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A Life’s Work: The Sexicographer

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After spending an afternoon in pre-pubescent mode, searching Dictionary.com for dirty words (FYI: synonyms for “cunt” include “puss,” “nooky” and “slit”), I somehow convinced the site’s resident wordsmith, Barbara Kipfer, to chat with me. “I’m getting crusty,” said Kipfer, a sportswriter-turned-lexicographer who has played with words for twenty-two years. But she wasn’t too stodgy to answer questions about the progress of “fuck,” synonyms for “vagina,” and the long-range prospects of “schlong.”
Ross Martin


I’m going to ask you about bad words, Barbara.
Uh-oh. I say bad words, but I don’t like them in dictionaries.

What’s the worst word you’ve ever heard?
“Cockroach.”

Come on, you can do better than that.
“Asshole.”

Careful, now!
We each have a choice phrase that we use when we stub our toe. Mine’s quite a long, strung-together set of words. No one should be around when this pours out of my mouth.

What’s the first bad word you learned? “Shit,” in seventh grade.

Ever let an embarrassing word slip out in conversation?
I’ve heard on many occasions, “You’re a lexicographer, right? Don’t you know any other words? Can you please stop swearing?”

Why is it that most bad words seem to be sexual?
Hmmm. Sex is personal — at least it’s supposed to be — so using it in these ways is brazen, which is the whole idea behind bad words.

SWORN HISTORY
The evolution of “fuck,” from the American Heritage Dictionary:

The obscenity “fuck” is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, “Flen flyys,” from the first words of its opening line, “Flen, flyys, and freris,” that is, “fleas, flies, and friars.” The line that contains fuck reads “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.” The Latin words “Non sunt in coeli, quia,” mean “they [the friars] are not in heaven, since.” The code “gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields “fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli.” The whole thus reads in translation: “They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].”

I think four-letter words have four letters so we can keep track of them.
They are monosyllabic English words referring to the sexual or excretory functions or to organs of the human body. The origin of this is purported to be YHVH, the Hebrew word for God, which pious people will neither speak nor write. It’s the oldest four-letter word under taboo in history.

What’s the most vulgar of the four letter words?
Jesse Sheidlower’s book, The F-Word, manages in 270 pages to cover all the derivative F-words from the original. Most would say that the F-word is considered the most vulgar utterance in the English language.

By the way, congratulations on “fuck,” which you handle brilliantly. Not only do you include definitions for “fuck off,” “fuck over” and “fuck up,” you also include a nifty etymology. “Fuck” seems more acceptable now than ever. Is this progress?
It sounds like progress for the proponents of this style of language!

Who decides which words make the cut?
Lexicographers develop a selection or inclusion policy for each dictionary, which covers regional and foreign terms, slang and taboo words.

And when it comes time to add new words?
They often include the latest [vulgar] words because it’s a selling point for a dictionary’s marketing department. If these new words die out, they can be weeded from the next edition.

Some words must provoke serious battles.
The last big debate was over “ain’t” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961.

I’m relieved “ain’t” made the cut. If you could, which five words would you eliminate from the language?
“Fuck,” “shit,” “motherfucker” or “motherfucking,” “fart” and “asshole.”

What was the first bad word that made it in?
Captain Francis Grose published his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, which may have been the first dictionary to include a bad word.

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What words will never make the cut?
Most of the original bad words — like all of those in Sheidlower’s book. Rarely do we need to look up a bad word to see if we’re using it correctly!

Then why put bad words in the dictionary at all?
Because the goal of most dictionaries is to report on actual usage of words.

At Dictionary.com, you compile definitions from a variety of dictionaries. Which dictionaries are the most progressive?
Oxford‘s sheer workforce size, resources and history make it the power to contend with.

The most lewd?
Webster’s New World and the Random House dictionaries, which have a lot of slang.

And the most prude?
Probably Merriam-Webster.

Merriam wouldn’t approve, but can we talk about the word “come” for a minute?
Why?


WHAT’S ANOTHER WORD FOR . . .
(Highlights from Dictionary.com)
Vagina none

Prick asshole, bastard, cocksucker, shit, mother fucker, motherfucker, mother, son of a bitch, SOB

Cock prick, dick, shaft, pecker, peter, tool

Sexual intercourse fucking, screw, screwing, ass, piece of ass, roll in the hay, shag v: have sexual intercourse with; “This student sleeps with everyone in her dorm.”

Fuck love, make out, make love, sleep with, get laid, have sex, know, do it, be intimate, have intercourse, have it away, have it off, screw, jazz, eff, hump, lie with, bed, have a go at it, bang, get it on, bonk

It’s how I make a living, ma’am. When a word like “come” is defined in the dictionary, its “vulgar” usage is usually not shown in a sentence. Haven’t we evolved to the point where you can print, “He ‘came’ on her stomach?” without it being a big deal?
Sorry. They’re commonly used, so we have to put some of them in. But it’s not likely you’re going to get us to put in the example sentence, too!

Nerve never spells “come” as “cum,” but the latter spelling is cross-referenced in your dictionary. I was glad to see you’re so comprehensive. Was it a tough choice to make?
It wasn’t our call. Our dictionaries are prepared by others, and it’s their decision. We publish what they print.

I enjoy the Thesaurus function on Dictionary.com, but how can there be no synonyms for “vagina”? I can think of ten right now!
Well, those would be in a thesaurus of slang or a thesaurus of bad words. Among dictionary editors, there’s just not enough room or motivation.

I was surprised to find that you don’t consider “cunt” vulgar slang. (It’s simply defined as “female genital organs.”) But calling a woman a “cunt” is labeled “offensive.” Does this mean that sometimes the word “cunt” isn’t really a bad word, unless you’re calling a woman one?
Again, it’s the call of the dictionary publisher.

Okay, we’ve talked too much about female genitalia. I typed in “penis” and hit the “Find Acronym” button on your site. Here’s what popped up: “Proton-Enhanced Nuclear Induction Spectroscopy (NMR technique).” But no matter how I spell it, I can’t find a “schlong” anywhere.
Nobody’s put it in a general dictionary yet.

I did find “dong,” as an acronym for “Danish Oil & Natural Gas.” There’s always something new to learn on Dictionary.com. And it’s fun for the whole family.
We certainly think so. I always loved dictionaries and encyclopedias compared to other books because I could open them up to any spot and read something short and sweet.

Dictionary.com is so mysterious. And so powerful.
We shall remain mysterious and powerful!

Word.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ross Martin’s recent work appears in magazines such as Agni, Bomb, Boulevard, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Verse, Witness and others. He has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, The New School University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. His first book, ‘The Cop Who Rides Alone,’ is published by Zoo Press (www.zoopress.org).

©2003 Ross Martin and Nerve.com