baseball cursing, 1898

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Thu Dec 6 20:34:08 UTC 2007

On Dec 5, 2007 11:36 PM, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
[quoting 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.
> Tarnation!
> 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____')."
> [...]
> -----

Kaufman's column has now been edited to include some counterpoint from Jesse.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and
the author of the excellent scholarly book "The F Word," agrees that
an official letter wouldn't spell out those words. But, also writing
by e-mail, after this column was first published, he argues that the
letter is probably a joke from the period: "If it is a contemporaneous
hoax -- a send-up of management -- it's more likely that these words
would be spelled out, and that the variety of examples offered would
be so extreme. It's funnier that way!"
Sheidlower, the "F Word" author, corrected an assertion made in this
column's original version that the letter contained the earliest
printed use of the word "cocksucker" as an insult and the phrase "go
fuck yourself."
"The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an 1897 example of
'go and fuck yourself,'" he writes -- a citation this column missed.
"And I have found evidence of nonliteral 'cocksucker' from the 1860s,
in Civil War court martial records."

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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