’We didn’t realize that lite beer was supposed to suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of X sucks in American English

Journal Article

On April 17, 1991, a twelve-year-old junior-high student in Norfolk, Virginia, was suspended from school for refusing to desist from wearing a tee shirt on the front of which was printed in very large letters, DRUGS SUCK! School officials argued that the inscription was "inappropriate for school attire" because it is "vulgar," "derives from a sexual connotation of oral-genital contact," and hence is potentially disruptive to the maintenance of order in school. The child’s parents sued, insisting that the shirt contained a valuable message of critical importance and that the vernacular language was not "vulgar" but simply contemporary slang which conveyed the message in a powerful fashion to an otherwise quite impervious audience. The case presents a complex of problems in semiotics, pragmatics, semantics, and historical linguistics. Most speakers of American English today know that "X Sucks!" has a primary colloquial meaning "X is bad." However, many speakers also attach secondary meanings and even putative etymologies to the slang phrase–usually connected to fellatio–which some of them may find deeply offensive; yet (unlike the Norfolk school officials) they have no difficulty accepting the phrase and even using it themselves. The paper demonstrates (a). that the etymological connection between "X Sucks!" and fellatio is largely a folk etymology; and (b). that contemporary connotations of fellatio for "X Sucks!" are foregrounded only when the specific issue of putative etymology is raised, thus allowing speakers to accept a phrase that they might otherwise find inappropriate.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Butters, RR

Published Date

  • 2001

Published In

  • Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America