Hi there. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog today. And if I sound a bit too much like Fred Rogers saying stuff like that, well...so be it.
Anyhow, today we are going to plumb the origin, meaning, and ramifications of the verb sucks, specifically when this word is employed in its vulgar slang usage. I am interested in examining how this word has migrated in American popular culture from a highly offensive sexual slur to a seemingly innocuous exclamation of disappointment.
During the summer of 1992 I enrolled in some summer classes at my local community college in Syracuse, NY. In one of my classes I befriended this really nice elderly lady named Patricia. Pat was what community college/public university folks refer to as an "Older Wiser Learner" (OWL) or an "older returning student." Pat was a fascinating person, and she and I enjoyed a friendship that lasted for several years after our shared class drew to a close in early August.
One beautiful afternoon Pat told me over a late lunch that she had inadvertently offended one of the librarians at the college. "How it the world could you have done that?" I responded incredulously. "You don't have an offensive bone in your body!"
"Well," Pat began, "When the librarian, who is about my age, told me that the college had a mandatory waiting period before allowing students to check out new magazines, I told her 'That sucks!'"
I have to confess that hearing a sixty-something, white-haired, bespectacled lady speak those words made me laugh out loud. What must have happened, naturally, was that Patricia overheard a teenager or twentysomething student use sucks in colloquial, informal dialogue, and Pat wanted to 'try on' the slang term for herself in the name of sounding en vogue with her much younger on-campus peers.
The problem with Pat's strategy, as I have written about in my previous post entitled "Oh Snap!," is that oftentimes when grown adults take teen slang too seriously, they can all-too-easily appear utterly foolish in the process. This was Patricia's experience, and she learned a valuable lesson that day.
Let's face facts, folks: the usage of sucks of which we are speaking today is what is called a dysphemism. A dysphemism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "The substitution of an unpleasant or derogatory word or expression for a pleasant or inoffensive one." Fundamentally, a dysphemism is an antonym of a euphemism.
To be perfectly candid with you, when someone says "That sucks!" that someone (whether that individual is an 12-year-old boy or a 70-year-old woman) is saying "That sucks a penis." Do you disagree with me that the dysphemistic sucks usage refers to the act of fellatio?
[UPDATE: I may be incorrect in my supposition here regarding the fellatic origins of this usage of suck. Please see Ben Zimmer's remark in the comments portion of this post. -TLW]
Now then: According to Wikipedia, over time a trend called the "dysphemism treadmill" has taken place, in which the slang meaning of the verb suck has transitioned in meaning from its sexual roots to its current meaning. By the way, according to Merriam-Webster, this current meaning is defined as "to be objectionable or inadequate."
At any rate, here is that information on the "dysphemism treadmill" from Wikipedia:
A complementary "dysphemism treadmill" exists, but is more rarely observed. One modern example is the word "sucks." "That sucks" began as American slang for "that is very unpleasant," and is shorthand for "that sucks cock," referring to fellatio. It developed over the late-20th century from being an extremely vulgar phrase to near-acceptability. A similar phenomenon happened with "jerk," which began as "jerk-off" (itself a reference to masturbation), in reference to someone who was boorish or stupid, and was a forbidden term in public media, but is now acceptable (for example, the Steve Martin film The Jerk) and scumbag, which was originally a reference to a used condom but now is a fairly mild epithet.
The specific origin of our usage of sucks is wildly unclear. The best I could do in my Internet research is the following posting from the alt.usage.english FAQ (the text has been edited slightly by me for the sake of clarity):
The curious thing is that "sucks!" as a taunt or term of derision seems to be even older in U.K. English, but it has never to my knowledge had any hint of a sexual meaning attached to it, though that doesn't mean it never did have. The construction is not at all the same as the contemporary U.S. phrase. To quote Eric Partridge's Dictionary of slang and Unconventional English: "Sucks! An expression of derision: schools (mostly boys') since late 19th century. Often 'sucks to you.' E. F. Benson, David of Kings (1924) has 'Sucks for----!' (That's a disappointment for so-and-so). 'Sucks to' may also be directed at others, e.g. 'Well, sucks to them! they can jolly well go without'."
But for people of a certain age, "Yah boo, sucks to you" is indelibly associated with Billy Bunter, a fat schoolboy created by Frank Richards (1875-1961), and immortalized in children's books and comics of the period. Even when I was a small boy in the 1940s, "sucks" in that context sounded old-fashioned and upper-class, and personally I've never heard or seen it except as a conscious parody of Bunter.
The science fiction and fantasy author Piers Anthony, on his personal Web site, provides us with a couple excellent tidbits concerning sucks. First Mr. Anthony points out the closest the OED gets to acknowledging this particular usage of sucks: the infinitive verb phrase to suck the hind teat, meaning "to be inferior or have no priority."
Second, Mr. Anthony reminds us of a line from Lady Macbeth's monologue from Shakespeare's signature tragedy Macbeth: "I have given suck." (Incidentally, Lady Mac is referring in figurative terms to nursing a baby.)
Well, I suppose that's enough fun for now. In conclusion I'll just say that, like in most matters in sociolinguistics, much depends upon context in usage. That is, the expressions sucks the high hard one or sucks the big one are fairly clear to anyone as far which usage of sucks is intended. By contrast, the expressions sucks big time or sucks majorly are much more inoffensive and socially acceptable.
Have a nice day.