Happy Birthday, H.P. Grice!

In honor of this anniversary of H.P. Grice’s birth on March 13th, 1913, let me share an undergraduate paper I had an especially good time writing. For a much less slang-littered and more complete exploration of his ideas, Richard E. Grandy and Richard Warner have written an excellent profile of this brilliant philosopher of language for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Enjoy!

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.

Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.

Colorful Language

I love slang, and I love cussin’.

But why, you might ask? Why love that which is rude, crude, and lewd?

I hear people complain a lot these days that ‘four-letter’ words and slang are taking over our language. Since the social revolutions of the 20th century, language has become much more casual, more free and easy, less mannered. By the latter, I’m not talking about manners as they relate to courtesy. I’m talking about rules of conversational etiquette that are often arbitrary. Most of these conventions are useful, as they help organize language and assign definitions so that people can readily make themselves understood to one another. But many other conventions seem contrived, imposed by a social elite to lend a patrician air of refinement to the speaker. Sometimes, it works to their advantage: after all, who isn’t impressed when hearing public intellectual Bertrand Russell wax eloquent on current events, the value of philosophy, and the horror of war in his rather delightful, oh-so-aristocratic style? But while this kind of etiquette can lend a certain pleasing elegance to language, it can give it a stiff, stilted, artificial, and to our modern ears, oddly quaint quality. And too much insistence on ‘correctness’ in speech can render a language dead, in the sense that it’s frozen in time, unable to evolve to express new ideas and ever more shades of meaning.

Those who are especially offended by the increasing use of slang and cuss words consider it a sign that we’re becoming lazier, ruder, more selfish, more aggressive, less respectful of one another. These ‘bad’ words, they complain, are proliferating ever more on the internet, in popular music, on TV, and in movies, infiltrating our kids’ vocabulary at an ever younger age, and worst of all, dumbing down our language.

I agree with these objections to a certain extent. People can be rude, selfish, aggressive, disrespectful, and hateful, and express these attitudes through the use of slang and cuss words. But they can and do express all of these with formal, more ‘acceptable’ language as well. Euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language are all classic examples of ways in which we insult, denigrate, and undermine one another while avoiding the use of lowbrow or taboo terms.

Yet I would argue that many types of ‘polite’ speech, such as euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language, can be much more offensive and harmful because they’re less direct and therefore, less honest. The speaker who chooses these indirect methods of expressing offensive ideas are often attempting to evade responsibility for them, giving themselves an ‘out’ they don’t deserve. These sorts of ‘weasel words’, easy to recognize with the uncanny ability most people have at recognizing and understanding innuendo, are so conveniently slippery that they’re a common tool of the self-righteous jerk, the racist, the sexist, and the elitist. The speaker who uses what are generally considered overtly offensive terms, on the other hand, render themselves accountable for what they say by expressing what they think in a way that’s readily understood and open to critique.

So it’s not slang or cussing that should give true offense in these cases, it’s the intent of the speaker and the content of the speech.

I also grant that people can be lazy and dumb down their language with slang and cuss words because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves, because they want to avoid saying anything challenging or of substance, and because they want to pander to the listener. But like the aforementioned forms of ‘polite’ offensive speech, this is true of other forms of speech as well. ‘Folksy’-speak (Sarah Palin is a famous example, and sadly, she has influenced too many of our politicians to pander ever more to the ‘folks’ in that way); psychobabble; obscurantist academic language; politically-correct speech; scrupulously ‘polite’ speech, and so on, can all be to obscure the fact that the speaker has little of substance they’re willing or able to say.

But those who pick on slang and cuss words generally are just plain wrong: they don’t always dumb down language. In fact, they often have rich and nuanced shades of meaning that polite language lacks, and can lend force, humor, and nuance to language. George Carlin’s immortal ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ comedy routine is not only incredibly funny, it highlights the arbitrariness of so many of our language prohibitions, and how taboo words so often convey meaning that polite language can’t.

That’s why we have positive terms to refer to such language: strong, explicit, and colorful. And these terms point to the reasons why I love them.

As a fan of slang and cuss words when used right (no, you pedant, not ‘rightly’), I give the metaphorical finger right along with Carlin when I hear people complain about ‘bad’ language without bothering to understand and address the content behind the words. I suspect that most people who single out strong, explicit, and colorful language for criticism are mostly unfamiliar with the terms used, only enough to identify them as taboo. They assume that because these terms are sometimes used out of simple ignorance, crudeness, anger, or cheap desire to offend, they’re always used these ways. It seems, then, that the complaints often result form a simple lack of understanding. As restless and rebellious youth so often say of their parents, whose ability to understand is subject to the often self-imposed limits of their own experience, they just don’t get it.

Advocates for the exclusive use of polite language in public discourse usually claim that everything can be expressed in those terms, so long as a person possesses an excellent vocabulary. I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. (My tiny little homage to Mark Twain, among the great innovators who introduced slang, colloquialisms, and other colorful language to great literature, as he illustrated better than anyone how the strictures of polite language so often hold us back.) Since slang and cuss words spring forth and evolve outside of the regulatory realm of polite language, the’re quick to fill in the gaps where there were no expressions for those exact ideas. For that reason, I submit, slang and cuss words are often much more nuanced and expressive than their much fewer yet more polite approximations.

This was brought home to me especially as I was reading (and commenting on) the the delightful Assholes: a Theory, and the many times I watched one of my favorite simultaneously very funny and informative documentariesF*ck. While you might immediately think ‘what a crude person that Amy is’, well, you’re partly right. Humor that is heavy on the use of strong, explicit, and colorful language tickles my funnybone like nothing else, but only if it’s simultaneously very witty. That’s because, for one thing, these terms reveal the wonderful nimbleness of language, when freed from its social constraints, to express just about anything our creative minds can come up with. It’s also because such terms generally concern themselves with the down-and-dirty (pun intended) realities of everyday human experience, for which laughter is the best cure, and humor the most accurate commentary. Strong, explicit, and colorful language chosen for nothing but its shock value, on the other hand, leaves me not only cold, but deeply annoyed, as it does nothing but justify the narrow stereotypes of the self-styled language police.
When it comes to strong colorful language, there’s a time and a place for everything. Formal language is great for the workplace, where strife needs to be avoided and the tasks readily made clear to everyone. Academic language can be great for academia, where highly technical, narrowly defined terms are needed to more efficiently discuss complex ideas. (Steven Pinker, however, very astutely points out that academic language has just as much of a tendency to become ever more obscure and confusing, even to other academics.) Likewise, jargon can be most suitable for professional conferences and talks, polite language most suitable for family and other gatherings of mixed age (since standards of politeness change over time), and so on.

But strong, explicit, and colorful language are also the best ways to express ourselves sometimes, and to avoid using them when they can best express what you’re trying to say is as foolish and self-defeating as refusing to use any tool that’s best for the job. Biting social commentary, humorous examinations of the human experience, expressions of just anger, getting to the bottom of how and why ‘douchebags’ and ‘assholes’ exemplify different ways of people failing to be decent… there are countless ways in which colorful language is the most excellent mode of expression. After all, ‘jerk’ or ‘louse’, while polite, are lame and far less nuanced terms to describe a person who behaves in such loathsome, or more accurately, ‘shitty’ ways as the douchebag and the asshole. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Carlin, the discerning and true lover of language will recognize that polite terms often just don’t cut it when we need terms that will really help us get to the heart of the matter. Prissy fastidiousness or squeamishness about language can cause the listener to miss out on something interesting or important in what’s being said, and hamper the speaker in their efforts to express themselves as fully as they otherwise could.

So use language vigorously, creatively, and wittily, whatever form it takes, and it’s only proper to take offense at its use when the intent of the speaker, or the content of what they have to say, sucks.

– To Thomas Pyne, professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University, and his always fascinating and erudite lectures in Philosophy of Language, delightfully spiced with a little colorful language here and there

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Sources and inspiration:
Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0486585/

Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com
http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/11/04/dont-mind-your-language%E2%80%A6/

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014. http://www.onassholes.com/Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. 2014, New York, NY: Penguin. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/sense-style-thinking-persons-guide

Book Review / Reflections On: Assholes, a Theory

The title might make you think it’s not a serious work, that it’s tongue-in-cheek, even a parody of a philosophy book.

But it’s really a very good, intelligently written, well-thought-out exploration of a sadly widespread phenomenon. And yes, it’s so satisfying to finally see that age-old question ‘Why are you being such an asshole?’ addressed and explained so thoroughly.

Author Aaron James is not being merely provocative in using the term ‘asshole’ to designate the particular kind of person he’s talking about. He uses this colloquialism because we really have no other word that’s so specific and so widely understood, to refer to a person who displays a certain attitude and systematically engages in certain types of bad behavior. Here’s James’ three-part definition: the asshole 1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically: 2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and 3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people (p 5).

When we say of someone: ‘what an asshole!’, or observe ‘that was such an asshole thing to do!’ pretty much everyone recognizes this just the sort of person or behavior we’re talking about. If we were to use a more formal or non-slang term instead, as in ‘what a bad person!’ or ‘that was a depraved thing to do!’, the full richness and specificity of meaning that the colloquial, richly nuanced term asshole possesses wouldn’t be fully expressed. Look at how many words it took James to define what we mean by ‘asshole’ (and I would say, not quite fully: none of the definition’s three parts describe the little shudder of outraged disgust we feel when we see assholes doing what they do.)

That’s why, like James and fellow philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose 2005 paper ‘On Bullshit’ caused quite a stir, I disagree with linguistic purists and prudes who wholly reject the use of colloquialisms in serious or academic work (though I speak only for myself as to how far this should go ). Out of self-righteously willful obtuseness, I insist, these purists just don’t ‘get it’. Everyday spoken language is much more fluid and adaptable than formal language, because there’s no arbiter of proper usage ‘breathing down your neck’ other than your partner in conversation. In the virtual experimentation lab that is daily conversation, we search for words that express exactly what we mean as efficiently if possible, and if there’s no ready word available, we adapt one that already exists, or make one up on the spot. As long as the person you’re talking to right then understands you, ‘it’s all good’. Formal language, on the other hand, evolves much more slowly, and must adhere more rigidly to existing standards of usage. Only over long periods of time do newer terms, having entered into common usage, filter up through the levels of linguistic formalization, and become accepted by editors of dictionaries, publishing houses, and news media. Yet the formalization of language doesn’t always result in a more expressive, precise one. As you can see, I used several idioms and colloquialisms in this paragraph, in quotes, to express my thoughts, and if you haven’t ‘been living under a rock’ you probably understood exactly what I meant. You can also see that colloquialisms can not only be a more colorful or amusing way, but more efficient way, of expressing yourself. You can test this by trying to define the full meaning of these colloquialisms, with all their nuance, using a lesser number of terms in formal language. I’d ‘bet your ass’ you can’t!

(In one of my student papers written a few years ago, I explore the linguistic origins and evolution of colloquialisms in the light of Grice’s Cooperative Principle, Dumas and Lighter’s paper on slang, and Steven Anderson’s hilarious and thoughtful documentary F**k. )

But I digress. To return to James’ book: it has a lot going on. So much so that it lead me to think, for example, more about the nature of language itself, just from the parts where he discusses what ‘asshole’ means, the various subtypes of assholes, and compares and contrasts asshole to related terms bitch, schmuck, assclown, douchebag, dickhead, dick move, and so on. (He forgot one of my favorites, asshat, which refers to having one’s head up one’s own ass, thereby wearing it like a hat.) It’s a testament to the richness of ideas in this book that thinking it over, every time, engendered so many other interesting lines of thought. Exploring the concepts contained in the term ‘asshole’ raises important questions about respect for one’s self and others, of human dignity, of exploitation, of how you should act and not act in a cooperative society, what we can rightfully expect of others and why their failure to live up to this is so objectionable, and much more; in short, this term is thick with moral and political implications.

There’s one point on which I disagree: his suggestion that, while assholes are far more likely to be men (which I agree is the case), they are almost entirely a product of culture (chapter 4). While I agree there may be cultural factors that help instill asshole qualities in men, and that some cultures are more likely to instill these qualities than others, it seems that nature plays a larger role than James allows. I think it likely that testosterone, the hormone which we know increases the tendency to aggression, contributes a lot to the phenomenon of assholery. After all, the traits James ascribes to the asshole are aggressive in nature: systematically granting oneself special privileges over others, of feeling entitled to things whatever the circumstances, and rejecting or ignoring others’ just complaints. It’s not that all men are assholes, far from it. It’s just that the biological factor of hormonal makeup increases the likelihood that males will be more susceptible to asshole influences, or more likely to possess aggressive traits that readily fall into asshole patterns of thought and behavior, than women. To my mind, assholery is a product of combined nature and nurture: asshole seeds take root in ground made more fertile by testosterone.

One of my favorite sections of the book was on asshole capitalism. James is not claiming here that capitalism is necessarily an asshole system. What he’s claiming is that capitalism is essentially a cooperative system ripe for exploitation by assholes, which, in turn, puts it in ever-present danger of collapse, of being destroyed from within. That’s because capitalism is a system of exchange and of reward: people exchange goods and services cooperatively and fairly, which generates trust and more trade, and people reward those who devise and provide the best goods and services with admiration and customer loyalty. And assholery, systematically behaving as if one is entitled to things regardless of the actual value of their contributions to the world, threatens the stability of the cooperative environment necessary for capitalism.

Since assholes systematically regard themselves as the rightful recipients of the best of everything, out of a sense that they are entitled to it per se, assholes exploit other people’s willingness to be fair and to reward others. Asshole drivers feel that owning bimmers entitle them to run red lights and rev their motors inches from people in crosswalks; asshole CEOs and managers think nothing of the fact that their wealth is built on the backs of sweatshop laborers or from industries that generate mass pollution; asshole bankers think they should earn millions or billions a year because they ‘have the balls’ to gamble other people’s money in financial markets, even at the risk of bringing down entire economies (to be fair, they are often so obsessed with their own rewards they may have a hard time even conceiving of larger, potentially dire consequences, because that would mean seriously considering interests other than their own).

Capitalism can and does thrive when people act somewhat selfishly within a larger context of cooperativeness. But never to the extent that the system would hold up under too much lying, cheating, stealing, abuse and neglect of employees, etc. That’s because money, and markets, can’t operate without trust. If most people can be trusted and it’s just a relatively few bad apples gaming the system, well, human nature being what it is, that’s to be expected. But if entitled, self-obsessed, rapacious assholes proliferate beyond a certain proportion, all bets are off. James explains why the modern Russian oligarchic system is rightly considered a full asshole capitalist system and the Japanese system is very much not. Worryingly, and not the least bit to my surprise, James presents evidence for what I’ve already been convinced of: the United States brand of capitalism is edging far too close to Russia’s end of the spectrum, and much farther away from Japan’s. That’s because our modern American capitalist culture has become one of entitlement (as much as certain pundits like to use this word exclusively to refer to aid to the poor, not handouts and special privileges to the rich), in which far too many of use we feel justified in grabbing whatever we want because we somehow, innately, ‘deserve’ it, everyone else be damned.

In sum: this book is a very useful book, on how to understand the origins and nature of assholes; on how to recognize and deal with assholes in the media and in daily life (James’ theory helps explain why certain assholes in the media remain entrenched in their self-serving dishonesty); and as a cautionary tale of when societies allow and encourage assholery to run amok.

– This book review is dedicated to my father-in-law, a man given to succinctness. His fatherly wisdom, which so resonated with my husband he has retold it many times over the years: ‘Son, don’t be an asshole. The world has enough of them already’.

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014.  www.onassholes.com

Nicholson, Christie. ‘Testosterone Promotes Aggression Automatically’, Scientific American, June 9, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/testosterone-promotes-agression-aut

Thanks also to www.urbandictionary.com, which helped me make sure I had all my colloquialisms right, and avoided spelling bimmer ‘beamer’ like a moron

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.
Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.