[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Of turds and torts

<Warning: Vulgar language ahead!>

Lately I have been doing research on "bad language" in anticipation of the Lenny Bruce conference that will dedicate his archive to Brandeis University libraries (see Comedy and the Constitution, and join us on October 27-28!).  A couple of sources have taught me that the vulgar word "turd" shares an origin with the legal term "tort."  As explained by Professor Geoffrey Hughes in his Encyclopedia of Swearing (2006), page 467:
TURD. This ancient term has followed the same basic semantic route historically as shit, being first recorded in Anglo-Saxon times in a plain literal sense, leading to various metaphorical extensions of coarse abuse from the medieval period onward.  Etymologically the word turns out to be a distant relative of legal tort, both rooted in the concept of being twisted or crooked.
So the next time I'm told, "You're full of shit," I will say, "Why, thank you.  I am indeed a torts professor."

Now that's a savory re-tort.


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