Rosie Right 

Our language and how it works.

A Civil Tongue

Warning: The following column contains some vulgar language.

We all know that language changes and words that we didn't use in "polite society" become commonplace. An example of this is the word sucks, which according to linguists is rapidly losing its sexual connotation and is used freely by the younger generation. But the transition is not complete: According to the Sept. 29 USA Today, "Boston Red Sox fans wearing T-shirts that say 'Yankees Suck' will be asked to turn them inside-out before entering Fenway Park." This is a somewhat fruitless gesture because it is practice for the Boston fans to chant rhythmically, "Yankees suck."

On the other hand, in the Oxford Dictionary of Slang (1998), it is possible to see the gradual change to what some consider acceptable language. In a description of its usage from 1928, the word is clearly defined as referring to sex; in the 1971 reference it still has the same meaning, but in 1974 it is listed as "Canadian; from the verb suck to be contemptible."

The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (1999) in its definitions does not include the vulgar meaning of suck.

A Google search of the British newspaper The Guardian Unlimited turned up 1,285 examples of the word in headlines, e.g., "Big Brother series six sucks big time" (June 19, 2005); "Chanel ad 'sucks' says FCUK ad man" (Dec. 6, 2004); "Move over Hoover, this robot sucks" (Nov. 25, 2004).

The question really is: Has the word lost its connotation or have we lost our sensitivity to coarseness and paucity of the ability to use the language gracefully?

Whatever the answer, the word is unfortunately with us in general use. I saw a TV commercial for Dish Networks the other night and the word was used so often I lost count after 10.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'll take Shakespeare's use of the word every time: "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs." — "As You Like It"


"Where the bee sucks, there suck I

In a cowslip's bell I lie

There I couch when owls do cry,

On the bat's back I do fly

After summer merrily:

Merrily, merrily shall I now

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough."

— "The Tempest"

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, 23230); by e-mail rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com; or by telephone (804-358-0825).


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