Thursday, August 03, 2006

In defense of the word sucks

Slate's Seth Stevenson says sucks has lost its tawdry implications.
When someone says Bill Gates is a geek, do you picture him as a circus performer biting the head off a live chicken? Of course not. The word's root meaning has been replaced with a new connotation. Similarly, when I call Paris Hilton a moron, I don't mean she's mentally retarded, and when I call bungee jumping lame I don't mean it's disabled. What once was offensive is now simply abrasive. Language moves on, and the sucks-haters are living in the past.
The fellatio meaning of the word was first recorded in 1928, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It says the underlying notion of suck, meaning "to be contemptible," started being used in the early 1970s. Other slang senses: suck eggs, 1906; suck hind tit, 1940.

But how much does the etymology matter today? I've told the story before of starting my first job and being shocked to discover that sucks simply wasn't allowed in the paper. I've since ratcheted up my sensitivity considerably and seldom use the word at all anymore. But I seriously had to train myself not to say it.

The Slate piece goes on to describe English's lack of intransitive verbs expressing displeasure and gives an example from the 1940s classic "The Philadelphia Story," one of my favorites.

Dinah Lord: "This stinks."

Margaret Lord: "Don't say stinks, darling. If absolutely necessary, smells. But only if absolutely necessary."


At 1:25 PM, August 03, 2006, Blogger WordzGuy said...

We had a huge to-do around here because there a group was running a contest internally (intra-company) with the theme "Pimp Your Office." Naturally, this pitted the I'm-Horrified crowd against the Get-With-It-Gramps crowd. Upshot was that the posters were taken down (either by HR or as souvenirs).


At 1:03 PM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Bill said...

Greg Brady: "You're a real stinker!"

Mrs. Brady: "GREG! You KNOW I hate that word!"

At 1:17 PM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Wordzguy, I was mildly surprised at the American Copy Editors Society conference in 2004 when I saw the "Pimp My Headlines" session. (Of course, it was wildly popular.)

At 10:58 PM, August 07, 2006, Anonymous Zoe said...

Of course, Pimp My Headline wasn't really the official name of the session, but the T-shirts were an interesting touch.

At 8:55 AM, August 09, 2006, Anonymous About:Blank said...

Yeah, the word has lost it's ooooomph from a half generation ago. Todays generation has a habit of beating good things into the ground with overuse.



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