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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Steven Pinker on Gollywaddles

For a while now, I have been obsessed with Supreme Court oral argument humor.  Ever since the Court Reporter starting identifying the questioning Justices by name a few years ago, I've been keeping track of which Justices have gotten the most "(laughter)" notations in the oral argument transcripts.  Justice Scalia always gets the most laughs, and the results from this term so far have provided few surprises.

Without a doubt, the most interesting oral argument so far, from a humor perspective anyway, was the one in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc.  In that case, television networks argued that the FCC had acted illegally by fining them for broadcasting "fleeting" uses of the so-called "f-word" and "s-word," which I will refer to here as "fuck" and "shit" respectively.  The case started when the FCC sought to fine NBC because it broadcast Bono saying "this is really, really, fucking brilliant" during his acceptance speech at the 2003 Golden Globes.  The FCC has also brought complaints against other networks, including Fox, for an incident during the 2003 Billboard Music Awards in which Nicole Richie, speaking of her show The Simple Life, said, after being egged on by Paris Hilton, "Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse?  It's not so fucking simple."

The oral argument in the case had many funny moments.  By far the best one was when, in the midst of a back-and-forth with Carter Phillips regarding how the words "fuck" and "shit" may or may not get their special force from being connected to sexual and excretory activity, Justice Scalia said, and I kid you not, "Don't use golly waddles instead of the F word."

Now, I have never heard the phrase "golly waddles" before, and I was unable to locate any reference to it by searching the internet, so for a long while I wondered where Scalia got this thing.  What I really wanted to do was ask some world famous expert on language about Scalia's neologism.  But where to find one?

Luckily, Steven Pinker and I happen to live in the same building (his loft is about fifteen times bigger and about a hundred times nicer than mine, but that's a different story).  Pinker is a Professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard, and he is truly a world famous expert on language, as well as a whole lot of other things.  He has written a slew of important and accessible books about language and the brain, the most recent of which is the New York Times bestselling The Stuff of Thought, which you can buy here.  He's a frequent contributor to just about every publication you can think of.  His most recent piece that I know of is an article in the Atlantic Monthly called Freedom's Curse, which is about, lo and behold, the fuck and shit case.

When I was researching my book Holy Hullabaloos, Pinker was nice enough to talk to me for a good while about evolution and intelligent design and the nature of science, and there's a paragraph recounting our conversation in the chapter of the book about my trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Since I had spoken to him before, I figured I'd ask him if he had ever heard of the phrase "golly waddles" or if he had any insight into what Scalia was thinking about when he said it.  The following is Pinker's response:   

"I am pretty sure that Scalia made up 'golly waddles' on the spot. He needed a hypothetical term that was not "fuck," and so used that; I don't think it was an allusion to any commonly used euphemism. On the other hand he was certainly influenced by the truncated profanities for “God” that are ubiquitous in polite speech, such as golly, gosh, egad, gad, gadzooks, good grief, goodness gracious, Great Caesar’s ghost, and Great Scott. Similar truncations pop up for just about every taboo term, including Jesus (gee, gee whiz, gee willikers, geez, jeepers creepers, Jiminy Cricket, Judas Priest, Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat), shit (shame, sheesh, shivers, shoot, shucks, squat, sugar), and fuck (fiddlesticks, fiddledeedee, foo, fudge, fug, fuzz, flaming, flipping, freaking, frigging, effing). I'm not sure why he felt he needed a second word in his hypothetical euphemism, but it may have been inspired by the prevalence of two-part euphemisms for bullshit, like applesauce, balderdash, blatherskite, claptrap, codswallop, flapdoodle, hogwash, horsefeathers, humbug, moonshine, poppycock, tommyrot."

Well, gadzooks and gee willikers, it would seem that Scalia's euphemism for fiddledeedee is just a bunch of flapdoodle!

Now, if you want to know what an ex-porn screenwriter had to say about "gollywaddles," you'll have to go to Holy Hullabaloos: The Blog.

Posted by Jay Wexler on December 4, 2008 at 10:06 AM | Permalink

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Perhaps the Justice was referring to a "wattle", which does appear to be a euphemism for body parts.

Posted by: Larry Symons | Dec 7, 2008 11:55:14 AM

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