Date: Mon, 30 Mar 1998 11:10:33 EST
From: RonButters RonButters[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]AOL.COM
Subject: THIS X SUCKS and the historical record

In a message dated 3/26/98 10:36:59 AM, M. Mandel wrote:

And what IS "in the historical record"? . . . What got written and
published. IMHO the "off-color object" was definitely in the minds of the
beholder *and the user* at the time when the objectless verb became popular,
which was probably part of its shock value. A generation has elapsed --
several generations of teenagers -- and if the implied object and its
connotations have faded in transition, we should neither be surprised nor
conclude that they were never there.

Mandel raises a fundamental problem for lexicographers: should we draw our
conclusions conservatively from "the historical record," or should we draw our
conclusions from our own intuitions about what "must" have been the case
("IMHO")? Intuition may often be a good starting place for a scientific
hypothesis, but one usually does not stop there. (Of course, in the special
case of word meanings, this raises a second sort of dilemma for the
lexicographer: at what point does folk meaning become meaning?)

The historical record is not so unreliable as Mandel implies: one needs to
look beyond widely disseminated print sources--at coterie literature, student
humor magazines, published letters, bad movies--any place that slang might be
used with less censorship than in newspapers and magazines. One can also look
(with caution) at contemporaneous commentary--the semiorthoepic commentaries
of big-city newspaper columnists and campus humor magazines, for example.
Such a look at the "historical record" to date has shown me amazingly
little in the way of concrete examples of an "off-color" object for SUCK at
the time of the emergence of objectless SUCK in American slang--unless one
hypothesizes that TIT or TEAT is "off-color" and that the phrase SUCK THE HIND
TEAT is the "origin" of objectless SUCK.
It would be helpful if Mandel (and anyone else who would care to
contribute) would make explicit just which potential off-color direct object
they feel intuitively must (have) come after SUCK in the deep-
structure/historical evolution of objectless SUCK. I would be delighted if
Mandel and others would share with me any _data_ they may have about this.

. . . the expression "suck" without d.o. originated, or at least spread to
cover the country, ex oribus teenagers, at a time when "suck" with d.o.s such
as [eggs, rope, tit] was obsolete or obsolescent in colloquial speech with any
meaning at all like the current one (which I would express as "be bad, be of
poor quality, be undesirable, be despicable; [of an event or situation] be

This just ain't so. These expressions are alive today, though not popular in
mainstream-culture adolescent speech. They were similarly alive and well
thirty years ago. They also mean 'be bad, be of poor quality, be undesirable,
be despicable; [of an event or situation] be unfortunate'.
I should perhaps make it clear that I am NOT arguing that objectless SUCK
could have no other "source" or "meaning" than SUCK EGGS, SUCK ROPE, SUCK
WIND, SUCK THE HIND TIT, etc. What I argue is rather that these are the
linguistic models that were overt in the language at the time of the emergence
of objectless SUCK; that they, too, were expressions of disapprobation and
that SUCK has never been a very "nice" word; and that "SUCK + [any direct
object that you might imagine]"--having no overt linguistic object to sustain
it and no historical record --can only be a nonce creation (and reflection) of
the mind of the imaginer. Indeed, many (most) speakers surely intend(ed) _no_
explicit direct object _whatever_ (any more than THIS X STINKS implies--or
originally implied--a particular source of the implied unpleasant aroma).
Certainly, some native speakers of the language from time to time will imagine
(did imagine) the same direct object that Mandel imagines (whatever that is).
IMHO the lexicographer needs to be cautious about sweeping assumptions
that some intuitively clear single lexicosemantic source "must" have been in
the minds of "the" American adolescents who (putatively) began to use SUCK
without a direct object as a term of disapprobation at about the same time
that SUCK with a frozen direct object was becoming less frequent. THIS X SUCKS
(paralleling--and perhaps by parallelism even to some extent deriving
historically from--older THIS X STINKS) is--and was--a slang term of
disapproval. Just what the speaker may be imagining as being sucked (or
causing the stink)--if anything--varies (and varied) with context.