The Dirty Word in 43 Down (expanded)

A New York Times Crossword Puzzle Gaffe: “If you finished Monday’s crossword puzzle in the New York Times, your answer for 43 Down, clued as ‘Scoundrel,’ was SCUMBAG. Most puzzlers, penciling in these letters, felt nothing more than mild satisfaction. But a small number knew enough to be outraged.” (Slate)

The article makes much of the fact that most people today know the word is derogatory but few feel it is vulgar, being largely ignorant of its origin as a term for a condom. I was amazed to find that the Oxford English Dictionary dates the term back only to 1967, with the first noted use to mean ‘despicable’ in 1971. I was a child in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s experimenting, as we all did unless we were brought up in the finest homes, with vulgarity and scatology, and already back then calling someone a ‘scumbag’ brought that frisson of using a forbidden word otherwise reserved for c-words, s-words, b-words and f-words. Maybe it took awhile to diffuse across the Atlantic, although it has always been my impression that British vulgarity is far more colorful and evocative than the somewhat sad, pitiful hackneyed version in the U.S.

In any case, there is ongoing debate about whether dictionaries should reflect common usage or define normative usage; whichever it is, most dictionary entries on ‘scumbag’ these days have the disparaging but not the vulgar connotation (good thing, because otherwise would we find the word in the dictionary at all?). And so it goes with most vulgarity? It feels as if something is lost when saying ‘fuck’ does not bring on a little shiver blending daring, delight and alarm.

On the other hand, I have wondered if this is not a benefit of the sexual revolution, in a sense. If sex is less shameful, do sexual connotations (and references to other bodily functions) become less disparaging? Since people need expletives, in a sense, could it be that the pejorative connotations of f-words, c-words etc. are more highly conserved than the sexualized flavor? In being wistful about the thrill of uttering a forbidden word, and in conveying the same attitude to my children, am I showing my stripes as a ‘prude’??

More: People interested in this issue would do well to browse through the contents of Maledicta, ‘the international journal of verbal aggression’, available here.