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The Compleat Motherfucker

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

The Compleat Motherfucker

"The Compleat Motherfucker" by Jim Dawson
Joshua Chaplinsky
A history of the mother of all dirty words.

A short conversation between my girlfriend and I concerning The Compleat Motherfucker-

Me: I thought complete was spelled l-e-t-e.

GF: It is.

Me: So what’s this word?

GF: Kom-plee-ot.

Me: That’s not a real word.

GF: Sure it is.

Me: Then what the hell does it mean?

GF: (Checking iPhone) Kom-plee-ot. Having all parts or elements; lacking nothing; whole; entire.

Me: That’s the definition of complete.

GF: (Smiling) I know.

Me: You motherfucker.

Compleat (kuhm-pleet) is actually an archaic, eighteenth century form of the word complete, generally used these days as a bit of book-nerd whimsy. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Jim Dawson, a former editor for Hustler credited as the bestselling author of Who Cut The Cheese, a book on fartology. Fartology being a relatively young science, I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Dawson’s work. Would I be subjected to a dry, academic lecture, or a playful linguistic romp?

A little bit of both, as it turns out, but not enough of either to off put fans of the other. This motherfucker is intelligently written, with an extra helping of irreverence on the side. It begins with a brief etymology lesson, and then proceeds to document the mother of all swears in a series of self-contained chapters focusing on specifics of the word’s usage.

Used as early as fifth century BC, motherfucker has only existed in its current compound form for about four decades. Roughly a third of the book is devoted to the word’s rise to prominence in the African American community, before being co-opted, like so many aspects of black culture, by the white man. Dawson cites theories posited by black psychologists Price Cobbs and William Grier that the proliferation of motherfucker stemmed from a rebellion against the matriarchal soul crushing of sons by black mothers during slave times. From there, the book chronicles the word’s emergence into popular culture, quoting everyone from Lenny Bruce to Dawson’s old boss Larry Flynt in its exhaustive study of the subject.

Just a few of the interesting things I learned while reading this book- One, in the black south of the early 20th century, the word cock meant pussy, not cock. So cocksucker wasn’t necessarily the insult it is today. Two, Nick Cave’s violent ode to badassery, Stagger Lee, was based on an old African American toast (think precursor to rap) and had been committed to wax at least 200 times before he got to it. Three, calling someone a turtle egg is the non-literal equivalent of motherfucker in Chinese.  Pretty offensive, huh?

That’s not to say that’s all I learned. The Compleat Motherfucker runs the gamut, covering a wide variety of topics including civil rights, censorship, the blues, standup comedy, film and television, literature, rock and roll, and politics. There is even an entire chapter dedicated to the god-like use of the word by Sam “The Man” Jackson.

The book loses a little steam towards the end, much like the act of standup comic Chuckles- The Crazy Motherfucker, but at this point we’ve been bludgeoned with the finer points of profanity to such an extent that we’re appreciative. The last few chapters dole out information in digestible little chunks as The Compleat Motherfucker winds its way down. There is no summation; just a short compendium of quotes featuring the offending word. The book doesn’t really build towards anything other than exhaustion. Perhaps this is appropriate, because as Dawson himself states, the power of the word is in danger of being diluted by overuse.  Ain’t that a motherfucker?
 

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