Archives: February 2017

A Droning in the Eire

Ian Maleney writing for The Quietus

A new project has begun to explore and document the wealth of experimental music in Ireland’s past. Ian Maleney speaks to the Aisteach Foundation’s Jennifer Walshe about ecclesiastical drone, bog-dwelling noise musicians and a hitherto uncelebrated group of queer composers:

There was this guy I went to school with, lived about a mile away from us. His grandfather was the principal of one of the three parish schools, back in the days before they were amalgamated into a single, yet still tiny, entity. That was in the late 70s I think, or around then. He wasn’t that old then; 60, maybe 65, but a venerable civil servant all the same. Like many a civil servant in Ireland, he had things going on outside of the job that few people at the time really knew about. I guess his family knew, some of the parish probably did, but there were only ever hints of it publicly. He kept it mostly to the shed at the back of their house, itself a picturesque country home next to the parish hall, two storeys with a tall roof, cubic, squat but somehow elegant under the unnecessary shade of tall Douglas fir trees that dominated the front yard. Ivy was growing up the front of the house when I knew it, by which time it had been sold to a couple of German retirees. Master Madden was dead by then, and I never met him.

My friend’s dad told me about one of the moments when Master Madden’s second life peeked out from wherever he kept it locked. It was the occasion of the school’s Christmas play, and Madden had decided that his two dozen pupils, aged between four and twelve, would perform a dramatic work of his own devising. Nobody called it an opera at the time, though I suppose that’s what it was, in a sense. My friend’s dad, Madden’s son, was eight at the time, so this would have been 1960 or thereabouts. His own recollection was shady enough, but it was essentially an updated version of the great Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa, told from the perspective of Perseus’ mother, Danaë, and set along the callows of the river Shannon.

The year before they’d done the nativity and they would return to that classic myth a year later, but Madden felt comfortable enough in his position as principal that he could take a risk every now and then. And so the kids were assembled each afternoon to paint masks, cut costumes out of old fabrics donated by their mothers and to practice singing their way through Madden’s self-written score. The instrumentation was minimal: two drums, played by the rhythmically-minded Kelly twins, aged six-and-a-half, and a droning set of uilleann pipes played by Gary Flannery, whose dad owned the pipes. A radio was switched on and off irregularly. Madden’s son was Perseus, of course, and Medusa was played by his older cousin Laura, a girl of ten. Two sixth-classers played Zeus and Danaë, who narrated, and the rest of the school rowed in as a chorus. This mass of terrified and confused children were made to rehearse a libretto that, in its theatrical atonality, resembled a sort of tribal version of Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron, albeit a couple of octaves up thanks to the unbroken voices of the children. It was, by all accounts, a disaster. Though no recording of the night was ever made, early drafts of the score were found in the shed after Madden’s death. He worked steadily but at a slow pace, completing three full operas before his death, and a filing cabinet full of shorter pieces, sketches and unfinished ideas. To date, none of Master Madden’s work has ever been published or performed, except by the pupils of the Clonleabe National School, sometime around 1960.

I was reminded of the story upon encountering the latest attempt to open up the twisted and shadowy history of the Irish avant-garde for contemporary audiences. The Aisteach Foundation, helmed by composer, performer and archivist Jennifer Walshe, have presented The Historical Documents Of The Irish Avant-Garde as an ongoing, transdisciplinary project incorporating a book, a website and several exhibitions. The idea grew out of another exhibition, ‘Irish Need Not Apply’, curated by Walshe in New York’s Chelsea Art Museum back in 2010. The exhibition included a set of recordings, made by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1952, of a musician by the name of Pádraig Mac Giolla Mhuire, born in New York of Irish immigrant parents, playing in Cork with two friends, Dáithí Ó Cinnéide and Eamon Breathnach. The trio combined long, sustained notes from Mac Giolla Mhuire’s accordion and Ó Cinnéide’s fiddle with frantic, Eric Dolphy-like solos of tin whistle, and they called it dordán, an Irish world for drone. It’s not a million miles away from early Velvet Underground recordings, or La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. Mac Giolla Mhuire had returned to Ireland with his mother in 1950, after his father, a talented uilleann piper, had died of tuberculosis the same year, and he seemingly brought a mournful but radical style of traditional music back to the old sod. As Antoinne Ó Murchu, who discovered the recordings in the Folklore Commision’s archives, said at the time: “To think that the roots of minimalism could lie in Irish outsider culture…”.


Know Your Place

Dan Fox writing for Frieze

From blue collar to new affluence, Dan Fox tackles the issue of social class in the art world, for Frieze magazine:

Hyde Park, London. It’s 5 July 1969 and the artists Gilbert & George are walking through the crowd at the Rolling Stones’ concert in tribute to band member Brian Jones, found dead in his swimming pool two days earlier. In a photograph taken for the Daily Mirror newspaper, the artists are captured wearing light-toned suits, shirts and patterned ties, with carnation buttonholes, as if they are attending a society wedding. Yet, they look uncharacteristically dishevelled: ties askew, hair blowing in the breeze. Leslie Woodhead and Jo Durden-Smith’s documentary of the day’s concert, The Stones in the Park (1969), shows hundreds of flower children basking in the sunshine under the fractious eyes of the Hell’s Angels security detail. Amongst them, Gilbert & George look like bankers from an alien planet, there to out-freak the underground freak scene. One detail makes them fit in: metallic body paint on their faces and hands, which looks like badly applied fake tan. Yet, their mimicry of conservative British masculinity still manages to wrong-foot expectations of how artists or other creative types associated with old-fashioned avant-gardism should present themselves.

Gilbert & George costumed themselves as urbane gentlemen of the upper classes, but lived in a then-run-down area of east London. Their suits afforded them invisibility: a cloak of conformity that allowed them to forge ahead with their extraordinary project to make their lives into a total artwork. It was a look that, paradoxically, made them stand out amongst their peers in Swinging London because it suggested that nothing could be more conformist than growing your hair and slipping on a kaftan. But, more to the point, in class-neurotic Britain, their appearance gave the lie to assumptions as to which social bracket artists should dress for. Gilbert & George punctured a self-flattering affectation of blue-collar solidarity that persists amongst certain artists: the fantasy that artists are workers in the same way builders, firemen or mechanics are. (In her 1977 essay ‘The Pink Glass Swan’, Lucy Lippard describes artists who are ‘persistently working “up” to be accepted, not only by other artists, but also by the hierarchy that exhibits, writes about and buys her/his work. At the same time, s/he is often ideologically working “down” in an attempt to identify with the workers outside of the art context.’) Were Gilbert & George rich or poor? Upper-class toffs on the skids or lower-middle-class clerks on the rise? It was hard to tell.

That was, I suspect, the point. George was brought up by a single mother and worked a number of jobs in London – in Selfridges department store, as a barman at the Players’ Theatre Club – before meeting Gilbert at Central St Martin’s School of Art in 1967. Gilbert came from a family of shoemakers in a village in the Italian Dolomites. Did that matter? Certainly, gaming the visual codes of the British class system was folded deep into their artistic strategies. It was a way of making us laugh when they called themselves George the Cunt and Gilbert the Shit for their 1970 ‘magazine sculpture’, or when we watched them get tight on gin to the music of Edvard Grieg in their 1972 video Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk. For many artists from the UK, class is inescapable – a facet of work and identity. In 1990s Britain, artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas actively played up their backgrounds. Tabloid headlines were appropriated to redefine conversations around female sexuality. The British working-class seaside holiday or the souvenir shop were used as tropes to talk about ownership and independence: in 1992, Emin and Lucas bought a beach hut in Whitstable and, the following year, they ran a shop together.


4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump

Dale Beran writing for Medium

Dale Beran investigates the pivotal role 4chan played in the rise of Trump, Anonymous, and the new radical right, for Medium.

1. Born from Something Awful

Around 2005 or so a strange link started showing up in my old webcomic’s referral logs. This new site I didn’t understand. It was a bulletin board, but its system of navigation was opaque. Counter intuitively, you had to hit “reply” to read a thread. Moreover, the content was bizarre nonsense.

The site, if you hadn’t guessed, was It was an offshoot of a different message board which I also knew from my referral logs, “Something Awful”, at the time, an online community of a few hundred nerds who liked comics, video games, and well, nerds things. But unlike boards with similar content, Something Awful skewed toward dark jokes. I had an account at Something Awful, which I used sometimes to post in threads about my comic.

4chan had been created by a 15 year old Something Awful user named Christopher Poole (whose 4chan mod name was “m00t”). Poole had adapted a type of Japanese bulletin board software which was difficult to understand at first, but once learned, was far more fun to post in than the traditional American format used by S.A., as a result the site became popular very quickly.

These days, 4chan appears in the news almost weekly. This past week, therewere riots at Berkeley in the wake of the scheduled lecture by their most prominent supporter, Milo Yiannopoulos. The week before that neo-Nazi Richard Spencer pointed to his 4chan inspired Pepe the Frog pin, about to explain the significance when an anti-fascist protester punched him in the face. The week before that, 4chan claimed (falsely) it had fabricated the so called Trump “Kompromat”. And the week before that, in the wake of the fire at Ghost Ship, 4chan decided to make war on “liberal safe spaces” and DIY venues across the country.

How did we get here? What is 4chan exactly? And how did a website about anime become the avant garde of the far right? Mixed up with fascist movements, international intrigue, and Trump iconography? How do we interpret it all?

At the very beginning, 4chan met once a year in only one place in the world: Baltimore, Maryland at the anime convention, Otakon. As a nerdy teen growing up in Baltimore in the 90s, I had wandered into Otakon much like I had later wandered into 4chan, just when it was starting. I also attended Otakon in the mid-aughts when 4chan met there, likewise to promote my webcomic.

As someone who has witnessed 4chan grow from a group of adolescent boys who could fit into a single room at my local anime convention to a worldwide coalition of right wing extremists (which is still somehow also a message board about anime), I feel I have some obligation to explain.

This essay is an attempt to untangle the threads of 4chan and the far right.


The Banana That Conquered the World

Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe

A history of Musa Cavendishii Bananas, ‘from decorative wallpaper to the ships of United Fruit Company’, by Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe, for Tank magazine.

One of the largest wallpaper compositions in history depicts a voyage to a series of imagined landscapes. Sauvages de la mer Pacifique, a large-scale diorama designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and produced by Joseph Dufour in the early 19th century, recreates the overseas journeys of Captain James Cook. It brought the faraway “exotic” back into the bourgeois salon, and compressed a round-the-world journey and the hundreds of different peoples, plants, rocks and animals that Cook encountered along the way, into a flattened unified version, an amalgamated summary of the Pacific at large. Tahitians, Hawaiians, Vanuatuans, Tongans, Easter Islanders, were all put together into a single wall-sized cross-section of the planet that primitivised and homogenised the social complexity and diversity of a long-inhabited ocean.

At the very centre of the wallpaper, there is a banana plant, growing among the different peoples, as if that tree were the crucial element to be communicated to the ignorant Europeans looking for the first time at the Pacific. Regardless of the violent massacres that were happening at the same time to “discover” and “civilise” all those savages, the banana tree epitomised the fantasy of the journey to a remote, bloodless paradise.

Joseph Paxton, a gardener to the aristocracy, and later the architect of the Crystal Palace, became fascinated with bananas. When he first saw the plant depicted on the chinoiserie wallpaper in one of the rooms at Chatsworth, the Duke of Cavendish’s Devonshire estate, his reaction was to imagine the architecture that would help him actually grow bananas in the colder latitudes of northern Europe. In the 1820s, his contemporary Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had just invented the Wardian Case, a portable device that made possible the transportation of exotic species from the Pacific. This eccentric prototype of a sealed terrarium, consisting of a box with glass walls, could confine tropical plants under controlled humidity and temperature, protecting them from the harsh conditions of the voyage on the long way back to Europe. Joseph Paxton took this idea and expanded it into large-scale structures. He developed the first greenhouses that could host those travelling plants permanently, keeping the warmth of the sun inside. People in Europe would no longer need to travel for months if they wished to experience exuberant botany. It was suddenly brought directly back to them in three dimensions, just as the Sauvages de la mer Pacifique had previously done in two.


Project Exodus

Anthony Lydgate writing for the New Yorker

Elizabeth Colbert on NASA’s latest OSIRIS-REx mission, for the New Yorker:

The ancient Egyptians believed that the universe emerged from an ocean called Nun, boundless and inert. At the beginning of time, a mound pierced the surface of the waters and rose from the void. Upon the mound stood the sun god Atum, who summoned the cosmos into being. Slowly, nothing became everything. Atum had two children, who had two children of their own: Geb, the earth, and Nut, the sky. They fell in love, as divine siblings often do, and conceived two sons and two daughters. The firstborn, Osiris, was the rightful ruler of Egypt, but his younger brother, Set, was consumed with jealousy. He murdered Osiris and dismembered his corpse, scattering it in pieces across the kingdom. The remains fertilized the Nile and made the desert bloom.

The story of our solar system, as astrophysicists know it, is not so different. It begins with another vast expanse of inert stuff—a cloud of gas and dust. Some 4.6 billion years ago, the cloud stirred, perhaps troubled by a passing star or the shock waves of a nearby supernova, spreading out into an immense disk that began to spin. At the center of the disk was a white-hot mass of plasma, which devoured most of the material around it and became our sun. Its energy and gravity sorted the rest of the disk by kind. The hardy substances, like rocks and metals, remained close to the center, where they coalesced into the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The more fragile compounds retreated to the far reaches of the disk, beyond what astronomers call the snow line, forming the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and the frigid remainders beyond (Pluto, the comets, and the embryos of planets that never materialized). The story ends, of course, with life. It’s what happened in the middle—what made the desert bloom—that still has scientists flummoxed.

For a cell to survive, it requires three ingredients: nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA, to guide its development; amino acids to build proteins; and a lipid envelope to protect it from the elements. When life on our planet got its start, nearly four billion years ago, Earth was short on these ingredients. Where did they come from? The prevailing theory centers on a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. It suggests that, at the time, the solar system had not reached its current equipoise; the giant planets were on the move, and their gravity jostled free large numbers of asteroids and comets. Some drifted away into interstellar space, but others rushed inward, battering Earth with rock and ice. The onslaught lasted many millions of years, and though it brought unimaginable ruin it may also have seeded our planet with the chemical precursors of life. Very little now remains of that primordial Earth, but over the years meteorites have provided tantalizing clues of what might have fallen here, Osiris-like, from above. The Murchison meteorite, for instance, which struck rural Australia, in 1969, has been found to contain more than a hundred varieties of amino acid, along with the building blocks of lipids.


London’s Overthrow

An Essay by China Miéville

In London’s Overthrow, China Miéville ambles through the layers of a London of squatters and decay, glass towers and golden dragons; and where they collide.

Shove your hands in your pockets and set out. In London in winter it’s nearly pitch at half past four. By six, you’re in the night city, and in backstreets you can be alone for a long time.
Some chance conjunction of latitude and climate: in this city artificial light cuts darkness like nowhere else. There are no trees like these, streetlit up, fractal cutouts. When you were a kid you ran through this bluster and raindrops so tiny they were like dust falling in all directions, not just down, and missed it even while you were in it. 
There’s been a revolution in remembrance. Digital photography’s democratised the night-shoot. One touch at the end of a sleepy phone call on your way home, you can freeze the halo from streetlamps, the occluded moon, night buses, cocoons shaking through brick cuts, past all-night shops. Right there in your pocket, a lit-up memory of now.

This is an era of CGI end-times porn, but London’s destructions, dreamed-up and real, started a long time ago. It’s been drowned, ruined by war, overgrown, burned up, split in two, filled with hungry dead. Endlessly emptied. 
In the Regency lines of Pimlico is Victorian apocalypse. Where a great prison once was, Tate Britain shows vast, awesome vulgarities, the infernoward-tumbling cities of John Martin, hybrid visionary and spiv. But tucked amid his kitsch 19th Century brilliance are stranger imaginings. His older brother Jonathan’s dissident visions were unmediated by John’s showmanship or formal expertise. In 1829, obeying the Godly edict he could hear clearly, Jonathan set York Minster alight and watched it burn. From Bedlam – he did not hang – he saw out his life drawing work after astonishing work of warning and catastrophe. His greatest is here. Another diagnostic snapshot.

‘London’s Overthrow’. Scrappy, chaotic, inexpert, astounding. Pen-and-ink scrawl of the city shattered under a fusillade from Heaven, rampaged through by armies, mobs, strange vengeance. Watching, looming in the burning sky, a lion. It is traumatized and hurt.

The lion is an emblem too
that England stands upon one foot.

With the urgency of the touched, Martin explains his own metaphors.

and that has lost one Toe
Therefore long it cannot stand

The lion looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.



The Doll’s Alphabet: A Playlist

Compiled by Camilla Grudova

Ahead of The Doll’s Alphabet’s publication, today, Camilla Grudova put together a playlist to accompany the release of the book:

‘This a mixture of songs mentioned in The Doll’s Alphabet and songs I listened to while writing it. I was horrendously depressed at the time I was working on it and Josephine Baker’s Blue Skies is the song that always saved me from total wretchedness. The string quartets of Tchaikovsky were a favourite of Isak Dinesen’s. The Magic Flute is my favourite opera, I danced in a production of it when I was a child and was in love with the gentleman who played Papageno. Lotte Reiniger’s work fascinates me. Another opera I love is The Tales of Hoffmann. This ghostly kitsch organ rendition is the music I want played when I marry a dashing skeleton in an Austrian castle. It was wonderful to learn that organs, not just pianos, were used to accompany silent films. Pola Negri was a Polish girl who went to Hollywood and became a silent film star. She dated both Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Alexander Vertinsky was a Soviet Pierrot.’

Tchaikovsky— String Quartet No.1, Op. 11 mov.2
Pola Negri— A Woman Commands (from Paradise, 1952)
Jacques Offenbach— Barcarolle, Les contes d’Hoffmann.  (performed by Jesse Crawford)
Josephine Baker—  Blue Skies
Horace Finch— Finch Favourites Part II
Alexander Vertinsky— Drink, My Girl (Александр Вертинский – Пей, моя девочка)
Lotte Reiniger— Papageno (from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)
Leo Reisman and His Orchestra— The Wedding of the Painted Doll (from The Broadway Melody)
The Ronettes— Silhouettes
Shirley Temple— At the Codfish Ball (from Captain January)




They Told Me the Story From the Lighthouse

Chimene Suleyman in the White Review

Chimene Suleyman’s fiction contribution to the White Review in April 2012:

I found Margate watching the sea and I walked the streets thinking they had left it sometime in the 70s, like an old street sign hanging pleadingly over shut cafes. It was an old stand-up comedian who had been successful; lived a rock and roll lifestyle; pissed away his money on hookers and gambling; become an alcoholic; and performed the same routine from ’79 in the backs of pubs to old men who all wished they could disappear.

 It was a wonderful place. My bag was small, not enough clothes for the time there, and a playlist of Stevie Nicks in my ears that soundtracked the walk up the seafront. Out of place Fleetwood Mac posters, too small for the cases they were in, too old to be hanging along the railings. The B&Bs shouldered each other, grey cream grey again. A pretty town – full of fish and chip shops that didn’t open, and Mayfair packets chased down the road by wind. Spring hadn’t come, which was fair enough, given that the fat woman with the red dyed hair was stood outside Dreamland in a red vest top, shrugging off the grey sky.

 The pub served whiskey and cokes that I took my time with, watched one eye on the football score on the screen across from my head. It felt like a holiday. No real worry for my things, which I left across my seat when I stood out front of the pub smoking, listening to people who knew each other, talk. When the pub shut, drunker than I wanted to be, I walked towards the seafront to the line of B&Bs that stood mostly empty. I rang the doorbell, and the Lebanese man turned the key on the other side of the glass door, opening it. Just him and his wife, and a small child that smelt of shit who turned circles in what should have been their living room. A brown desk and an old computer in the corner as their reception area.

 – You waiting for somebody? – No. I tell him. – You shouldn’t wait for anyone, he says, – no one is worth it. – No, I say, – it’s just me. – No dirty weekend? he says. – No. – That’s ok, he says, – it’s ok to be here alone, he says, – it’s ok. I paid, took my keys and followed him up to the second floor, where the clean double bed was all I wanted, and the shower pissed over the toilet.


Petrol Stations

Digby Warde-Aldam writing for The Junket

Digby Warde-Aldam writes an essay piece on the strange space petrol stations occupy in British and American lore, for the Junket magazine:

Do you drive? I do not, cannot and will not, but my borderline phobic attitude to the motor car exists in tandem with a genuine, epicurean love for the smell of petrol; just as the olfactory bang of frying garlic hits me with Pavlovian ravenousness, the heady, metallic stench of a petrol station forecourt immediately renders me helplessly vulnerable to the catchpenny tat in the shop. Long car journeys punctuated by filling stops have caused me to invest in copies of magazines I don’t read, CD compilations I will never listen to and truly rebarbative wraps that bear as much resemblance to their advertised ingredients as I do to Lewis Hamilton. In a city, I can resist the onslaught of garish promotions, false economies and super-sized chocolate bars (‘£1 with any purchase!!’), but out at the oases of the A1 and the M4, I’m helpless against the diktats of the convenience store subliminal. As Half Man Half Biscuit put it in their typically facetious single ‘24 Hour Garage People’:

I’ll have ten KitKats and a motoring atlas
Ten KitKats and a motoring atlas –
And a blues CD on the Hallmark label,
That’s sure to be good.

Yeah, right. This litany of rubbish says it all for the British motorist’s consumer opportunities. Yet despite their subtopian architecture, the aforementioned mediocrity of their secondary wares and the faecal stench one encounters if forced to use their facilities, petrol stations hold many associations for me. Most of my childhood memories involve seemingly interminable car journeys between London, Edinburgh and what you might forgive me for calling the Northumbrian outback. We drove abroad, too, once all the way from Dunbar to Barcelona, via London, Troyes and Marseille. I don’t remember what, if anything, we actually did in any of these places, nor do I have much recollection of sitting in the car; in fact, my own distinctly non-linear childhood narrative consists almost exclusively of stopping for lunch in motorway service pitstops. 

In Britain, we tend to think of petrol stations – if we think about them much at all – as rather sorry places, sad clusters of concrete and glass flogging off fuel and Heat. Searching for examples of such garages in film and literature, I emailed almost everyone in my address book for suggestions. The response that came in only convinced me of this: ‘What about Alan Partridge? He hangs out in a petrol station’. North Norfolk’s favourite son notwithstanding, my enquiries revealed that the British canon throws up precious few garagistes; I can think of Scott Graham’s profoundly depressing film Shell, set on a small garage in the Highlands where an innocent teenage girl and her epileptic father pump out their lonely living; there is Ballard, of course (though not as interestingly or comprehensively as one might reasonably expect), and Chris Petit’s remarkable 1979 road movie Radio On, in which the protagonist arrives at a very basic petrol station somewhere between London and Bristol where the filling attendant is played by – of all people – Sting.  

American lore, though, puts the petrol station in an altogether more exalted position. There is nothing left to say about the Americans and their cars or about the Americans and their oil that is not already a cliché, but the simple fact is that if you’re going to travel the Big Country, at some point you’re going to need to top up the gas. From the immiseration of the Grapes of Wrath to the frontier romance of Edward Hopper’s Gas to Kerouac’s On the Road through to Easy Rider and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the filling station – preferably isolated and ever so slightly fly-blown – has become a favourite hangout for American cinema, art and literature.


‘Fuck’-ing Around

Joan Acocella writing for the New York Review of Books

Joan Acocella thinks about profanities and ‘the day the Pope dropped the C-bomb’ for the New York Review of Books:

Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuck that was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuckbearfuckfuck the deckfuckbagfuckwadhorsefucksportfuck,Dutch fuckunfuck—on that venerable theme.

Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity. So somebody is interested in profanity.

Many writers point out that there hasn’t been enough research on the subject. As long as we haven’t cured cancer, it’s hard to get grants to study dirty words. Accordingly, there don’t seem to have been a lot of recent discoveries in this field. Very many of Bergen’s and Adams’s points, as they acknowledge, have been made in earlier books, an especially rich source being Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing(2013). Mohr even reads us the graffiti from the brothel in ancient Pompeii—disappointingly laconic (e.g., “I came here and fucked, then went home”), but good to know all the same.

Of course one wants to know the history of the words, and all the books provide it, insofar as they can. Fuck did not get its start as an acronym, as has sometimes been jocosely proposed (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” etc.). If it had, there wouldn’t be so many obvious cognates in neighboring languages. Sheidlower lists, among others, the German ficken (to copulate), the Norwegian regional fukka (ditto), and the Middle Dutch fokken (to thrust, to beget children), all of them apparently descendants of a Germanic root meaning “to move back and forth.” Sheidlower says fuck probably entered English in the fifteenth century, but Bergen, writing later, reports that the medievalist Paul Booth recently came across a legal document from 1310 identifying a man as Roger Fuckebythenavel. Booth conjectures that this might have been a metaphor for something like “dimwit.” On the other hand, it could have been a nickname inflicted on an inexperienced young man who actually tried to do it that way, and whose partner could not resist telling her girlfriends.

Something to note here is that the word appeared in a legal document. For a long time fuck was not considered especially vile. Cunt, too, was once an ordinary word. A fourteenth-century surgery textbook calmly states that “in women the neck of the bladder is short and is made fast to the cunt.” Until well after the Renaissance, the words that truly shocked people had to do not with sexual or excretory functions but with religion—words that took the Lord’s name in vain. As late as 1866, Baudelaire, who had been rendered aphasic by a stroke, was expelled from a hospital for compulsively repeating the phrase cré nom, short for sacré nom (holy name).

Many exclamations that now seem to us merely quaint were once “minced oaths.”Criminycrikeycripesgeejeezbejesusgeez Louisegee willikersjiminy, and jeepers creepers are all to Christ and Jesus what frigging is to fucking. The shock-shift from religion to sexual and bathroom matters was of course due primarily to the decline of religion, but Mohr points out that once domestic arrangements were changed so as to give people some privacy for sex and elimination, references to these matters became violations of privacy, and hence shocking.


Fitz Carraldo Editions