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This Column Sucks

Did a Recent School Board Slip Verge on Inappropriate?


Friday, May 4, 2007

In short, this column is about sucking.

This week’s Independent features a letter from a reader, Rich Ciolino, who chastises Santa Barbara School Board President Nancy Harter for language she used in a budget cut meeting. As Ethan Stewart reported in his coverage of the event, Harter said, “Yikes! That sucks,” upon realizing that she had just cut the job of a teacher in attendance. Ciolino found the word choice unbecoming. “It distresses me: that one of our elected educational officials is incapable of communicating without resorting to such slang, especially when speaking in public,” Ciolino wrote.

Indeed, the notion of pejorative “sucking” is common in American English. Ask any fourteen-year-old what they think of, say, Celine Dion. They will most likely respond with “She sucks.” And though the response is designed to disparage Ms. Dion, I doubt many of those using it would have done so with the intention of implying the profanity.

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To me, “that sucks” has always been a problematic turn of phrase. I learned it as child, long before I understood why it is impolite. When corrected by my parents or teachers, I’d retort with “But why is it bad?” And any adult with a brain in his head would just brush off the question, for fear of explaining fellatio to an inquisitive child with a knack for running his mouth off. Only my seventh grade teacher ever dared to venture into the forbidden zone with the response “It’s what’s being sucked, Drew.” Then she cut the discussion off, rightly feeling her job teaching at a Catholic school was at stake.

Dictionaries - like teachers and parents - agree that claiming a thing sucks is a nod to oral sex. These books differ, however, on whether the expression is offensive or not. The American Heritage Dictionary goes as far to label this usage as “vulgar slang,” while Webster stops at just “slang.” The Wikitionary lets the phrase off the easiest, with just a note of it being “colloquial.”

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The catch here, as I see it, is that the verb “to suck” is most often used with a direct object, as in “The machine sucks water through a pipe.” In this case, “water” is the direct object, receiving the action of the verb. With Harter’s use of it, the direct object is omitted. And we’re all pretty certain she wasn’t talking about water suction.

With the direct object left unsaid, Harter could have been referring to anything. I could postulate that she was presumably trying to say “Yikes! That sucks: all sense of hope from this awful meeting of budget cuts.” Another possibility: “Yikes! That sucks: lemons, which taste sour and unpleasant.” If I wanted to be an ass, I could even say that the profanity has all but drained from the expression through overuse, and any sense of something sexual was only in the minds of word nerds - like me - and puritanical individuals who tend to read smut into everything.

Direct object or no direct object, “That sucks” is just an expression, and one I feel has become acceptable to mention in mixed company. Other vulgar expressions have managed to escape their dirty origins, the most frequent example of which being “scumbag.” Still not a nice thing to call somebody, “scumbag” came into usage in English to mean something quite specific: a condom, especially a used one.

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Of course, Ciolino seemed to find fault specifically with an educated person - the president of the school board, no less! - using a rather base phrase publicly. In that sense, he’s right. However, the way I see it, Harter’s slip of “That sucks” speaks more to the fact that she and the other members of the school board had to make some difficult decisions when it came to paring down the district’s budget.

The way I envision the statement coming out, this member of the school board suddenly realized that the numbers on paper equated directly to people sitting in the audience. If that realization came as the shock I imagine it did, then the reaction was the sudden dismay of the task at hand. Cutting someone’s job right in front of them? Yeah, Nancy. I’m with you on that one.

That does suck.

Drew Mackie also makes words regularly as an Independent reporter and on his pop culture blog, Back of the Cereal Box.