For crying in the sink, let’s euphemize!

This is a parallel post to’For chrissake, let’s blaspheme!‘ at the Strong Language blog.  It’s a fine and upstanding place for scholarship and punditry on not-so-fine and not-so-upstanding words.  Consider yourself forewarned if you choose to click through.

You know you’ve made it as a taboo word when you attract the attention of those prudish arbiters of etiquette who substitute a weaker, pithier word in your place. These euphemisms, these scab symbols crossing the picket lines of the word-factory, are called minced oaths, and include such wilted phrases as gosh darn, zounds, and the notorious fuddle duddle

For several decades now, ‘for crying in the sink‘ has been a frequent utterance around the Chrisomalis home.  I hadn’t given it much thought in my youth, and probably assumed that everyone said it, although that’s clearly not true – Google Books only has around 20 unique hits for the phrase.  But only recently did I realize, in a moment of profane clarity, that surely this is a minced oath for for Christ’s sake.  I raised the issue with my parents, wondering if I was missing something obvious, but they hadn’t realized its origins either, in all our years of mincing and oathing.  But the phonological similarity is striking:

fəɹ ‘kɹajɪŋ ɪn ðə ‘sɪŋk
fəɹ ‘kɹajs               ‘sk

The first clear* instance of this phrase I’ve been able to find dates from 1931, from the comic strip When Mother Was a Girl by Paul Fung, one of the first Asian-American cartoonists to achieve national prominence:

1931 Paul Fung, When Mother Was a Girl (Apr 19) Well, for crying in the sink! Can you imagine that bozo!

1931 Paul Fung, When Mother Was a Girl (Apr 19) Well, for crying in the sink! Can you imagine that bozo!

But by no means are we limited to the sink; for instance, here are some other minced oaths for us to cry in:

for crying in the beer:  1934 Graeme and Sarah Lorimer, Stag Line 113 “For crying in the beer,” I said.

for crying in the creek:  1936 Florence W. McGehee, Orchids and Onions (Woodland, CA Democrat, Feb 12) For crying in the creek, Mother, have you lost your mind?

for crying in the alley: 1936 The Forum and Century 96: 92 “For cryin’ in the alley, anyone’d think you was in love with one of them skirts you toot up and down,” his brother was always saying.

for crying in the rain:  1941 Robert Archer, Death on the Waterfront 141 “Oh, for crying in the rain, we’re not going to get anywhere this way,” Stern raged.

for crying in the dark:  1946 Royall Smith, The Aluminum Heart 53 For crying in the dark, hadn’t they learned from us in the first place?

for crying in the soup:  1953 Earl Chapin, Long Wednesdays 128 “For crying in the soup!” yelled Junior, “why don’t you get rid of that dang cat?”

for crying in the bucket: 1969 John Schmiedeler, The kids have us buffaloed  (Salina, KS Journal, Dec 7) For crying in the bucket, are we going to hold still for such rubbish?

The prevalence of nouns for liquids or for holding liquids is probably not a coincidence, when one is looking for things to cry into.  But, of course, the granddaddy of all these phrases is for crying out loud, first reported in The Union Postal Clerk (1921: 56) in a list of “Famous sayings of the clerks of the Mailing Division”:

1921 The Union Postal Clerk 17: 56 Well, for crying out loud.

Not only is for crying out loud the earliest of the crying euphemisms, it’s also the most common, and has a nice Ngram outlining its origin in the 1920s rising steadily until about 1980, then spiking upward over the last 20 years of the century.   Of course, we also have the earlier criminy and cripes, but these aren’t really euphemisms for for Christ’s sake but rather just Christ – they’ve both been around longer than for Christ’s sake was a profane oath, although they sometimes occur in phrases like for criminy’s sake and for cripes sake.

Taken individually, a skeptic could make the case that perhaps these are just idiomatic expressions rather than minced oaths, but taken collectively, that theory holds less water than a sink full of blasphemous tears.  In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English survey (conducted in the late 1960s) has a question devoted to “NN31: Exclamations beginning with the sound of ‘cr-‘, for example, ‘cripes’“. (Thanks to Ben Zimmer for pointing this out to me.)  You can’t see the full survey results unless you have a DARE subscription, alas.

These ‘crying’ minced oaths reflect a decades-long pattern of euphemism that emerges in the 1920s and 1930s and continues to the present day, largely under the radar.   Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005: 533) lists for crying out loud but none of the others; similarly, the New Partridge slang dictionary (2006: 786) lists no other variants.   To really understand all of these in context, though, we have to relate them to the original blasphemy, which emerges and flourishes around the same time.  For more, see my parallel post on for Christ’s sake and its many variants.

*Although, if anyone has access to the 1924 Year Book of the Rochester Dental Dispensary, School for Dental Hygienists , and would be able to check page 39, we could get it back to 1924!  I don’t trust Google Books on this one, since dating errors abound in their metadata.

Glossographia: the year in review, 2014

So, overall, it’s been a good year.  Got tenure, gave five talks, taught new classes, lots of things in the pipeline, and setting up for more to come.   Here at the ol’ blogatorium, though, things were fairly quiet compared to 2013.   In the spring, I posted the first set of Lexiculture papers, and in the fall, I was tickled pink to have my students from my Anthro-X seminar post reviews of current books on culture and cognition.   But almost certainly my favourite post was The Case of the Missing Pi Day 4s, featuring three of my favourite things, language, numerals, and pie.

Thanks to all my loyal readers as Glossographia is now past its sixth birthday.  Having begun as a present to myself for getting hired on the tenure track, it (like its author) can enter the serene mid-career stage.   All the best in the year to come!

Verso e-books at 90% discount

In case you’re the sort of person who can’t have enough books, Verso Books is discounting all of its e-book titles by 90% for this week only (until Jan. 1), which means that you can pick up some great academic titles for $2 – $3 each in a DRM-free format.  I just bought Gabrielle Coleman’s new ethnography of Anonymous, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy , as well as John Hall’s biography of Ernest Gellner, for less than $6 for the two.

Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ ( and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon ( retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ ( and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ ( Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.

New blog: Strong Language

I’m inordinately pleased to be one of the contributors at Strong Language, ‘a sweary blog about swearing’.  To say the least, it is not recommended for those who don’t want to be exposed to profanity, and is probably not recommended viewing in many workplaces.  It has a star-studded cast of contributors, including many professional linguists, and is off to a really fantastic start.  I just made my first post there yesterday, ‘How many swears can we give?‘  Read at your own risk and leisure.

Advancing Science in Anthropology: a roundtable

Thanks to those who made it out last Friday to our roundtable at the AAA meetings, ‘Advancing Science in Anthropology: 10 years of SAS’, commemorating 10 years of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, reflecting on our past and future. Of course, I know that many/most of you are either not AAA members or were not able to attend the meetings or had a conflict. Fortunately, Stephen Lyon (@stelynews) and I (@schrisomalis) were live-tweeting the event, so we are now glad to be able to share with you the Storify of the whole roundtable, including a summary of all the panelists and discussion from the audience.  Thanks to all who participated!

C U N DC? An AAA rundown

To any of my readers who will be in Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological meetings, feel free to say hello if you should see me amidst a swarm of funkily-dressed hipsteroids.  (P.S.: I won’t be one of them.)   I’ll be there from tomorrow afternoon right through Sunday afternoon.  If you’re looking to hear me speak, I’m a participant in a roundtable entitled ‘Advancing Science in Anthropology‘ sponsored by the Society for Anthropological Sciences: Friday 12/05, 2:30 – 4:15pm, (Marriott – Wilson B).  I warned my seminar students last night that I’m feeling feisty, so prepare for some judicious cantankery!  You can also definitely find me at the SAS business meeting at 6:30pm Friday evening (Marriott – Maryland Suite C), at the Graduate School Fair at the Wayne State booth (Saturday 12-4pm), and at the SLA business meeting at 8:30pm Saturday evening.

Now for some panels that may be of interest to some readers of this blog but may not get the attention they deserve:

(Friday, 11:00am, Marriott – Virginia C)

(Sunday, 8:00am, Marriott – Virginia B)

(Sunday, 10:00, Marriott – Washington 3)

Also I wanted to give a shout-out to Wayne State students who are presenting material based on their work in my Language and Societies course last year:

Alex Hill: A Critical Discourse on Detroit’s “Food Desert” Metaphor
(Wed. 4:15pm, Marriott – Washington 6)

Kaitlyn Ahlers:“Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description Among Craft Beer Consumers
(Thurs., 11:30am, Omni – Calvert)

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech
(Thurs., 6:30pm, Marriott – Johnson)

Hope to see you there!