Raping and punking

Item 1: a Ms. magazine blogger asking me about the use of rape ‘vanquish, beat’ in certain communities and contexts.

Item 2: (from Ben Zimmer on June 12, a link to) the story about Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban proclaiming

Our fans punked the shit out of the Miami fans.

after the NBA finals in which the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat.

The two items are connected.

Start with Item 1. My correspondent wrote on May 24:

I am a Ms. Magazine blogger and I am interested in doing a piece on the recent phenomenon of sexual violence-related slang. I have noticed, among my fellow high schoolers, that comments such as “We’re gonna rape them” (usually referring to sports/other teams) to “I got raped” (when referring to tests) are said with little thought to the actual meaning of the word and have replaced the also disturbing “We’re gonna murder/kill them.” I was wondering if, from your sociolinguistics research, you are aware of such slang? And, if so, to what do you attribute these sexually-violent comments?

Ok, there are (at least) four parts to this:

Part 1: Violence verbs can be (metaphorically) extended to contest-winning verbs: beat conveying physical violence (beat someone with a stick) was long ago extended to a sense like ‘win over, vanquish (in a contest)’, as in We beat them by 35 points. Contest-winning beat was lexicalized long ago, but since then we’ve had the spread of metaphorical kill, murder, and the like.

Part 2: Verbs of several semantic classes  (verbs of striking, verbs of rapid movement, and intrusion verbs, in particular) can be (metaphorically) extended to sexual-congress verbs; this is probably where sexual fuck came from in the first place. Intrusion verbs — stuff, ram, screw, drill, prong, etc. — are especially likely sources for sexual-congress verbs.

Part 3: Intrusion verbs can be extended to violence verbs: a specialization from intrusion in general to violence-by-intrusion: screw, for instance. What impinges on me hurts and demeans me.

Part 4: It follows that sexual-congress verbs can be extended to violence verbs: fuck and rape, rape being doubly suited to the role because it’s a verb of violent sexual congress.

All these developments are easily attested. What’s hard to figure out is whether some of them are trending upwards statistically (in speech or writing generally, or in the speech or writing of some social group, like my correspondent’s high school cohort, or American sportswriters, or whatever. Searching on fuck or rape digs up an enormous number of examples, but only inspecting these one by one in context can tell us which ones are contest-metaphorical, and even then it’s hard to imagine doing statistics over time.

My impression agrees with my correspondent’s. But our impressions aren’t worth anything, since they’re subject to well-known psychological distortions of attention, expectation, and memory.

(Folded into all of this is the conventional attitude that the receptive partner in intercourse is demeaned, even contemptible — the loser.)

A few examples of fuck and rape as contest-winning verbs:

(1) [Liverpool FC Forum. Liverpool 6-0 Derby: post-match reaction] Ecstatic. Brilliant game- and we really fucked them. I have to say though, I predicted a right thrashing (at least 4-0… albeit lightheartedly : D) but 6-0 was lovely to see. (link) [British English, sports context]

(2) Beat Ogre 2, 3 in Double Team: wow, now that i look at the stats, we really raped them, lol. plus if ur gonna say that, they would beat us mlg, then so be it. it dont matter. they had br tower, snipe, sword, and 2 brs and they couldnt hold it, im not sayin their bad, just that…..we raped them. lol. R A P E (link) [apparently American English, gaming context]

(3) Dallas Mavericks KIK ASS [6/12/06] we really raped them, and we definetely took shaq outta the game..he had his lowest playoff career stats in almost all categories… (link) [American English, sports context]

[Long digression on (2), which some people would be quick to dismiss as just incoherent adolescent drivel. There are several things going on at once here:

domain-specific vocabulary: br, maybe mlg (I’m not part of this community.)

medium-specific vocabulary and spelling conventions (from rapid electronic communications): lol; lower-case i and im; ur; apostropheless dont, couldnt, im

simple ear spelling (representing casual speech): sayin, gonna

ear spelling that counts as a spelling mistake in standard writing: their (for they’re), ur (for you’re)

widespread vernacular (but nonstandard) English: 3sg present dont

The things that make this little text hard for outsiders to understand are many, and they overlap, but inadvertent or inattentive error is not the source in any of these cases.

Domain-specific and medium-specific features are tailored (largely unconsciously) for an audience (of readers in some community). If you’re not in the target audience, then you have no right to complain that texts are not tailored for you; you’re just listening in. (It would be like complaining about people holding a conversation in Spanish in your earshot, when you don’t understand Spanish.)

As for the representation of casual speech in writing, that’s a matter of deploying a writing style for specific purposes and effects (in this case, almost surely to convey familiarity or ease with the readers).

Finally, nonstandardisms like 3sg present don’t (however spelled) could be strategically deployed (in a “jes’-folks” or “regular guy” style) or could simply be a reflection of the writer’s everyday speech and writing. But they aren’t inadvertent or careless. And, frankly, if you claim not to understand the widespread nonstandardisms of English, you’re just being unpleasantly uncooperative.

The larger point is that (2) represents the usage of pretty much the group that my correspondent wrote about. The writer is (surely) male, (probably) young, electronically adept, and (like the writers of (1) and (3)) plugged into a competition-oriented community. His message is just one data point, but we should listen to it.]

With my correspondent, I’m dismayed by things like (2) and (3). Well, more than dismayed, since a very high percentage of the women I’ve been close to in my life have been the subject of sexual impositions, up to attempted rape and rape itself. Maybe I’ll be able to post about that eventually, but it’s a subject that makes me incoherently furious.

Yes, I understand that words develop new meanings, including meanings that come from distinctly unpleasant roots. I understand that using junk to refer to a man’s genitals doesn’t necessarily demean those genitals as trash (in fact, for me, this use of junk doesn’t suggest worthlessness at all). That is, I understand people who just can’t get the ‘worthless stuff’ sense of junk out of their heads when they hear someone talk about a guy’s junk, but I press them to see that others simply don’t see things that way (but have distinct senses for the word — well, actually, two homophonous words).

But, still: contest-winning rape makes me uncomfortable. The question for me is what’s in someone’s head when he uses rape this way. If this use has become detached from the literal use for him, then the problem lies, I suppose, with me. But if it’s still a live metaphor for him (as, I suspect, it was for the writers of (2) and (3)), I’m appalled and offended.

Even if the contest-winning use of rape has become detached from the literal use for someone, there’s still a problem in the larger speech community: a lot depends on how many people — and which ones — can’t shake the literal sense of rape. (These aren’t absolute matters, in which one set of speakers or another gets to stipulate which usage attitudes are “right”. It’s a complex negotiation.)

Onto Item 2. Here’s the Mark Cuban story in brief. From a report on the Sports Center broadcast after the Mavericks-Heat game:

Mark Cuban Celebrates His Championship By Swearing During A Live SportsCenter
Dashiell Bennett Jun. 13, 2011

There was a lot of talk about clutch performances during the NBA Finals, but one player who did not come through is the ESPN employee charged with keep swear words from going out over the air during live broadcasts.

During a post-game interview with Hannah Storm after tonight’s Game 6, Cuban [owner of the Dallas Mavericks] complimented the strong showing of Mavericks fans who showed up in Miami, saying, “Our fans punked the shit out of the Miami fans.”

Note that it was late at night and on cable. And in a sportstalk context, which isn’t generally genteel. Still, there was something of a furor over Cuban’s use of shit. That’s not my focus here. My focus is instead on the idiom punk the shit out of.

[Cuban followed up this sentence with:

I mean literally. That’s the only way you can say it.

Putting aside emphatic literally, of course that’s far from the only way you can say it; for instance, beat the hell out of — see below — would have gotten the message across without either punked or shit. But maybe Cuban was saying that only punked the shit out of would convey the full emotional content of his judgment; ya gotta go over the top.]

[One commenter picked up on the expression (while modestly asterisking out the I of shit):

lebummer and dwader are the ones who got dash*t punked out of them. Boo hoo hoo, does boshy wanna cry ?

(name key: lebummer is LeBron James, dwader is Dwayne Wade, boshy is Chris Bosh).]

Now, punk is (these days) associated primarily with punk rock, the punk subculture, and things connected to them. But then there’s the verb punk. From the Wiktionary, which isn’t bad on the verb:

1. (17th century) To pimp.
Tony punked-out Vinny when he was low on smokes.

2. To forcibly perform anal sex upon an unwilling partner.
Tony punked all his new cell-mates.

3. To prank. [AMZ note: extended senses ‘trick, humiliate by tricking, rip off’; see my recent Zippy posting]
I got expelled when I punked the principal.

4. To give up or concede; to act like a wimp.
Jimmy was going to help me with the prank, but he punked-out at the last minute.

The relatively tame 21st century usage of punk was popularized by the American television show Punk’d. Until as recently as the late 20th century, punk still connoted rape or submitting to anal rape (punk-out). The second use of the term punk-out is now comparable to acting like a pussy and mildly implies submissive behavior in general.

[Side note on Punk’d, from the Wikipedia entry for the show:

Punk’d is an American hidden camera/practical joke television series that first aired on MTV in 2003 and was produced and hosted by Ashton Kutcher. It bore a resemblance to both the classic hidden camera show Candid Camera and to TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, which also featured pranks on celebrities. Being “punk’d” referred to being the victim of such a prank.]

The OED3 (June 2007) entry for the verb, somewhat complementary to the Wiktionary:

punk, v.1
rare before 20th cent.

1. intr. To associate with prostitutes. Obs. rare. [1716]

2. intr. U.S. slang. With out. To display cowardice; to back out from cowardice; (hence) to withdraw one’s support, to quit. [from 1920]

3. trans. slang (orig. U.S.).

a. Chiefly Prison slang. Of a man: to engage in anal intercourse with (a man), esp. forcibly; to rape (a man). Cf. punk n.1 2a. [from 1949]

b. Chiefly in African-American use: to humiliate; to beat up, bully, etc., esp. for the purpose of showing dominance; to make (a person) appear weak or foolish. Also with out. [from 1963]

4. With out or up.

a. intr. To adopt the style of dress, appearance, etc., associated with punks (punk n.1 5b) or punk rock; to play punk rock [from 1977]

b. trans. To put or transform into the style associated with punks or punk rock. Freq. in pass. Cf. punked adj. [from 1980]

The Wiktionary entry does put together transitive punk, transitive punk out, and intransitive punk out, but it’s pretty clear from that entry and the OED that anal-intercourse punk can be a stand-in for fuck (so that punk is yet another alternative to fuck), in which case Cuban’s use would echo this (rather than any of the ameliorated senses) — though the OED‘s ‘humiliate, beat up’ sense (a violence sense rather than a sexual-congress sense) is also possible (but see below). If Cuban was using anal-intercourse punk, then what he said is roughly equivalent to contest-winning fucked the shit out of. Which brings us to:

The connection between Item 1 and Item 2. From the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (2002):

beat the hell out of

beat the hell out of someone and beat the living daylights out of someone; beat the pants off (of) someone; beat the shit out of someone; beat the socks off (of) someone; beat the stuffing out of someone; beat the tar out of someone [also (AMZ): beat the crap out of someone, beat the fuck out of someone, beat the bejeezus out of someone, beat the devil out of someone; extended variants with holy hell, holy shit, holy tar, holy crap, holy fuck; and other extensions with goddam and fuckin, etc.]

1. Fig. to defeat someone very badly. (Caution: the use of the word shit is considered vulgar and is offensive to many people. Of is usually retained before pronouns [in the cases where it’s marked as optional].) Our team beat the hell out of the other side. We beat the stuffing out of the other side.

2. Fig. Inf. to batter someone severely. (Alludes to physical violence, not the removal of someone’s pants. Of is usually retained before pronouns.) The thugs beat the living daylights out of their victim. If you do that again, I’ll beat the pants off of you. Before the boxing match Max said he would beat the socks off Lefty.

Note 1: Though McGraw-Hill puts the violence-verb sense second, it’s clearly historically prior.

Note 2: The contest-winning sense (the second) very strong favors the definite article the: Our team beat hell out of yours is possible, but the hell now seems to be the preferred form.

Note 3: beat the shit out of someone and beat the devil out of someone both have literal uses (’cause someone to shit their pants by beating them’, ’cause the devil to leave someone’s body by beating them’), but these aren’t relevant here.

Note 4: There are in fact two distinct families of idioms here:

V ( the) N out of

V the Npl off (of)

These have been put together in the McGraw-Hill entry.

Note 5: The history of the first of these idiom families is treated in OED3 (March 2008), under hell:

to —— (the or the living) hell out of (a person or thing): to —— (a person or thing) to an excessive, violent, or unpleasant degree. Cf. to —— the fuck out of (a person or thing) at fuck n.

with two sets of citations, the first (earlier) set with Ø determiner on the N:

1833 knock hell out of
1863 smash hell out of
1887 whale hell out of
1925 kick hell out of
1937 knock hell out of

the second (later) set with the determiner the on the N:

1958 beat the hell out of
1986 scare the hell out of
2004 punch the living hell out of

There’s an assortment of violence Vs in the second family, though beat seems pretty clearly to be the model (model + variations is a general theme in idiom studies). So from beat the N out of (for affectively charged N) we get more generally V the N out of, including fuck the N out of, and then punk the N out of (in particular, punk the shit out of) — and, in fact, rape the N out of. Which is where we came in.

[As for the Mark Cuban quote, it’s reasonably likely that punked has the anal-rape sense, either by survival in the vernacular from older usages, or by sort-of-euphemistic substitution of punk for the phonologically similar fuck (or of course by a combination of the two factors) — though it’s possible that punk is being used in the sense ‘humiliate’, presumably by generalization from ‘trick, humiliate by tricking’ (as in Punk’d Out), or by causativization of the ‘act like a wimp’ sense.

Vernacular semantics changes rapidly and kaleidoscopically, almost always below the consciousness of speakers.

Still, Cuban’s punked is a lot more interesting than his shit.]

7 Responses to “Raping and punking”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    “What’s hard to figure out is whether some of them are trending upwards statistically (in speech or writing generally, or in the speech or writing of some social group, like my correspondent’s high school cohort, or American sportswriters, or whatever. […] it’s hard to imagine doing statistics over time.”

    Actually I think using an stats+discursive approach to speech *within* a particular close-knit community (like a sports team, or a particular gaming community, for example) would be do-able. And I think one would be looking to use a combination of stats methods as well as, say, critical discourse analysis. A lot of sociolinguists are tending that way for looking at other sorts of questions within a second- or third-wave framework — eg, looking at the interactional effects of certain kinds of variation, (or speech acts, or particular constructions, etc), and how they mediate identity construction within that community. So the method itself wouldn’t be too arduous (you can look at frequency, and you can look at context), the questions is — what would that tell you that is useful to for the original enquiry? If the use of “rape” is increaing *within* a particular community, that doesn’t necessarily tell you a whole lot about a population of English speakers (however defined) in general. As you note, doing a broader analysis of the use of “rape” *in general* is potentially harder, and it’s not clear how useful the resulting stats would be.

    From the point of view of the initial enquiry: something to point out is that even if this use of “rape” is increasing, that linguistic change is not necessarily a straightforward indicator of a widespread change in attitudes in terms of the way people think about women, or sexual violence, or violence in general. It’s not at all clear that language change correlates that straightforwardly to changing attitudes, although like you and the original enquirer, I am upset by the use of “rape” to describe fairly non-serious or non-violent events.

    Moreover, these are not reason for one to refrain from critiquing the use of “rape” (or “murder”) in certain contexts, on *political* grounds. Linguists shy away from this sometimes, perhaps because of the “descriptive, not prescriptive” training. But I don’t think it’s actually inconsistent to make political criticisms of certain language use. There’s some linguistics work on this in the realm of language ideology.

    (Sorry for the length.)


  2. Rick Sprague Says:

    The template V the N out of also fits phrases such as get the (hell/fuck) out of Dodge, where intensifier the N is optional and idiomatic and out of is the beginning of an ordinary prepositional phrase. Are/could they be related, or is this just a coincidence?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The only relationship I see is the involvement of these intensive expressions (the hell, the fuck, etc.). In the cases I looked out, the N is serving as an object of the V, while in get the hell out of Dodge, it’s an adverbial modifier (of out).

  3. Sam Says:

    At Harvey Mudd in the late 90’s the current term was ‘ream’ as in “I got reamed by that test” – mostly attested by engineering majors, who had the good? fortune to have a prof named Dan Remer teaching mandatory upper-division courses.

    Sam Mikes

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    The Ms. piece can be found here.

  5. Throwing Around the Word “Rape” : Ms Magazine Blog Says:

    […] Inspired by this blog post, linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky breaks down the word […]

  6. ish and masculinity « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] of beat, and some of punk and rape (for some discussion of these usages with shit and other Ns, see here). Some examples: Pacquiao ready to beat the ish out of Mosley ! (link) [about a boxing […]

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