Opinion | When You Hear the F-Word, Try Picking Up More Than One Meaning

But there are intermediate cases between the basic meaning and the authentic language. When we say that someone vomited, is it an idiom? Part of the essence of an idiomatic expression is that you wouldn’t immediately know its meaning out of context: “chew the fat”, “get high”, “throw that at me”, etc. In contrast, the relationship of “throw up” to puking is, after a bit of reflection, quite obvious; that’s why people also say “hurl” or “upchuck” to mean the same thing. If people are learning English, Do we take your acknowledgment that this is how we usually refer to that action as having caught one of our idioms? Not really. “Puke up”, in this sense, is a word that has two parts that we write separately.

What we think of as a word with a meaning can actually be many, many more words, and not just in the sense of clear and obvious homonyms like “spring” as a season and “spring” as a spiral. This is beautifully illustrated with my favorite example: “pick up”. Its basic meaning is to lift something. But we also pick up our children from school. Someone could pick someone up at a bar. You catch a disease, or someone says you’ve gotten into the habit of overusing certain salty words. In all of these cases, we see a relationship with the meaning of “raising”. Few would say that when we talk about picking up our children, we are throwing an idiom. Rather, these uses of “pick up” are more mundane than idioms; They are my own words.

That these are separate words is especially clear when the relation to lifting becomes more abstract: a car speeds up; a cocktail lifts your spirits; we catch a sound from afar; we pick up where we left off. Yes, “pick up” and “up” are words in their own right, but in this case a combination of the two is the source of what are actually many more words, and this is the case for countless others. Give some thought to the different things that “make up” can mean, for example. However, no one would be accused of abusing the words “pick up” or “make”, much less the word “up”. The key is how we use them.

And this brings us back to the subject of profanity. When we perceive that a word is used a lot or too much, it is often used to mean several things. The casual use of “like” breaks down into roughly four different uses, some of which have deviated quite dramatically from its standard definition. The N-word ending with “er” and the N-word ending with “a” are, for all intents and purposes (idiom alert!), different words now, and the latter is also becoming, of all things , new pronouns. What we might hear as a mere matter of another F-bomb is actually a rapidly sprouting vocabular offshoot, with branches growing in different directions. As I put it in “Nine Nasty Words” (with wording too raunchy to print here), the F-word can convey destruction, deception, dismissal, intimidation, and practicality.

Russian speakers seem to understand this about profanity more easily than English speakers. There is a tradition among Russians to appreciate their wealth; for example, a Russian whom I am particularly fond of has given me dense and sober volumes narrating and exploring his profanity. Therefore, what some lament as too much profanity is, to me, the equivalent of the glories of what the Russians call mat, or foul language. As writer Edward Topol wrote in “Dermo!: The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used,” a non-native speaker who learns “even a third of this lexicon can be sure to be the most popular and honored foreigner in any Russian gathering.”

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