Open Thread: Slangin' Out

We've got a discussion in the works on our Facebook page about the phrase "how's it hanging?" that I thought I'd bring to the blog as well. What's the deal with how's it hanging? (Asked in my best Jerry Seinfeld voice, of course.) Is it sexist? Does it refer to a dangling penis, or is it just a way to say hey? And what other slang terms are we using that are secretly SEXUAL?

In an editorial meeting here at Bitch HQ this morning, it was revealed that two out of five of us had never thought of "how's it hanging?" as referring to genitalia of any sort. The other three of us are pervs, apparently. One us has actually subverted the phrase and turned it into "how are they hanging?" (which we decided could mean breasts, testicles, butt cheeks, eyelids, tummy rolls, or really anything else dangly) and made it more inclusive. But, as we chatted about the phrase, we thought of a few others that have very genital-focused connotations that we usually don't think about. Some examples:

• This sucks
• I screwed up (I got in trouble for saying this in sixth grade and was totally confused)
• That blows
• He's a dork (as we all learned in elementary school, a dork is in fact a penis – even if it is a whale penis)
• You're such a tool
• Don't be a boob

So basically our language is peppered with dirty, sexy phrases, many of which refer to what Kotex would call "down there." Is this a problem? Should we stop saying things that have a sexual connotation, or have these words become so ingrained into our vocabulary that they no longer carry a hidden meaning? Do you say this stuff? If not, what do you say instead? It's an open thread! Let's do this thing! (Oh, is that a hidden sex phrase too? Yikes, they're impossible to avoid!)

by Kelsey Wallace
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6 Comments Have Been Posted

Those Darn Phrases!

I don't know if it's so much that our phrases are dirty or sexual so much as almost any phrase can be interpreted as sexual or pervy if one has the right sort of mind ("right" being an undefined term for now). I recall my first run in with "how's it hangin'?" being in the context of a religious joke where someone asked that of the Crucified Christ. I can think of several tv and movie scenes in which some dirty minded guy turned every phrase spoken into some kind of sexual remark ("Hey, Ted, we need to wash these dishes." "I'd like to wash HER dishes."

Some remarks are more prone to a sexual interpretation simply because English words often have multiple meanings, and sooner or later one of those meanings will get sex attached to it via the mechanism of the euphemism -- trying to say something without actually saying it. And from the euphemism we head right into slang.

I once had reason to look up a list of euphemisms and slang terms for penis and vagina. It seems almost any word can be used as slang for a penis (fewer words for vagina or vulva, although breasts have a near endless list, too). I ask you -- Johnson? How in the heck does the phrase "tiny Johnson" (I heard Robin Williams use that in a comedy routine) end up meaning penis?

Just now, I found this place

I guess the real question is "Which comes first -- the phrase or the sexual innuendo?"

The more I think about the meaning of any particular phrase, the less sense it makes.

Yeah, really...

...maybe it's just my shock since I'd never before associated "how's it hanging" with a penis (although when I'm in a dark frame of mind it makes me think of a gallows, errr) but I'm really inclined to think that a lot of these phrases may have originally had innocent or at least neutral origins but then got imbued with innuendo, and this has been going on since at least the times of the Ancient Greeks. For example, I highly doubt that the phrase "keep it up" in terms of continuing to make an effort at something originally refers to having an erection—although my boyfriend and I may very well interpret it in that way! :P Also, as a linguistics major I'm fascinated by the fact that most modern-day expletives are very old and used to be non-loaded words (in particular, "fuck" and "shit" are of Germanic origin, and were most likely made taboo by 17th-century Latinists who saw words of native stock as less refined) and even today, loaded expletives and technical terms (albeit sexual ones) can be etymological cousins, as in "cunt" and "cunnilingus." The only words I feel truly uncomfortable using are ones that serve as ad hominem (or should I say ad feminem?) attacks on any particular group, especially a traditionally disenfranchised one, or ones that seem to aim to erase their existence.

Cat, I read once (somewhere)

Cat, I read once (somewhere) that a lot of the Germanic origin words we now think of as vulgar became that way when England was invaded and taken over by the Normans. The English spoke Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) while the Normans spoke Latinate French (plus they brought the Latin dominated Church with them). The Normans became the nobility and royalty of England, pushing into the lower classes all things Anglo-Saxon -- including their language. Anglo-Saxon words for various activities became vulgar terms, not to be spoken by the higher classes. Of course, those among the English who wanted to associate with the upper classes eschewed their own language for French and Latin.

Of course, the languages mixed and merged and got very tangled up over the centuries, but we still have word segregation ("bad" or "naughty" words vs. the polite, proper, very technical terms, plus a plethora of euphemisms -- it's enough to confuse anybody.)

Tthe lower classes made an effort at revenge when they began to refer to curses and vulgar language as "French", as in the phrase "Excuse my French".

If you ever get the chance, I'd love to know if the story is true!

I don't see a problem

Honestly, unless a dirty term is used to degrade someone, I don't see any problem with using little dirty slang words. For example I hate the word cunt. I realize that some have reclaimed it, so I am not going to be angry when it's in The Vagina Monologues or something like that but in everyday use I just don't like it. But when an euphemism becomes common slang, that's just part of the evolution of language. For example, the word pants used to be filthy and innuendo ridden but now because of use, the meaning has changed to become a garment. Language is always growing and changing and the initial appeal of phrases like 'how's hanging?' is that it's slightly shocking, or it adds a little extra emphasis in communication but after awhile it just becomes a phrase, and brand new innuendos become the order of the day. That I'm chill with. The only thing I am not cool with are phrases that degrade or are offensive to others like 'that's so gay.' That's not ok.

Liar Liar

I think the first time I ever thought "How's it hangin'?" could be sexual was, when asked how's it hanging, Jim Carrey's character responded, "Short, shriveled and always to the left." Still makes me giggle.

ah-hah moment

I was catching a ride to school with a friend of mine when I was in middle school when I realized what 'how's it hanging' was referring to. This was how my friend greeted me and her uber conservative mother chastised her nearly the entire way to school for saying something so 'vulgar'. Honestly, while I get the whole 'language has meaning' thing, I just can't bring myself to care about these kinds of phrases because I don't think they hold much meaning beyond the slang meaning they've taken on. I'd be interested to know the historical origins of these phrases because if there's something we can learn from them, it's how words and phrases take on a new meaning over time, and I believe this would be useful to know when confronted with the power of words like, well, Bitch, which is still powerful when used in a derogatory way. I don't think you could make that argument about 'how's it hanging' though.

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