He was opening his show with his usual monologue; I forget what he was talking about but all of a sudden he says, "Well, that sucks." I understood what he meant from the context but I think this was the very first time I had heard the word used on television. Obviously the fact that I heard the word, that it wasn't bleeped meant the censors didn't consider it profane. Also the fact that Letterman used the word meant it had entered the vocabulary of our culture; Letterman's monologue, his references, his jokes are a reflection of our society. As I mulled over this word, I began to wonder where it came from. What was its etymology?
What intrigued me were my memories of high school in the late 60's. - Am I dating myself or what? - It was certainly a time when gay rights were not yet recognized and in fact, homosexuality was thought of in a negative light. Starting from the point of view of a heterosexual male, there was no greater insult one guy could give to another than to suggest he was homosexual. Another guy does something you don't like? "Why don't you s**k me off." Get ticked at somebody? "B**w me." In other words, telling the other guy to perform oral sex was offensive. Of course, these expressions would sometimes be used with a female but the underlying suggestion was sexual, that this sexual act equated to something negative and by suggesting it, I was showing contempt for what somebody had done.
I have chuckled at this sort of verbal exchange over the years. By telling another male to "b**w me", I am trying to insult him by suggesting he could possibly be gay. But what exactly does saying this suggest about me? Am I suggesting I'm gay? What if the other guy responded by saying, "Okay, drop your drawers." Now what do I do? Ha!
The point is that I clearly remember the word suck being associated with performing oral sex. Oh yes, I know of other sayings like "suck it up" which means don't complain and deal with some hardship, a saying which has nothing to do with sex. We sometimes say "go suck eggs" which means "get lost". So that says that even back then the word suck was used in everyday expressions without anything dirty being associated with it. I see that the Online Etymology Dictionary dates the expression "suck eggs" as 1906.
There is an aspect of this reference to oral sex which I find strange. Whether it is a man saying it to another man to call into question whether he's homosexual or not, or it is a man saying this to a woman to call into contempt something she's done, there is somehow the implication of domination and submission. As a consequence, I could add there is the implication that the very act itself is bad or dirty, something to be avoided. What a shame. We take what is one of the most beautiful expressions of personal sexuality that one human being can offer to another and turn it into something which is considered in such a negative light. Is it no wonder we have so many problems when it comes to sex?
Of course, how many other sexual terms may be turned around to be used as something to hurt somebody else? F.O.; dumb p***k. [sigh] Oh we do so have our problems.
Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux sold products successfully in the United Kingdom using the slogan "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux". Okay, while we're all laughing about this, I must add that the product was never sold in North America with this slogan. At that time, the meaning of disparagement associated with word suck apparently did not exist in England so the use of the word there didn't cause any titters. The company was smart enough to realise that we all would have broke out laughing if they had tried to use that advertisement in Canada or the United States.
In case you're wondering, I have taken to writing profanities by replacing some of the letters with asterisks but leaving enough letters so you can figure out just what word I'm referring to. I consider this my print version of somebody being bleeped on television. Oddly enough - maybe I'm a touch prudish? - I sometimes find the bleeped profanities funnier than actually hearing the profanity itself. While Chris Rock who says the F word repeatedly is funny; I also find a bleeped Jon Stewart to be equally as funny. But that's the difference between movies or HBO cable specials and regular network TV.
In any case, this word while still profane is gaining acceptance. Despite the fact that 30 years ago you wouldn't dare say it in public; I am finding that the word has become more or more banal to the point where you could even say it in mixed company and not raise an eyebrow.
I have a friend who works in the computer field. His colleagues good naturedly say, "Oh look. Here comes Fred. He puts the S. H. in I. T." Amusing and maybe an honest assessment of how we all feel about those darn machines. Nevertheless, this reference falls into the category of euphemism.
The euphemism remains a way of swearing but not actually saying the word. "Shoot" or "sugar" are merely toned down replacements of "the word". Sugar was a favourite of my grandmother and I don't think in all the time I knew her, I ever heard her use anything stronger than "sugar". Of course, in retrospect, that made it that much more cute.
Now how many chuckles have I elicited over the years by not saying "holy s**t" but by saying "pious defecation"? Of course, people usually need a moment to "translate it" slash figure it out and in some cases, I have to tell them what I mean. From there, I get a laugh and sometimes, once they're clued in to replacing profanities with regular legitimate words, they want to try their hand at it. Hmmm, does "brainless phallus" cut it? "Why you stupid p***k!" Hmmm, maybe not.
Church Marketing Sucks
In researching the word sucks, I ran across the web site of an organization which attempts to assist the church in communicating. Okay, does this put the stamp of approval on the use of the word or what? In their About, they state their mission is
Our mission is to frustrate, educate and motivate the church to communicate, with uncompromising clarity, the truth of Jesus Christ.
They go on to explain their use of the word "sucks" with
We’re being authentic. We’re being real. We’re doing the same thing we’re asking the church to do when it comes to communicating and marketing who they are.
Well, I guess if a Christian organization can use the word, I would be pretty sure that the word is now part of the mainstream.
As a final note, the above organization made reference to a man I had never heard of but he certainly seemed to have an interesting message. I quote from Wikipedia:
Dr. Anthony "Tony" Campolo (born February 25, 1935) is an American pastor, author, sociologist, and public speaker known for challenging Evangelical Christians by illustrating how their faith can offer solutions in a world of complexity. With his liberal political and social attitudes, he has been a major proponent for progressive thought and reform in the evangelical community.
Apparently Dr. Campolo, being outspoken, has a reputation of pushing the boundaries. I was amused by one of his quotes as an example of how we sometimes miss the bigger picture getting stuck on the trivial or unimportant; listen to the message, not the words. This is what he says to start one of his speeches:
"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a s**t. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said s**t than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
Now that sucks.
Princeton University WordNet: suck
Slate: Suck It Up: A defence of the much-maligned word by Seth Stevenson
Yahoo Answers: Where did the expression "It sucks" come from ?
Online Etylomology Dictionary
Wikipedia: Brand Blunder
Church Marking Sucks: Why We Use ‘Sucks’
Wikipedia: Tony Campolo