M*****F*****!

From the annals of “unlikely moments in the history of language” comes a passsage from this month’s Yale Alumni Magazine profile of Fred Shapiro, the Yale Law librarian who recently published The Yale Book of Quotations. The passage in question:

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED, described Shapiro to me as “an extremely active contributor” who has “been in the forefront of using databases for linguistic research for decades. He’s made many important discoveries.” Like what? “Well, there’s politically correct, and hopefully, and his work on motherfucking — he has changed the history of these words, and when you change the history of a word you change the way we write our history.” Politically correct, for instance, rings differently in the mind’s ear when you learn that in 1793, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson noted without irony that toasting the United States rather than the people of the United States was not p.c. And motherfucking isn’t quite the same anymore — and Deadwood seems smarter, too — when you learn that it first appears in print in court papers from Texas in the late nineteenth century. (In at least two appeals of murder convictions, the killer failed to persuade the court that the deceased, having used the m-word, had it coming to him.) Until Shapiro found it in Texas, the word was usually traced back no further than to literary sources in the Harlem Renaissance. But he’s not ready to declare victory yet. With habitual caution, he said, “We are clearly a few decades closer to the origins of the word, but how close we are in absolute terms is highly speculative.”