Podcast: Putting the “Pro” in Profanity

Jesse Sheidlower talks slang on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 9 – Putting the “Pro” in Profanity

“Language is a proxy for our thoughts. And if you’re upset by something, it’s usually not the words but the underlying concept. We’re squeamish about sex, about excrement. We don’t like for our gods to be insulted. These are perfectly normal things to care about.”

Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower joins us to talk about his work at the Oxford English Dictionary, the process of pitching The F-Word, how what we find offensive has changed over time, the ways words get into the language, the OED’s transition to digital, the roots of “dropping an F-bomb”, the value of kids’ texting habits, and the importance of hosting dinner parties and wearing fine suits. Plus, you get to listen to me obsess over word choices and still embarrass myself!

“Many things that people bring up as signaling the end of language as we know it tend to mean the exact opposite.”

Note: if you’re uptight or sensitive about F-words, N-words, or other “strong” language, don’t listen to this episode.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out our archives for more great talk!

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About our Guest

Jesse Sheidlower is currently the President of the American Dialect Society and Editor at Large (North America) of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he has been since 1999. His current responsibilities focus chiefly on the revision of American and Canadian entries for the OED. He is also the author of The F-Word, a detailed historical study of the word fuck. He has been profiled on the front page of The New York Times and on 60 Minutes, and New York Magazine has named him one of the 100 smartest people in New York. Before he joined the OED, he was an editor in the Random House Reference Department, specializing in slang and new words. While there he was also project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. For more information, visit jessesword.com.

Credits: This episode’s music is Word Up by Cameo. The conversation was recorded at Jesse’s home in NYC on a pair of AT2020 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by Miss Scorpio.

Opening Foreclosing Day!

During his playing days, former MLBer and steroid abuser Lenny Dykstra explained to a writer that he was totally unwilling to read, for fear it would affect his batting eye. This reached the point where he wouldn’t even look at road signs (presumably, while he was being driven somewhere). So when my boss, a huge Mets fan, said to me about a year ago, “I saw this thing on Lenny Dykstra on HBO Real Sports last night. He’s a financial genius!”, I was more than a little skeptical. After all, last I’d heard about Dykstra, he was running a car wash in California and getting cleared of charges that he was sexually harassing a 17-year-old employee. All of a sudden, he was a stock wiz and the publisher of a magazine for rich athletes.

I concluded that you couldn’t find a bigger sign that we were in a financial bubble than the hyping of Lenny Dykstra as a stock-picking savant.

(Another big sign of that bubble was the New Yorker deciding to commission a lengthy profile on Dykstra around this time. Interestingly, they seemed to choose a writer who doesn’t know much about baseball or finance. Maybe he’s a car wash expert. I can’t find any references to this article in the magazine’s coverage of the global finance collapse and the media’s role in hyping easy money.)

Here’s some of that Real Sports segment:

You’d think Jon Stewart would’ve picked this clip as part of his Jim Cramer beatdown-montage. To quote Mr. Cramer, “I think people don’t think of Lenny as sophisticated. But I am telling you, Bernie, that not only is he sophisticated, but he’s one of the great ones in this business. He’s one of the great ones.”

So how’s that financial empire doing now? Well, the NYPost has just coined the name “Lienny Dykstra,” on account of his default on his $12 million mortgage.