Country obscenicons

That’s country as in “country music” and country singer Kevin Fowler, who recently released the obscenity-laced but kiddy-safe “Pound Sign #?*!”, using spoken obscenicons to achieve this effect. It’s going on a new Linguist’s Playlist, on Linguistic Examples.

(Hat tip to Jason Cox.)

The lyrics, given here in full, so you can get the effect of the repeated two-line figure:


Yeah, I’m wired
Uptight-er than an a-string
About to break

A little ragged
Hangin’ by a thread
That’s startin’ to fray

Just in case there might be
Little ears around
I won’t say it
I’ll just spell it out

I feel like pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point
Don’t give a blank
And a whole lot of other

Choice words I can’t say
Today I feel like
Pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point

A lot closer
To ringin’ death’s door
Than I was yesterday

Badly in need
Of a shower and shave

Yeah, I know I’m lookin’
A little rough
The least I can do
Is clean my language up

I feel like pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point
Don’t give a blank
And a whole lot of other

Choice words I can’t say
Today I feel like
Pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point

I think I partied
A little too hard last night
Let’s see here now
How do I put this right?

I feel like pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point
Don’t give a blank
And a whole lot of other

Choice words I can’t say
Today I feel like
Pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point

Don’t give a blank
And a whole lot of other
Choice words I can’t say
Today I feel like

Pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point
Percentage sign, at symbol
Back-slash, squiggle-thing

Pound-sign, question mark
Star, exclamation point

(Those two lines quickly have a hypnotic effect as they’re repeated, probably since their meter is so much more regular, four dactylic feet with the first “truncated” to a trochee,

´˘  ´˘˘
´˘˘  ´˘˘

than the rest of the lines, which are metrically closer to ordinary speech than to song.)

Spoken obscenicons — in fact, spoken punctuational obscenicons (rather than cartoonists’ squiggly obscenicons, which make only one appearance in Fowler’s lyrics) — have come around at least three times on Language Log, always in comic strips:

in Mark Liberman’s 2005 “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse” (here), in a Foxtrot toe-stubbing strip;

in my 2008 “Reading the ampersand comics!” (here), in a Get Fuzzy strip with the dog Satchel screaming words he learned to say from “the ampersand comics”;

and in my 2009 “Comic profanity” (here), from a Rubes strip in which a boy tells on his younger brother: “Mom! Bobby said asterisk, ampersand and other assorted grammatical symbols representing comic profanity!”

But Fowler might (or might not) be the first person to say it in a song.

It’s time to add “Pound Sign #?*!” to my newly-created iTunes playlist Linguistic Examples, as an instance of spoken obscenicons. This list is particularly tricky to get going, since examples of linguistic phenomena are dense indeed in popular music, especially music that’s intended to be funny. For this list, I’m collecting only examples that I judge to be especially fine or unusual. So far, Fowler’s song is joined only by that marvel of zeugma, Flanders & Swann’s “Madeira, M’Dear”. But I’m still very very slowly working my way through things that readers of AZBlog have suggested. (And some nice examples of split (or broken) rhyme are on their way.)

The other lists:

Grammar, with performers’ names, album titles, track titles, and lyrics “about” grammatical phenomena (three Schoolhouse Rock tracks, “Colorless Green Blues” by Dick Dative and the Experiencers, Leeny and Steve’s “Ain’t Ain’t a Word”);

Linguists: The Magnetic Fields, “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”; The Horsies, “Noam Chomsky”; Dick Dative and the Experiencers, “Please Mister Postal”; and a track, “The Seventh Spiel”, picked at random from The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’ first album, self-titled;

Morphology, with examples of interesting morphological phenomena: Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Come Mighty Must” from Princess Ida (nouning); Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Californication”; Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “The Intro and the Outro” (portmanteau?); The Who’s “Underture” from Tommy (portmanteau?);

for the moment, a list just for Puns: Rammstein’s “Du Hast”;

and Terminology, for things not already covered: Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “Labio Dental Fricative”; They Might Be Giants, “I Palindrome I”; “Metaphor” from The Fantasticks; Vampire Weekend, “Oxford Comma”.

8 Responses to “Country obscenicons”

  1. Greg Morrow Says:

    In “Reading the ampersand comics”, you wonder why “=” doesn’t see use as an obscenicon. Could it be because it’s perceived as a verb? It may just be the mathematician in me, but a string of symbols with an equals in the middle of it is sentence-like (and a subject-verb-predicative complement sentence at that). I would think this interpretation would be accessible to anybody who’d had even just elementary school math.

    Outbursts are fragments or directiveless imperatives (The “fuck you”, “firk ding blast it to heck” variety). The shift-number characters !@#$ etc look more fragmentary than = (or +, as well, which is bivalent) — they don’t activate grammar analysis, which is characteristic of (what I was taught to call) interjections.

    Now, that being said, @ certainly has the interpretation “at”, which you’d think might push it in the direction of + or =, but perhaps its placement (shit-two) regularly puts it in the middle of other obscenicons and its “at” interpretation is suppressed by convention.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Mark Liberman has now followed this posting up on Language Log (here), with a list of LLog postings on obscenicons.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Greg Morrow:

    First, I’m assuming that “shit-two” is a typo for “shift-two”, but I’m leaving it as is because it’s so wonderful in this context.

    Next, + does in fact get used as an obscenicon, fairly often, especially in $#!+, standing in for SHIT by virtue of the visual resemblance of the punctuation signs to the letters.

    Finally, if mathematicians can’t get over reading = as a mathematical operator (but have somehow gotten used to + used obsceniconically), can we expect accountants and economists to balk at such uses of $? People are extraordinarily good at managing different interpretations in different contexts, so why should mathematicians not behave like ordinary people when they’re reading the comic strips? I’m inclined to think that you’re over-reaching for explanations here.

    For what it’s worth, all four of the purely horizontal punctuation marks (hyphen, dash, underscore, and equals sign) are rarely if ever used obsceniconally.

  4. Nosey Says:

    While “obscenicons” is also correct, the more-widely-used term for these is “grawlixes” (which also happens to be my favorite child-friendly profanity).

  5. The obscenicons vs. the grawlixes « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] obscenicons vs. the grawlixes By arnold zwicky Comment from “Nosey” on my “Country obscenicons” posting: August 1, 2010 While […]

  6. Weekend Links: Judge a Book by Its Cover | Breaking News Today Says:

    […] bleep yourself by using the #$!& symbols: Obscenicons. Here’s an interesting study in Obscenicons, and a link to the song mentioned therein. * Speaking of things not spoken, according to Language […]

  7. Don’t F—ing Say that! « {Always SomeThings} Says:

    […] Language Log and Arnold Zwicky have also been following the development of the typographical bleep’s cousin, the obsenicon […]

  8. 2010 in review « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Country obscenicons July 2010 7 comments 4 […]

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