Vietnam Graffiti Project (X sucks, etc.)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Oct 23 22:20:21 UTC 2005

On Fri, 21 Oct 2005 04:41:54 -0400, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>On Fri, 21 Oct 2005 09:04:20 +0100, Jonathon Green wrote:
>[I wrote:]
>>> I believe that this is the first time such
>>> usage has been found from the '60s (unless Ron Butters has discovered
>>> examples since his 2001 _Dictionaries_ article).
>>In James Blake's 1971 prison memoir 'The Joint', the bulk of which is
>>composed of dated letters from 1950s-60s, one finds the following:
>>1963 James Blake letter 21 Feb. in _The Joint_ (1972) 205: I wrote on
>>the wall, ‘Franz Kafka sucks.’
>That's a great find, antedating by one year the intransitive example from
>the journal of Herbert Huncke ("Consuela sucks"). But I was referring
>specifically to transitive examples of the type "Army sucks big dick" --
>fellatory "suck" with nonhuman subject (= 'is worthless, objectionable').

Now that I have a chance to skim through all of the appearances of "sucks"
in the collection, I see that examples of "X sucks dick (etc.)" with
nonhuman X are few and far between. Here's what I found, with record and
item numbers:

Rec 275023 Item 1574c0126       Army sucks big dick
Rec 275069 Item 1574c0172       Ship travel sucks dick
Rec 275169 Item 1574c0271       Philly sucks dick
Rec 276821 Item 1574c0291       Army sucks big slimy dicks

In the case of "Philly sucks dick", one graffiti-writer wrote "Philly"
(presumably his home town), and then someone else wrote "sucks dick" after
it. There are lots of examples of this sort of putdown, though usually
just the word "sucks" is added to the home town/state/region. Sometimes
the fellatory metaphor is made more explicit:

Rec 274981 Item 1574c0084       Louisiana sucks California dicks
Rec 276842 Item 1574c0312       The South sucks the North except Virginia

And sometimes "sucks" takes other obscene objects:

Rec 276879 Item 1574c0349       Flordia [sic] sucks ass
Rec 274911 Item 1574c0014       U.S. Gen. Polk sucks shit + so do you

>Quoting Ron's 2001 paper on "the putative vulgarity of _X sucks_":
>Moreover, though _suck cock_ is certainly plentiful in the printed record
>in the 1960s and 1970s, when people started saying _(This) X Sucks!_ in
>the 1960s, they did not go through a period in which a full utterance
>_*(This) X Sucks cock!_ was in evidence, unlike _(This) X Sucks eggs!_
>(or _wind_ or _rope_).
>The Vietnam Graffiti Project evidence would seem to contradict this

I think Ron's general point still holds, though. Even if there is some
scattered evidence for "X sucks dick" from the '60s, that doesn't mean it
was a transitional form on the way to "X sucks". I still think the sexual
connotations were a later elaboration, but the VGP material shows that it
didn't take too long for bored soldiers to make that semantic leap.

--Ben Zimmer

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