Controlled Vocabulary

A physicist-comrade in graduate school, Carl Caves, preceded me by a year or two at our alma mater Rice University. In the early 1970s, Carl used to say, one could get by for weeks as an undergrad using only the "seven dirty words" that George Carlin made so famous. Perhaps just a subset of them would suffice, he thought.

Personally I've always avoided using foul language as much as possible. Maybe I'm a Victorian pantywaist fop at heart, but obscenity sounds so uncivilized and impolite. It's like dropping a glass in the midst of dinner-table conversation to get someone's attention. Sure, these are only sounds, arbitrary symbols associated with scatological, blasphemous, or sexual things. But I like to reserve them for when they're really needed—which is almost never. Yes, on a recent trail run I did slightly startle (and amuse) friend Caren Jew by using an extraordinarily naughty word. But, as I pointed out, the term was inside quote-marks, a literal citation of someone else. So it wasn't really me saying "that word". It's the philosophical "use-mention distinction", the difference between the meaning of a word and the word-as-object itself. See Alice in Wonderland for good examples.

But even though I find crudity in English highly unæsthetic I'm nevertheless fascinated by it in other languages, especially Russian. Maybe it's my anthropological/linguistic sense of curiosity? Half a dozen years ago, for instance, a New Yorker magazine "Letter from Moscow" by Victor Erofeyev caught my eye. The piece was titled "Dirty Words" (cf. 2003-09-15, p. 42) and provided an analytic overview of Russian swearing, mat. A language blog critiqued that article. Currently Wikipedia, the mother lode of human wisdom, offers an article devoted to mat. And there's even a web domain,, dedicated to teaching the fine art to beginners. It comments:

... Strictly speaking, mat is a language built upon five (5) extremely vulgar roots. Using the rules of Russian grammar and word formation, verbs, adjectives, and nouns of every kind can be formed—entire sentences (and diatribes) composed exclusively of mat vocabulary. Days to learn, a lifetime to master. ...

Shades of Carl's observation about undergrad life!

^z - 2009-02-06