My museum is like Steven Wright’s seashell collection, scattered on the beaches of the Internet, and this page is its catalog.
This is the under-construction companion to my book manuscript, Crackers, Tricks, and Elderbabies: A Memoirical History of the the Second Gilded Age, which argues that the Second Gilded Age (about 1984-2006) was America’s Potemkin Postwar, hiding under a thin guise of the 1960s’ wealth and excitement. Under feel-good fakery.
All links die; these links will die. You can tell me if you like, or better yet tell me what to exhibit: robb at zoombackbaby.com.
CHAPTER 1: 1984
Americans’ mood as they turned the corner into a new historical era. Pop songs and french fries and money.
Some basic macroeconomic data (spreadsheets). Note
1970s downers (TV news). Note
Data for charts: money, obesity, swearing (spreadsheet, text). Note
Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984
1984 had a whole lot of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There was, first of all, a feature film. It was quite good. The pop soundtrack by the band Eurythmics was also quite good, though only loosely attached to the text and so ill-fitted in style that it was removed from some later releases of the film.
The popular press ran endless articles, which must have jolted older folks for whom 1984 had been so distant, and which must have gotten many to read or re-read Orwell’s work.
And then there was the famous TV ad for Apple’s new Macintosh computer, which ran once during the 1984 Super Bowl and then never again. Watch it and tell me what it has to do with Orwell’s novel.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The answer? Nothing. It’s just nonsense, dressed up in science-fiction cliches that apparently looked Orwellian to someone who didn’t read the book. (Maybe it was Photoshop: Filter > Stylize > Orwell.) It’s odd to think, but Orwell would have been just eighty and could have seen this ad; one minor reason to mourn his early death is that it cost us his reaction to this tripe. Writing Nineteen Eighty-Four probably cost Orwell his life; Apple urinated on his grave by reducing him to such gibberish.
Never mind that this ad spawned the sad cliche of watching the Super Bowl “for the ads,” or that Apple later became the world’s largest corporation by selling telescreens.
The professors did better. In their many publications and symposia devoted to Nineteen Eighty-Four they did what their era did, which was to look back to the Postwar– in this case redigesting a literary figure with no peer in their own. And indeed they “got” this book.
But read through these works and you’ll see that few of these intellectuals tried to do what Orwell had done. They didn’t look afresh at where their society was going and then see how that related back to Orwell. They mostly just extrapolated the lines of his book and looked at any current events lit up by those rays. Rather than emulate his foresight they just followed his directions, eyes down on the map.
And in fact they rarely tried even his hindsight. It was after all a book about history. In it Orwell ruminated on the nature of history, and he grafted his own fictional history of 1949-1984 onto the very real recent history of his continent. That synoptic vision is why we read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that synoptic vision is what his students lacked.
As an undergrad in the eighties I noticed this historical glaucoma generally, and even among the history professors. What first struck me were the history courses that ended abruptly at Watergate. They reminded me of a character from my part of the world, the Crow chief Two Leggings, whose oral history ended abruptly with his people’s move to the reservation. “Nothing happened after that,” he insisted. “There is nothing more to tell.”
And while the history courses now get further along, they do so with little more clarity, as the aimless recitations at the ends of our textbooks attest. We seem not to know our own plot.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (N.Y.: Knopf, 1992).
Nineteen Eighty-Four, DVD, directed by Michael Radford (1984; MG Home Entertainment, 2003). This film appears to end with an ambiguous possibility of redemption for Winston. (Spoilers ahead!) Instead of being told that Winston loves Big Brother, we merely hear Winston’s voice whispering, “I love you.” And rather than tracing “2 + 2 = 5” in the dust on the table, Winston has written only “2 + 2 = “. But this second detail may have derived from a literal typo. The Penguin edition of 1989 explains that from 1950 to 1987 all *English editions of the book were spoiled at that crucial point because the form holding the type for that page had loosened, and the little lead 5 fell out! I know this sounds like a subplot from Seinfeld, but it is apparently true. (Peter Davison, George Orwell: A Literary Life (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 134.)
Eurythmics, “Sexcrime” (YouTube, youtube.com ID IcTP7YWPayU accessed 26 April 2016). After this song I always feel that Annie Lennox has mentioned something about Todd Rundgren.
Paul Gray, “That Year Is Almost Here,” Time, 28 November 1983, content.time.com accessed 26 April 2016.
Apple Computer, “1984” (television advertisement), aired 22 January 1984, youtube.com ID 2zfqw8nhUwA accessed 26 April 2016.
George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Man and the Book (Washington: Library of Congress, 1985, catalog.hathitrust.org record 007107072 accessed 26 April 2016). See also e.g.: Robert Mulvihill, Reflections on America, 1984: An Orwell Symposium (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). Ejner J Jensen, The Future of Nineteen Eighty-Four (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984).
Butters Please: The Homophobia in That sucks!
“First and foremost: there’s the air up here. It’s good for fighting illness, wouldn’t you say? And you’d be right. But it is also good for illness, you see, because it first enhances it, creates a revolution in the body, causes latent illness to erupt . . .”
“Yes,” Hans Castorp said, “yes, I truly believe that, too.”
Of all the swearwords flying around in the Second Gilded Age, the most interesting to me was sucks. Because two things happened at about the same time: Americans started giving gays and lesbians their first mass acceptance, and Americans started giving this anti-gay slur its first mass use. That’s interesting. Because clearly, sucks is shorthand for . . .
(A few caveats here: Discussions of swearing get explicit, in a weird and non-exciting way. Read on if you like. Also, I am a historian but not a linguist or historian of language, so these cursory comments are coming from the peanut gallery, or perhaps from the visiting team.)
. . . sucks cock. It’s like calling something gay, or calling someone a fag. I have seen people deny this, and though I find these denials unconvincing they make sucks even more interesting.
Let’s start where people agree: Around 1963 we have the first evidence of Americans using X sucks, without saying what X was sucking. It became a general pejorative, meaning that X was (in the words of one dictionary) “useless, unpopular, distasteful, of no worth.” This usage of suck was distinct from lots of earlier uses, which ranged from literal to figurative, from innocent to vulgar: sucking up dirt, or being a sucker for flattery, or sucking cock, or sucking ass. Now people just said that something sucked. And they said it more and more; here is an approximation of this use from Google Ngram, by looking at suck/sucks/sucked ending a sentence.
The disagreement, then, is about what people meant. I have no doubt that many people today say this as a reflex, but when people started saying that something sucked, without saying what it sucked, what were they thinking? We approach an answer to this by asking about the phrase’s origins, because earlier uses of suck suggest a range of possible meanings for the later pejorative.
A good focal point for this debate is a 2001 article by Dr. Ron Butters of Duke University, arguing against a sexual (never mind a specifically anti-homosexual) origin for X sucks:
Certainly nothing rules out fellation usages from playing a role in the evolution and interpretation of the idiom, but likewise nothing rules out the strong influence of the historically prominent term sucker ‘dupe; leech’, or associations with vampirism, obsequiousness (suck up to) or thumb sucking . . . At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom.
Dr. Butters listed a dozen “earlier pejorative uses” of this verb (suck wind, suck rope, suck eggs, suck on the teats of, suck up to, sucker punch, suck [one’s] thumb, suck cock, etc.) and asked why people assume that the sexual one must be the origin of X sucks. In doing so he framed a provocative scholarly argument based on the sources available at the time, advancing the discussion by demanding real evidence and not just “stands-to-reason arguments.”
But he was wrong. Or, at least, when I initially read his article I thought, “Puh-lease!” And when I further browsed the evidence I was no more convinced. Here’s why.
Butters’ article, even as it stood in 1999, had gaping holes. These are not proof of my thesis, but here they are.
Most of them don’t mean X sucks. They are indeed generally negative, which shapes the general connotation of the word suck. And admittedly several– suck ass, suck up to, and come sucking around— are pretty close, but so close that one wonders whether they also allude to oral sex. For the rest it’s hard to see X sucks as descending from them. He sucks! doesn’t even remotely resemble He sucks your blood! or He sucks down! or He sucks his thumb! or He sucker-punches!
Some of them aren’t even pejorative. Some of the suck slang, even by Butters’ own admission, is positive: suck it up for example could mean “make an effort, become serious.” And Butters counting fellatio as a pejorative meaning is odd, given that he had just said that it is “a sexual practice about which people seem to have mixed emotions,” and that “for many people, fellatio is highly pleasurable.”
But it’s not about oral sex; it’s about gay sex. The issue here is not “fellatio” (a ridiculous word, by the way), but homosexuality. It is strange to watch Butters contorting in epicycles around “fellation,” page after page, before kinda-sorta getting to this point in his final few paragraphs. It’s like a coworker coming in naked and apologizing for being late. Unlike oral sex, the majority of Americans did not have very mixed emotions about gay sex. They hated and feared it, and in the early 1960s it could get you arrested in most states and beaten up almost anywhere. This was a much-despised subculture living in secrecy. So being a cocksucker was a very keen insult to throw at any male.
What’s striking is how much evidence there was in Butters’ own article for this insult being anti-gay. For example, after rightly stating that “An etymologist is obliged to look . . . in the earliest record of the new usage,” his first example– literally his “earliest record of the new usage” (and his only from the 1960s) was this:
Who the hell is Consuela? — some fucking faggot — what a whole lot of shit this is. Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.
So his own first example of someone “sucking” is “some fucking faggot,” yet Butters dismissed the notion of homophobia in this saying as “absurdly counterintuitive.” ! And then when summarizing the evidence in the dictionaries:
The etymologically important thing is that the dictionary examples do not record any intermediate stage in which the ‘full’ utterance *You suck cock! / X sucks cock! is recorded as a pejorative (except for the construction X sucks big donkey dicks).
That’s like pointing out that my driving record does not include any collision (except for the collision I had on Interstate 64). And Butters’ very next sentence:
Furthermore, the earliest slang dictionaries do not record intransitive suck as indicating fellatio, unless it is followed by the particle off.
Here Butters appears to avoid Allen Walker Read’s 1935 “Glossary of stigmatized words,” which did precisely that:
And Read’s book, essentially a collection of graffiti from bathroom walls in the 1920s, is well enough known that even amateur I quickly found it. In fact one scholar described its prominence thus . . .
Though such ‘folk epigraphy’ might seem inconsequential to the nonlinguist, what Read later called his ‘pioneering work’ is virtually the only public record we have of such early twentieth-century usage compiled by a trained linguist.
. . . and that scholar was Dr. Ronald R. Butters, twelve years earlier. ! To quote my nephew looking for the flag in Teletubbies: “W’ the fug?!”
Butters’ article boosted those weak wind/rope/egg phrases, while laboring mightily to ignore indications, even in his own data, which pointed to the intuitive sexual and anti-homosexual origin of this usage. You may see his article cited as proof that “Consuela sucks!” is G-rated, but it just ain’t so.
Butters’ flaws prove little except that he had proven little. But there are indeed more data that indicate homosexual content in X sucks. For example Read’s glossary listed five senses for this verb; watch carefully for subtle hints of homosexuality:
SUCK . . .
A. Verb, To practice a certain form of sexual irregularity.
1. Homosexual: transitive, with “penis” as object . . .
2. Homosexual: transitive, with “person” as object . . .
3. Homosexual: intransitive . . .
4. Homosexual: (transitive). Possibly this refers to normal intercourse. . . .
5. Verb-adverb combination: suck off . . .
Another source, appearing after Butters wrote and analyzed by linguist Ben Zimmer, was graffiti written by Vietnam War soldiers, preserved on the canvas bunks of the troop transport USS General John Pope, and archived by Texas Tech University. Writing only a few years after the first appearance of X sucks, these somewhat random Americans made their meaning pretty clear.
For example, next to the very common comment “The Army sucks,” a similar hand wrote, “Army Sucks Big Dick”. Next to another complaint about the ship (“GEN. POPE SUCKS!!”) someone dissed the regular army, amending “L.S.D.” to say “Lifers Suck Dick.” The same red pen wrote NEW YORK BLOW’S next to NEW YORK SUCK’S. And my favorite: where a soldier named Sturm had (apparently) written his name and the date, someone later changed it to read, “STURM sucks,” and on the next line, as if to clarify, “He blew me on July 21st 1967.”
He probably didn’t actually; it was a way of disparaging him by calling him a fag. Short of an affidavit it’s hard to imagine evidence more explicit. The soldiers were clear on the object of the sucking even when insulting things that could never literally suck anything:
Louisiana sucks California dicks
Army sucks big dick
Ship travel sucks dick
Cleveland Ohio sucks dick
Army sucks big slimy dicks
The Army suck my dick
VC sucks green dick
So when they left out the penis, as with another of my favorites (after far too much time reading these), “The South sucks the North except Virginia,” I believe I know (I always did know) on what part of the North the South was metaphorically sucking. It wasn’t its eggs or rope or thumbs; those of course appear nowhere in the John Pope data.
Other oral-sex terms provide more clues. I’m not surprised that sucks tit never made it as a general pejorative, despite having cocksucker‘s qualifications of being oral and sexual and taboo. But of course it’s not very gay-male. I’m also unsurprised that Eat me! and Bite me!, which did do great business, started doing so at the same time as You suck! and X sucks!.
Finally, on that theme of timing: It seems obvious that X sucks was to some extent a replacement for X stinks. And X stinks, while not taboo, actually strikes me as stronger and ruder than most of those “innocent” old usages (suck eggs, suck rope, suck wind, suck [one’s] thumb, suck up (not suck-up), suck down, sucker punch, sucker, suck in, blood-sucker, and suck air). So, following this logic, to the extent that you believe that X sucks was a generalized version of those “innocent” old uses, you believe that Americans in 1963 were shifting in this case to gentler, more restrained speech. Which would be very surprising, given that this happened.
But I want to leave the linguistics to linguists now and retreat to the broader field of history where I walk on firmer ground.
Here is my only real contribution to this debate. Returning to the simplest chart I ran, which shows X sucks jumping up in the mid-1960s, I’ll ask a simple question that I’ve often asked my students, trying to get them to think like historians: Why then? Because often a historical trend shoots up like a certain type of tree in the forest: lingering for decades as a sapling on the shady floor (a lady-botanist friend of mine called these “ladies in waiting”), available for growth but needing an opening. The obvious “why then” for sucks was the Sexual Revolution, with the Second World War breaking up the overstory and something coming to fruition by the mid-1960s.
And there was no Wind or Rope or Egg Revolution.
And if you think this is just one of those strange-but-true historical coincidences like Kennedy getting shot in a Lincoln, then ho man do I have some shockers for you.
Admittedly this kind of evidence is only circumstantial. It’s possible that some mystery-impulse made Americans suddenly generalize these wind/rope/egg expressions into X sucks! for no apparent reason– and that it just happened to do so right smack dab in the middle of the Sexual Revolution. It’s also possible that the Great Synagogue of London just happened to blow up during a German bombing raid, from a leaky gas pipe or something.
But I doubt it. I think it was the Germans. And that sucks means that’s gay.
Butters professed surprise that “dictionary makers plausibly maintain that X sucks! is ‘vulgar,’ given the fact that the idiom is extremely widespread . . .” Oh come on; just complete the syllogism; vulgarity, in this case at least, has became more widespread.
The Sexual Revolution got Americans thinking about gays, talking openly about gays, and confronting gay rights more often. It brought up the issue. So perhaps the appearance of this anti-gay slur, even used generically against non-gays and non-people, is no more surprising than the wave of anti-gay-marriage laws that appeared just when gay marriage was becoming a plausible possibility. It’s like when cleaning your house makes it messier at first. Add to that dynamic a widespread willingness to flaunt vulgarity and a general sense that things are declining, and you get a lot of people saying that things really suck.
This article was completed in November 2016.
“Useless, unpopular, distasteful, of no worth”: Tom Dalzell, ed., The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English (N.Y.: Routledge, 2009), p. 957.
The American Dialect Society email list (ADS-L) has hosted many informed and colorful discussions on “sucks studies.” I benefited from many threads and particularly those of 2004-09-25, 2005-10-21 and 2011-04-21. Access via listserv.linguistlist.org or americandialect.org.
And here’s the requisite statement upon invoking Google Ngram: This is essentially a dataset on when and how often words/phrases made it into books, based on the millions of library books that Google scanned. Like all datasets it has flaws and should be taken for what it is, not as a magic ball peering into the culture’s true soul. But I find much of the criticism of it snobbish and unimpressive; Google Ngram is obviously an amazing source of information.
I also use the amazing COCA-COHA databases from Professor Mark Davies of Brigham Young University. COCA-COHA and Google Ngram each have clear advantages, but COHA’s giant database is about 1/400 the size of Google’s gargantuan one, so rare historical terms (which are not really the purpose of the database) often zero out in COHA. But you can see that these match closely:
CHAPTER 2: TRICKS!
CHAPTER 3: CRACKERS!
CHAPTER 4: ELDERBABIES!
CHAPTER 5: BOREDOM!
CHAPTER 6: CONCLUSION?