baseball cursing, 1898

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Dec 6 04:36:15 UTC 2007

On Dec 5, 2007 1:22 AM, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at> wrote:
> This is how it seems to me too: a joke, probably by some baseball
> fans with surreptitious access to a printing press, of indeterminate
> date: could be 1898, could be much later as John Baker says.
> The lack of specificity in the ostensible authorship ("the
> Committee") is suspicious, as JL implies. The lack of any
> specification of the intended addressee(s) is also suspicious.
> Furthermore, it seems to me that such a document could have (and if
> genuine probably would have) conveyed the same message without any
> ambiguity using fewer and shorter examples and using expurgated forms
> such as "f--k", "c--t", "c--k", etc. for the most unacceptable words,
> at the very least.

Geoff Nunberg makes this point more forcefully in a column by King
Kaufman on

Robert Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, and several
experts he's consulted say they believe the letter is legitimate. If
so, it would represent the earliest printed record of two obscenities.
You're going to have to pardon some more language: The record-setting
oaths are "Go fuck yourself," previously traced in print to 1920, and
"cocksucker," which had gone back as far as 1902.
"This is sort of like winning two gold medals!" Lifson jokes.
But linguist Geoffrey Nunberg of UC-Berkeley, who has written about
the use of profanity in the HBO 1870s western "Deadwood," says in an
e-mail that the letter is a "clumsy hoax -- either entirely a modern
concoction or a modern alteration of a contemporary document."
The letter lists eight examples of oaths that would make Tommy Lasorda blush.
Nunberg, the Berkeley linguist, cites this section as the best
argument for the letter being a hoax. "It is inconceivable that the
authors of such a document in this period would have quoted the
player's 'Go fuck yourself' verbatim," he writes, "or repeated any of
the other imprecations (not even the 'damn' of 'didn't give a damn,'
which would have been rendered as 'd____')."

How off-base is Kaufman with his antedating info? HDAS has an 1897
cite for "go and f..k yourself", which seems pretty close to "go fuck
yourself." As for  "cocksucker", I'm not sure what the earliest Jesse
et al. currently have for the general "SOB"-style epithet,  but 1902
doesn't seem right (Kaufman links to a 2002 article in _Verbatim_ by
Fred Shapiro that cites a Texas court transcript with "cock-sucking
son of a bitch", not "cocksucker").

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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