[WARNING: Since this category-inaugurating post is about current and historical uses of vulgar language, I’ll have to use words I don’t normally use either in my every day existence or on this blog. I know I have readers who prefer to avoid all that, so, if you’re one of them, you may want to either skip this or at least proceed with caution.]
Hard to read, but if you peer closely enough, you’ll find a copy of a license to practice prostitution at a “House of Ill Fame” in the City of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, which is very close to the time period I’ll be discussing below.
So last week came the news that Madonna is offering high quality blow jobs to Clinton voters. While it’s unclear whether this is a promise or a threat, it’s definitely an attempt to stay relevant. These days, you have to run fast if you want to stay on the cutting edge Madonna used to navigate with ease. Even so, the belief that a woman’s freedom lies in wanting what her guy wants–already all the rage–doesn’t have much further to go before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. That’ s where the rape victim at last finds “freedom” by learning to want what the rapist wants.
You can see why even Madonna might be getting a little out of breath.
It can’t be easy being the Queen of Shock when a major party nominee for president–the Republican no less–has a tape out there where he’s bragging about pussy-grabbing and Howard Stern, of all people, is insisting he’s never heard that kind of talk!
If I seem a little skeptical of this latter claim, it might be because Trump would have been counted an amateur in my rural southern high school’s lunchroom. (Forget the “locker room.” In public school environments back then the only place that was relatively loose and unsupervised was the lunchroom.)
I’m not saying something along the lines of “Damn it, I saw that white stuff spilling out of her pussy and I started thinking Jesus fuckin’ Christ I mighta’ just made a baby. Fuckin’ bitch was straight-up Italian, too. Little fucker’ll probably be born with a mustache.” was every day conversation, but nobody counted it any way unusual. Given my subsequent adult exposure to city types (i.e., “Who does he think I”m gonna hire John? I’m gonna hire the one I want to fuck!”), I doubt the level of enlightenment was much higher elsewhere.
And I doubt much has changed.
But here’s a question.
Was it ever thus?
I have a special interest in this for two reasons. The first is that I have a relationship to language that’s a lot like the relationship singers have to singing. Ask a singer when they started singing and it’s almost guaranteed the answer will be along the lines of “since before I can remember.” Same with me and the pursuit of words–spoken words, written words, overheard words, covert words, public words, whispered words, imaginary words, words to learn, words to live by, words to forget or else be nagged or haunted or vexed by.
Almost any child has a boundless interest in words, of course, but mine went far beyond any version of normal. When it came to words (and almost nothing else), I had to know. I didn’t have to share what I learned. Sharing, in fact, is still a learning process (of which this blog is just the latest part). But I always had to know. And what I mostly had to know was just how much power words–or, if you like, language–could contain. How I could use them and how they could use me.
The second reason, likely the main reason I’ve taken a long time to find myself as a fiction writer–and I have, the world just hasn’t caught up yet–is that I never wanted to be pretty good. I never wanted to settle. I wanted to be as good as anyone can be in this time and place. I wanted to die unpublished (which could still happen), rather than live with being just okay, no matter how successful.
Whether I’ve gotten all the way there will be for others to judge once the stories I’ve learned to tell make their way into some public domain (self-publishing if all else fails–yes you pros out there, yearning to discover the next big thing, that’s a threat and a promise).
But the yammering around the “shock” that’s being expressed over vulgar, abusive language these days–language which always amounted to just words in our collapsed “modern” culture until Donald Trump, of all people, spoke them out loud–has put me in mind of a particular instance where I found myself playing Mark Twain’s old right word/almost right word (i.e., the difference between lightning and the lightning bug) game whilst trying to live inside the mind of a young woman in the Arizona Territory, circa the late 1870s, trying to find just the right words to say to a town marshal who has come to deliver her a considerable bounty earned by her husband for tracking down three stagecoach robbers.
Normally, the right words for that circumstance might be along the lines of a simple “Thank you.” But, this being a tale worthy of the telling and a telling worthy of the tale, the young woman’s relationships to the marshal, her husband and the bounty her husband has earned are…complicated.
Without giving away too much of the plot–you will want to read the book some day–let me just give the situational basics:
The young woman has come from a terribly hard, violent background in the Civil War South. The marshal is a classic Yankee carpetbagger who has an eye for her. They have collaborated on a scheme to send her husband after the bounty. They do not have the same ends in mind, however, as she simply wants the money while he wants a crack at her.
Her husband is lying (seriously, though not mortally, wounded–he may never walk again) in the tiny house where they live with their four-year-old daughter.
She has just learned that the gunfight where her husband was wounded, may have been a bushwhack set up by the marshal (his backup plan for turning her into a vulnerable, available widow in case the stage robbers weren’t up to killing her husband to begin with).
She is now standing just inside the front door of her house, staring out through a fly screen, watching the marshal walk up to her front porch.
She is not yet certain that the information just conveyed to her by a teenage girl who is her unofficial ward is reliable, but she has nonetheless picked up a shotgun.
As she waits for the marshal to step up on to her porch, she thinks: I will know by his eyes.
When he is close enough for her to see his reaction to the sight of the shotgun (on an occasion when he expects to be met with open arms), she knows the information is sound. The marshal is the reason her husband may never walk again…and why certain larger plans, of which the bounty is a necessary ingredient, may never go forward.
She pushes the screen door open with the barrel of the shotgun and steps onto the porch.
Then she raises the shotgun’s muzzle to the very surprised marshal’s eye.
…There I had to decide what she was going to say, and, this still being a telling worthy of the tale, I shifted to a memory scene, wherein the teenage girl who gave the woman the information (and who stuck around to watch the four-year-old and sneak a peek at what she suspected were going to be fireworks) is recalling her time on the witness stand during the trial that inevitably ensued.
She’s been admonished to say exactly what happened and, having been assured by the court that this is what she must do, she begins by repeating the woman’s exact words–the words I had to come up with to convey the quality of the woman’s rage.
“Damn” and “hell” didn’t seem to get there and I knew “mother fucker”–which is kind of dull and listless anyway–was not a thing then.
So I had the woman say (and the girl remember) this:
You back up off of my porch cocksucker!
I thought this was strong. The woman in question is a devout Christian, but has been formed by an extremely violent and harsh set of experiences. She is drawing on deep memories of that previous violence (much of it done to her, some of it done by her). She also well knows the power of shock language coming from her, especially when it is directed at a man who is infatuated with her and has an inkling, but no specific knowledge, of her background. Having had women point guns at him before–he’s that type–he only becomes alarmed when he notices that her hands don’t shake.
Perfect then, or at least perfectly acceptable.
I was satisfied with it.
The only question was, did anybody, Christian woman or otherwise, say “cocksucker” in Arizona in 1878?
Language, you see. My thing. Should I leave it alone just this once?
It bugged me a little. Surely, I thought. Surely by 1878!
I spent another year finishing the book from that scene forward (it’s about a third of the way in), then some months editing and polishing.
I left in “cocksucker.”
It still felt strong. I just still didn’t know if she would actually say it in 1878.
I liked it well enough that I considered not researching it, because, if the book were ever published, not one in a thousand readers would know if the word was historically anachronistic and even fewer would care.
Still, it bugged me, not knowing. It bugged me long after I had satisfied the thousand other issues–language related or otherwise–bound to come up in a seven hundred page novel set well before the memory of anyone currently living.
I admit it. I didn’t want to find out that “cocksucker” wasn’t a valid word for the time, place and/or character, because, if it wasn’t, then it was unlikely I would find another word or phrase as good.
If that happened, then I would be caught in the Deadwood dilemma. Though I had never seen an episode of Deadwood at the time (I wrote about my subsequent, rather disappointing experience with the first season here), I had come across interviews with the show’s creator David Milch and some of the other writers. They freely admitted their use of “cocksucker” and the various forms of “fuck” were anachronistic (in the sense that they were almost certainly not part of every day speech, even in brothels or criminal gangs) in the show’s time period (very close to mine).
I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd. Even before I watched it I was sure of that. I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd because not being part of any crowd is my identity.
Knowing that, I also knew that, finally, I had to do my research.
It didn’t take long to confirm one expectation and discover another thing I hadn’t know.
The expectation was that the specific origin and use of blue language as it related to common speech in an era when many words were unprintable is often murky at best. By the best information I could find, “cocksucker” wasn’t referred to in print anywhere until the 1890s. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been in use in 1878. Words are rarely invented for the purpose of publication and, if they are, they rarely outlast their specific usage. (Think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which my generation of school children used to insist was the longest word in the English language no matter how often our teachers kept insisting it was not a word!)
“Cocksucker” seemed like the kind of practical word that might have been in common usage by 1878, found its way into print a decade or two later, and survived to even more common usage in later days, to be re-inserted into “history” by modern fiction writers invested in making the language of history seem real.
Its historical usage–the likelihood, or at least possibility, of it showing up in my character’s speech on that porch in the Arizona Territory in 1878–couldn’t be confirmed.
But it couldn’t be absolutely denied either.
I was safe….Kind of….Sort of.
Not safe enough, in other words, to keep the issue from bugging me.
Still, I might have let it go, had I not come across the thing I did not expect.
I did not expect it because, what with those thousand other things on on my mind, I had gotten hung up on the origin of this certain word and simply neglected to consider something which should always be first and foremost among anyone trying to write convincing historical fiction, which is the evolution of words.
It was one thing to suggest–without proof one way or the other–that my character, under extreme duress, could have used “cocksucker” on a porch in Arizona in 1878.
But what about how she used it?
Not how she said it. That’s a matter of tone, and the tone being perfectly matched to the word–along with the fear of never finding another quite so good–was the whole reason I was fighting to keep it to begin with.
Usage is something else, though. And that was where the real problem began.
At a stretch “cocksucker” might have been available to my character. At only a slightly longer stretch she might have even used it.
But, in Arizona, in 1878, she would never have used it the way I was having her use it.
Being a very literal-minded character, she would never have used it at all unless she was referring to someone she knew for a certainty sucked cocks…and would never have used it at all in the circumstance I had her using it.
She would not have used it as a euphemism for “bastard” or “son of a bitch” or “hell spawn” because, even though those insults already carry a certain euphemistic quality, the one thing all my research confirmed–the one thing everybody agreed on–was that it was well into the twentieth century before “cocksucker” was used the way those other words were used.
To be called a “son of a bitch” did not mean someone literally thought your mother was a bitch (then regarded as a further euphemism for a “loose women” which was the polite phrase for “whore,” now more likely to be applied to someone merely being cranky). But to be called a cocksucker just meant you were known to suck cocks.
In other words, before it became a euphemism itself, “cocksucker” was, by every account I could find, universally literal.
My character might have said (even as far back as the 1870s, well before its first officially recognized use, if we accept that much obscenity was then kept in the shadows) “Well he is known to be a cocksucker.” But neither she, nor anyone else, would have said: “He’s a goddamned cocksucker!” simply to identify someone who didn’t suck cocks as a bad person.
Nor, as Deadwood might have it, would one have said “He’s a mother fucking cocksucker!”.
Not unless maybe you knew for a fact that the man in question had both consorted with his mother and sucked at least one man’s member.
Evolving sex words into general insults–ultimately the worst insults–seems to have been a curious side effect of the twentieth century’s waves of sexual revolution.
That might be another post for another time.
For now, let’s get back to me and my dilemma.
Cocksucker was a word my character simply would not have used.
Granted, historical language is unlikely to be anywhere near perfect.. One of the things I came across in my research was how many of the “folksy” frontier words Hollywood was using in westerns or historical dramas in the 1930s were completely anachronistic or even ahistorical, despite many of the people involved as writers, directors and actors, having grown up around a generation who lived through the period in question. But I still couldn’t live with something I knew didn’t cut it.
I’d already told myself every comforting lie I could think of, and I still had to go and poke the anthill. Once the anthill was good and poked–no longer hibernating but alive with confusion–I had no choice but to set out on a new quest for the “lightning.”
“Cocksucker” had officially been turned into a lightning bug.
For the moment I was stuck with going back to “son of a bitch,” which I had rejected to begin with because it was too common an epithet (in that time or this) to carry the full weight of the situation. The man arranged to have her husband shot for God’s sake!
In those rare moments when my character could forget that she was on her way to becoming a lady, she would have thrown son of a bitch around as casually as she drew a breath.
For this moment, when she was pointing a shotgun in the face of a law officer who she had just discovered had her husband shot and nearly killed, I thought she would reach a little deeper….that something stronger would flow through her mind.
It was my job, finally, to discover what she already knew…which was what she would really say.
“Son of a bitch?”
I meant more to her than it does to anyone now living.
But it still didn’t feel like it meant quite enough.
Back to the Deadwood dilemma.
How to bridge the distance between the modern mind’s expectations and what a historical character would actually say at one of the novel’s crucial moments.
There was nothing to do but keep living in her mind–especially her mind at that moment–and hope for the best.
i did that for a few weeks and then, unbidden, she walked through my mind’s eye and confronted the Marshal as she had a thousand times before. She raised the shotgun to his eye, saw his shocked expression, just like always.
Then she said:
You back up off of my porch you sheep shit son of a bitch.
And that was that.
Son of a bitch hadn’t done it.
Adding “sheep shit”—the beautiful, natural alliteration, the organic association with the eternal images of the sheep-vs-cattle wars that take up so much space in western history and mythology, the combination of the long assimilated directness of judging a man’s character by his whore of a mother and being no better than sheep dung as a result–gave it the just right touch.
Once I heard the unbidden phrase in my ear, I knew that, unlike “cocksucker” or “son of a bitch” on its own, it came from her and nobody else.
I knew those words satisfied her and, the way only she could deliver it, they stung the Marshal far deeper than “cocksucker,” which he would have already had flung at him a hundred times over if the word, and the concept of applying it non-literally, had been available to the average “dove” (the time and place’s euphemism for a prostitute, especially one working in “a house of ill fame”).
My character is a woman who will abide by, even insist upon, the strictest observance of the social niceties, unless and until her back is to the wall. At which point she will make the meanest man in the world wish he had just walked on by. The combination of steady hand on the shotgun trigger and “sheep shit son of a bitch” conveyed all of that.
Just where she decided to shoot him, you’ll have to read the book some day to find out.
Just as a coda: Madonna and Trump, in the recent instances cited above, both deployed direct, frontier usage, calling a thing what it is. However, one of Trump’s earlier headline-grabbing “transgressions” was a game of cat and mouse with a female in the audience at one of his early rallies, which ended with first her, then him (quoting her), calling Ted Cruz “a pussy.”
That was pure modernism, no matter how much you think Ted Cruz resembles a vagina.