing his name in katakana – アレハンドロ クレマデス) seems to make the sorts of contrasts that Seward and Condon do; see his post, “自己PRと自己アピールと日本と” (Notice the reply by the commenter seems to agree. And “misatti より”, congratulating アレハンドロ クレマデス on his Japanese language, actually seems to be taking some of the blogger’s advice based on the ideas of the contrasts: “public” relations as a “social” not an “self-promotional” sort of thing.)

  3. January 10, 2012 2:04 pm

    Another interesting takes on the Japanese/English sign are at the blog “Japan Subculture” and the comments there are rich (from some who are bilingual and others who’ve read Jack Seward’s books — btw, my college roommate from Japan is a close relative of Seward’s, a relative of the author’s wife):

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