Friday, March 25, 2011


I kind of like to know what I’m talking about. At least, I like to know what the words I’m using mean even if I can’t make sense with what I am trying to make them say. We invariably use lots of words throughout our daily lives without reference to where they come from or how their original meaning has changed. Sometimes, we’re even distant from the slang that seems so current, but may be recycled. Words like “cool” have re-entered the lingo of new generations who don’t know that it came from the bebop beatniks, daddy-o. The first time I heard it since I’d first heard Kookie Burns say it on “77 Sunset Strip” was in Silicon Valley in the 90’s—and it came out of the mouths of some very geeky engineers. I still get a funny feeling when I hear Bill Gates use it in one of his testimonials.

There are other words that are also in common usage that are very distant from their origins—one in particular is almost as widespread as the word “like” and “awesome”. That word is “suck” and it’s been somewhat twisted not necessarily to mean something entirely new, but has found wide social acceptance despite its low origins.

When I was about 11, I bought some badges at the local hippie emporium. One of them said, “Dracula Sucks”, which my father made me take right off my Sgt. Pepper’s jacket and toss in the trash. I was surprised, and he answered what must have been my hangdog look by saying that it was “just inappropriate.” That was enough for me to spend the rest of the night seeking out its deep, dark, hidden meaning. I better understood when I discovered it referred to a sex act that my teachers probably would not see eye-to-eye with as a point of for extra class discussion.

But today, “suck” is so commonly used in commercials, on talk shows, by politicians, and in everyday conversation cross generations that it seems to have been denuded of its original meaning. It’s used to convey a general sense of something that is awful. Its reference to a subservient position for one participant in a sex act may be hidden in the mists of time—or at least in how well-worn it’s become as part of the daily lexicon used by schoolchildren and adults.

I wondered if its popular use might be excused somehow—maybe there was another meaning that forgave its vulgar origins. After some digging into a handy dictionary of etymology, I discovered that the word was part of a once popular phrase. It just so happened that “suck” also designated the sad lot of the runt of the porcine litter who was left to suckle on the hind most “teat”. Eventually, the expression gave way to “suck hind tit”, which is probably shrink-wrapped today in common usage as good old, plain, “it sucks!” So, the next time you are tempted to use it, remember that words are chameleons that double-up and sometimes come back to bite us like the time-tossed travelers they are.

(With thanks to Suw Charman Anderson and Peter Corbett:

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