Arcane taboo avoidance

… in the NYT (again). This was one where I wasn’t entirely sure what taboo item was being concealed by the euphemized pudendum boy.

The story is told in a feature piece in the Sunday Review (of April 14th), “The Trauma of the Pink Shirt” by Simon Critchley. The crucial bit:

The sports-car guy lowered his shades, looked at me in my pink shirt and yelled: “Who are you looking at, pudendum boy? Why are you wearing a pudendum boy shirt, pudendum boy?” (I should point out that the sports-car guy did not choose the Latin term.)

NOAD2 defines the “Latin term” pudendum in English as: ‘a person’s external genitals, esp. a woman’s’. So my guess was that pudendum boy was pussy boy, intended as a slur on the addressee’s masculinity and/or sexuality. Not a tremendously frequent slur, hugely less common than faggot or fag, but still reasonably well attested for a gay man who is submissive in anal sex, often effeminate in manner, and inclined to refer to his asshole as his pussy, man pussy, cunt, or boy cunt. But it’s also used as a more generalized slur on a man, impugning his masculinity and asserting his “softness”, lack of toughness.

The appearance of the term pudendum in the Times sent many people to their dictionaries (thanks to Ben Zimmer for this link); the word is not exactly ordinary English.

In the tale, Critchley becomes embroiled in an exchange of words, shall we say, with an enraged man in a parking lot, and attempts to speak sweet reason. He was wearing a treasured shirt:

Let me tell you about this shirt. I loved this shirt! It was a beautiful, brushed cotton button-down in a dusty, slightly shocking pink. This shirt cost $200! I wore it to please myself, my wife and, on this occasion, to impress [their host] Shirley, who is an executive in the fashion industry.

That set off the pudendum/pussy boy shirt blast from the other man. The story continues:

By virtue of the fact that I was wearing what we can call, for the sake of economy, a P.B.S., and, on the basis of the assumption, repeated once again (but still untrue), of my having had sex with my mother, he invited me repeatedly to perform fellatio on him. He emphasized the invitation with explicit hand gestures and by pointing to the area of his crotch. (I am not that slow. I got the point.) And so it went round and round for ages, like a three-stroke engine or the three persons of the trinity: P.B.S., incest, fellatio.

I was impressed by this bravura display of American masculinity. But I was also bewildered by it. What exactly was he asking me to do to him? It was terribly confusing. Was it the pinkness of the shirt that led to the insinuation that I should fellate him? And — most of all — who exactly was the P.B. in this situation? Me or him? Surely him, I thought. After all, he was apparently initiating some kind of homosexual liaison between us. I was just buying soda and trail mix.

… Undressing that night, I looked hard at my pink shirt as I put it back on the hanger, gazing at it quizzically for the longest time. Did the sports-car guy have a point? Don’t be so stupid, I said to myself.

But I never wore the shirt again.

It lies folded in a drawer. I’m looking at it right now. All I can think when I see it is “P.B.S.! P.B.S.! P.B.S.!” It’s as if the shirt is screaming obscenities at me in a Jersey accent. I close the drawer.

… It seems to me it’s more about the way words can wound in the oddest ways. Despite the fact that the currency of swearwords has become greatly devalued through over-circulation, they still harbor a power of transgressive pleasure and can inflict pain. As people in my line of work [Critchley is a philosophy professor at the New School] are wont to say, we could do with a richer phenomenology of swearing.

We know swearwords are literally meaningless. He didn’t mean for me to perform fellatio on him; I would not have literally meant for him to have sex with himself; and so forth. Yet they carry a force that compels us. This is why many of us like to swear a lot. It feels really good to swear and really bad to be sworn at. Swearing always aims at something intimate, something usually hidden, which is why the words are often so explicitly and violently sexual. But in hurting us, they can hit the bull’s-eye of an unpleasant truth that we’d rather not acknowledge.

This is why the sports-car guy was right. I am that smug, self-righteous fool who lives in a fashionable corner of Brooklyn with the $200 Steven Alan shirt, going to a private swimming pool in my friend’s car with my little bag of snacks in order to escape the city heat. It’s pathetic. That pink shirt is a P.B.S. and I am a P.B. I deserved what I got.

So I’ve made a resolution. This summer I’m going to take my P.B.S. out of the drawer, wash it and wear it with pride. If you see me sporting it in the street, in a car or in a gas station parking lot, be sure to yell out some pudendal obscenity. Thank you in advance, from the bottom of my heart, for all your future abuse.

Wear that shirt defiantly, man!

Ben Zimmer and I wondered about the source of pudendum as an avoidance term (while preserving the P of pussy): did Critchley self-censor, or did an editor push it on him? Ben suggested that his editor encouraged him to find his own alternative wording, and reminded me of his own experience with Timesian self-expurgation, as described on Language Log in 2010:  “a scatological slur for a person’s head” for shithead — not a great moment in taboo avoidance.


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