Orange you glad I didn't say the C-word?

Apparently, one currently popular way in the mainstream media to get around using a word that is taboo in some way or other is to say/write the X-word, where X is the first letter of the taboo word. Some examples are incredibly well-known; nobody doubts what the F-word refers to, for example. (One of Lindsay Lohan‘s twin characters in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap uses “the F-word” to refer to her father, but the joke is that her mother naturally misunderstands what she means at first. And yes, I watch sappy Disney movies.)

(According to the NYT article linked above, “every letter of the alphabet now seems up for grabs to euphemize something unspeakable. Examples of all 26 can be found in the conventional press from the last 12 months.” Wish they had supplied the examples; for example, I’d be really curious to know what the X-word would stand for.)

There’s usually little doubt about what the C-word means — I suppose it could be one of two words, but it’s usually the one and not the other. The one’s simply more taboo than the other, possibly because it’s more often used as a direct insult to a person. (The other is hardly ever used this way; it seems to only work in that capacity when suffixed with -sucker.)

ANYWAY, there’s a phonological point here, somewhere. Back in July, Lisa Davidson indirectly talked about the other of the two C-words. Lisa referred to “the blog of an acquaintance”, where she read the following.

it’s really hard to walk into a store and ask where the caulk is. “excuse me, can you help me find some caulk?” or “i need some caulk.” or “i’m looking for some caulk.”

Now of course, some (American) English speakers (particularly in the Northeast, but elsewhere, too) distinguish a rounded [ɔ:] in caulk from an unrounded [ɑ:] in the other C-word; other speakers typically have only the latter vowel in both words. Lisa notes that, even if she doesn’t make the relevant distinction herself, she’ll emphasize it in this case, just to be safe.

Coincidentally, the phonetic similarity between caulk and the other C-word was the basis of a funny Saturday Night Live skit this past weekend, with host Jason Lee and cast members Rachel Dratch and Chris Parnell. (You can currently see a video clip of it online; the clip is labelled “Jason Lee – star of My Name Is Earl – takes a caulk on the wild side.”) For Lee, who was born and raised in Southern California, the word was definitely [kɑ:k]. Dratch and Parnell both pronounced a rather distinct [kɔ:k], at least most of the time; in fact, Parnell sometimes very noticeably pronounced [kɔ:ɫk], where the superscript [ɫ] is meant to indicate an offglide-like velarized lateral. Dratch is from Massachusetts, so that’s more or less expected, but Parnell’s from Tennessee and I’m not sure that the [ɑ:~ɔ:] distinction is made there. (Then again, my wife Karen is from neighboring Kentucky and insists on pronouncing words like caulk and folks with this velarized lateral offglide, and it drives me up the wall; I try to point out that she would never pronounce walk or talk that way, but it’s no use.)

The point is, distinction or not, the joke worked — even those who seem to think the skit was lame don’t seem to think the distinction gets in the way. So I take back my statement back in August that Ed Keer “had the best argument for the correctness of his pronunciation” of orange with [ɑ:] instead of [ɔ:] based on how it made a knock-knock joke work better.

(For more discussion from Ed, and a friendly continuation of our argument, read this, and the follow-up here.)

5 thoughts on “Orange you glad I didn't say the C-word?

  1. Lance

    With respect to that offglide: it was pointed out recently on a mailing list I read that, even among people who pronounce “folk” to rhyme with “yoke”, no one ever refers to President James K. Poke.

    Or perhaps that’s with respect to Lisa’s ability to force a distinction she doesn’t otherwise make, when she really needs to? Anyway.

  2. Peter Jenks

    In Tennssee, they say foke and cawk (for the thing they sell at ACE). I don’t know what they say for the other occasionally homophonous word.

  3. Aaron Dinkin

    Um. Tennessee does have the cot~caught distinction. Massachusetts doesn’t. (In Eastern Massachusetts, they’re both the rounded one, though, which may be what you’re hearing.)

  4. Bert Vaux

    Having dated a girl from Polk County, Tennessee for five years, I can vouch for the fact that a non-trivial percentage of Tennesseeans pronounce Polk as Poke.
    And as for that caulk skit, even though I am a big SNL fan I have to point out that the exact same caulk/cock gambit was used on the tv show Crank Yankers several years ago.
    And no discussion of “the C word” should go without mentioning the variant “the see-you-next-Tuesday word”, which has been used in an episode of Sex and the City among other places.

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