Monday, June 20, 2016

Fighting for the Full Range of Expression

Authors have a responsibility to enhance and enlarge the language. While it is true that most additions to the language are organic (and shit), etymologists need a fixed point where they can say “this is the first known use of this word.” While it’s safe to say few writers actually “invent” a word, we’re still the source material that will show up in the OED one day.

That said, I’d like to argue for a couple of phrases that, while not new, have been woefully underutilized. I’m not advocating “taking them back” as Randall did in Clerks 2, but in giving them some breathing room, unencumbered by small-mindedness of polite conversation that denies these potentially valuable phrases the full range of their expressive capabilities.

Example One: “Like/as a bastard.”
George V. Higgins liked this phrase, which is as good a place to start as any. Eddie Coyle said having his fingers broken “hurt like a bastard,” which is probably the most common usage for the term. Higgins shows some of the potential for the term later in the book, when Eddie, desperate to cut a deal to keep himself out of prison, wants the fed he’s been stooling for to tell the judge how Eddie has been “helping his Uncle like a bastard.”

That’s the glory of this simple phrase: it can serve as an adverb to show more than the standard definition of any verb without resorting to the vapidness “very” has attached to adjectives.

Looking for lifelike conversation? This is how men speak to each other:

“How’s the weather?”
“Snowing like a bastard.”
“How are the roads?”
“Slick as a bastard.”
“Think we should stay home?”
“Hell no. I’m hungry as a bastard.”
“Want to go to Mulligan’s?”
“Why? Their service is slow as a bastard.”

See? Pithy yet elegant, and it removes the need to look for a New Yorker-sounding construct that will send your reader to a dictionary, thus ruining the dream-like state induced by the rest of your otherwise deathless prose.

Example Two: “Breaking balls.”
To be fair, “breaking balls” already has a full and rewarding existence in various contexts. It has the rare quality to be both complimentary and insulting as few other words or phrases this side of “fuck” can pull off. To wit:

“Where have you been?”
“Down the bar breaking balls with Dave.”

“How’s Dave?”
“All that cocksucker does is break my balls.”

The minions of political correctness have unfairly limited this fine phrase’s gifts by forcing it to be gender-specific. Who are we to deny women the (sometimes dubious) privilege of having their balls broken? Women don’t have balls, you say? I am an artist, sir. The purpose of my life is to transcend he limitations of language through metaphorical exploration.

Witness the following anecdote: The Lone Sibling has come to visit me on the weekend of my fiftieth birthday. The Beloved Spouse was not yet even the Beloved Spousal Equivalent. She was still in the “Woman Who Shows Great Potential” phase. The Lone Sibling bought lunch; I paid for chicken wings for during the football game. (My birthday falls during the NFL’s Divisional Playoff weekend.) This happened around halftime of the late afternoon game:

Woman Who Shows Great Potential: Anyone else hungry? (To me.) You want to heat up the wings?
Me: Damn, woman. He bought lunch. I paid for the wings. Would it break your balls to turn on the oven?

(Note: I said this with the utmost affection. She turned on the oven, we all ate wings, and the bond that connects us to this day was set a little more securely. Go ahead. Scoff. We’re happy.)

As a writer—particularly a writer of crime fiction—it offends me when the delicate sensitivities of people unnaturally prone to the vapors place artificial limits on any form of expression. English is a beautiful, vibrant, and constantly growing language. To deny it—and us—the full range of expression not only damages us all on some level, it’s breaking my balls like a bastard.


Charlieopera said...

Good stuff. I've been chastised for using "cocksucker" on FB one or two times (i.e., as in it's offensive to gay men). Fuck that noise, I say. It's my favorite fucking word. I also don't take the necessary time (I guess) to consider who I might be offending when I fire off something (whether it's on FB or my dopey blog) ... I sure don't take the time when in a verbal dispute ... whether it's with another person or one of my dogs. "Hey, you little cocksuckers, those are my sneakers."

Refreshing post, old man. Will share with someone from the MFA program who wrote a piece about the overuse of "very" ...

Dana King said...

"Cocksucker" could be the gateway to another whole post, as it symbolizes the trend to take any word or phrase out of context. "Cocksucker" when used as a pejorative with no gay context no more refers to someone who regularly fellates other men than "motherfucker" means the man in question actually engages in incestuous intercourse with the woman who bore him. It's a figure of speech.

While I also understand that care needs to be used when addressing people, the only person who gets to take offense at the use of cocksucker is a gay man when the slur is directed at him. If, as a character of mine once said, "One wop cocksucker less or more is no difference to me," I don't want to hear from Italians or gay men (or anyone who presumes to speak for them) unless the slur was directed at them personally. They would be better served to mind their business and save their umbrage for those who actually mean them harm.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

I think I used 'break my balls' in my upcoming novel. That, of course, was a nod to a good friend of mine.

Dana King said...

Good for you, Kelly. Thanks for stopping by.

Peter Rozovsky said...

All this fucking swearing is going to make the English language go tits up, old chaps.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I needed this today. Thanks!