Brass Balls

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Pawnshop Balls, Courtesy

By Adam Corson-Finnerty

I’m at a fundraising event for two female candidates for office. One of the women assures us that her colleague will do well in the state capital because she has “brass balls.” Her colleague (who won, by the way) laughed and returned the compliment.

So, both women had brass balls. The audience found this amusing because it is a mild crudity, and because it takes a hitherto male-focused attribute and generalizes it to both sexes. Now that hundreds of women have been elected to office, legislative “boys’ clubs” are going to be invaded by some ballsy women.

As I followed this election, I began to notice that any number of crude words have made their way into the mainstream. Senator Amy Klobuchar recently commented that her Republican colleagues get really “pissed off” when a fellow Republican breaks ranks. Newscaster Nicolle Wallace exclaimed over some political revelation, “He’s really screwed!” And MSNBC’s Joy Reid told one of her panel members that “I could see that you were really ‘WTFing’ when you heard that.”

Words and expressions have a funny way of moving around. Not just from the locker room to the living room, but from one meaning into an entirely different meaning. Take the term “bully pulpit.” One should not be surprised that under our current President, bully pulpit may have an entirely different connotation than it was meant to have. The term goes back to President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909). He used it to mean “good,” “great,” “terrific.” As in “bully for you” (good for you).

Sometimes words or expressions get flipped around to mean their opposite. For instance we say that an idea or undertaking “didn’t pan out” for someone. If it had “panned out,” they would have been successful. But the expression has been completely reversed from its origins. In 1849 the California Gold Rush sent thousands of men flocking to streams and rivers to pan for gold. They used a shallow pan to scoop up dirt and rocks to see if any golden nuggets were present. A worked-over stream would be described as “panned out,” meaning there was nothing there of value.

And while we are wandering in the wilderness, does anyone know where the term “the shitty end of the stick” comes from? It comes from the logging industry. Once a large tree was felled, and the limbs stripped off, it had to be carried to a wagon or a river in order to transport it to the sawmill. Dozens of men would take sturdy limbs and run them under the log. A companion on the other side would grab his end and everyone would hoist up the log to be carried. A common prank was for one logger to rub the end of his stick in some animal scat, and then pass it to the unsuspecting partner on the other side.

There are numerous crudities that have moved into normal conversation, and which are used without suspecting the origins. My son was once asked how he felt about his hyphenated last name by a writer for a bridal magazine. “It sucks,” he replied. “It’s too long.” This was 25 years ago, and I remember thinking that this remark would never make it into print. Yet it did. Did the writer — or her editor — know that the term traces back to fellatio?

And, among the young, a common insult is to call another person “a real douche,” or more correctly, “a douchebag.” Since douching has fallen out of style — because most commercial preparations are harmful to a woman’s sensitive parts — I wonder if these teenagers have any idea what item they are referring to. Similarly “scumbag,” seems to have been disassociated with what you have after a condom has been used successfully.

Roger Stone has become a public figure of some renown, and may soon be indicted in the Russia investigation. Reporters regularly refer to a tweet he sent that may indicate he had foreknowledge of a Russian release of compromising emails about Democratic powerhouse John Podesta. It was August 21, 2016, and his cryptic message was “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.”

This line has been repeated over and over by newscasters, pundits, and legal experts, but how many of them know the very crude joke that is the origin of this expression?

Let’s see if I can describe the joke without being too graphic. Back in the days of sailing ships, a young sailor asks an old tar how he can survive a year at sea without sex. He is taken to the head, where there is a large barrel with a hole midway up its side. He experiences sexual relief when he places his prick in the hole. He is delighted. “How often can I use the barrel?” he asks. “Every day except Friday,” is the reply. “Why not Friday?” comes the query. “Because that’s your time in the barrel.”

The comedian Lenny Bruce got arrested in 1961 for saying the word cocksucker in San Francisco, and again in Los Angeles for using the term schmuck. George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 for doing a riff on “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The words were cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, and tits. That was the up-tight standard of the mid Twentieth Century. By the dawn of the Twenty-first Century, the unbelievably crude language in HBO’s Deadwood helped it earn a huge audience and 8 Emmy Awards.

Yes, when it comes to dirty words, the times they are a-changin’. Cable news channels gleefully let the world know that President Trump bragged about “grabbing {women} by the pussy.” He also gained plenty of airtime by calling African nations “shithole countries.” Eve Ensler, author and performer of the Vagina Monologues has an extensive section in which she says the word cunt in as many ways as she can. Her show is now gleefully performed every Valentine’s Day by thousands of college girls across the country. On campus, they call it “V Day,” and the V doesn’t stand for Saint Valentine.

All of which goes to show how language evolves, and just how much we have crawled out from under the Victorian Rock. Yes, many words still shock us. But, in the etymological wisdom of the musical duo, The Bird and the Bee, “If you say it all the time a dirty word will get its cleaning.”

Even so, my mother had it right. “I don’t see why people have to use dirty words to express themselves,” she used to tell me and my brother. “You can say what you mean without cursing.”

And to prove this thesis, we will end this this essay with a trenchant but crudity-free quote from the conservative commentator S. E. Cupp. Speaking of how things will change for the President, now that the Democrats have taken over the House of Representatives, she observed that “The deluge of, investigations, subpoenas and hearings coming his way will be the equivalent of a rectal exam for Trump and there’s little he can do about it.”

Adam Corson-Finnerty

November 20, 2018

Adam Corson-Finnerty is a writer and lifetime activist. He lives with his wife and five cats in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

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Pawnshop Balls, Courtesy

Trump Resister, Grandfather, Environmentalist, Feminist, Quaker.

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