The Good Word

Suck It Up

A defense of the much-maligned word.

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Are you offended by the word sucks? Do you loathe the way it’s crept into everyday conversation? Are you shocked that preteen children and primetime television shows blithely employ a vivid slang term for oral sex? Do you wish sucks would just fade away, like other faddish colloquialisms that were eventually discarded?

Well, sucks to be you.

Sucks is here to stay. And what’s more, it deserves its place in our lexicon, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s impossible to intelligently maintain that sucks is still offensive. The word is now completely divorced from any past reference it may have made to a certain sex act. When I tell you that the new M. Night Shyamalan movie sucks (and man, does it suck), my mind in no way conjures up an image of a film reel somehow fellating an unnamed beneficiary.

Nor should this image pop up in your brain when you hear that the movie sucks. That is, unless you are obsessing over the word’s origins and thus have fellatio in mind each time you encounter it. But such obsessing is silly. When someone says Bill Gates is a geek, do you picture him as a circus performer biting the head off a live chicken? Of course not. The word’s root meaning has been replaced with a new connotation. Similarly, when I call Paris Hilton a moron, I don’t mean she’s mentally retarded, and when I call bungee jumping lame I don’t mean it’s disabled. What once was offensive is now simply abrasive. Language moves on, and the sucks-haters are living in the past.

Besides, it’s not even clear that sucks has naughty origins. We might trace its roots to the phrase sucks hind teat, meaning inferior. Or there’s sucks to you, a nonsexual taunt apparently favored by British schoolchildren of yore. Of course, when a 9-year-old girl walks up to you tomorrow and tells you that “Blue’s Clues sucks,” she won’t be aware of these past usages. But neither will she have in mind (or understand) the much dirtier alternative. The point is that sucks has become untethered from its past and carries no tawdry implications for those who use it. 

But this debate is tired. We could argue all day about whether sucks is an obscenity or not. (I’ll just note that time is on my side. Frequent usage in all sorts of contexts means sucks grows less obscene by the minute.) What’s far more interesting to me is the word’s utility.

Sucks is the most concise, emphatic way we have to say something is no good. As a one-syllable intransitive verb, it offers superb economy. Granted, some things require more involved assessments (like, say, James Joyce: I find his early work unparalleled in its style and its evocation of emotion, while his later writing became willfully opaque in a manner that leaves me cold). But other things don’t require this sort of elaboration (like, say, John Grisham: He sucks).

Oddly, this concision seems to work against sucks. More than any saucy origin-story, I actually think what’s holding sucks down is our long-held (and unexamined) prejudice against intransitive verbs as a means of expressing merit (or lack thereof, in this case). Consider: We have countless options when it comes to expressing our basic distaste for Ann Coulter. We can use a predicate adjective (“Ann Coulter is awful”). We can opt for an attributive adjective and a noun (“Ann Coulter is an awful person”). We can let the verb do more work ("Ann Coulter disgusts me”). We can find any number of more complex ways to express this very simple and important idea.

But now try to simplify the sentence while saying the same thing. I think you’ll find the most direct route is the intransitive verb. “Ann Coulter sucks/blows/stinks/rots/bites.” Notice something about all those verbs? They’re vulgar, to varying degrees. Can you find an intransitive verb that expresses the same idea, but in a manner that wouldn’t seem out of place in formal speech? Because I can’t. For some reason, this construction is innately casual. (The same is true with the only two intransitive verbs I can think of to express basic admiration: “Kate Winslet rules/rocks.” Not vulgar, but still clearly slang.)

What do we have against the simplicity of the intransitive verb as descriptor? Linguists don’t really have an answer. But Donna Jo Napoli, a Swarthmore College linguistics professor I spoke with, suggests a helpful way of looking at the matter. In her eyes, it all goes back to the war between Germany and France. No, not that one. Or that other one. She means the war between the Germanic and French roots of the English language.

English speakers have traditionally turned to our tongue’s Germanic side when we seek to be direct. (Some Germanic words: run, eat, beat, and yes, suck.) But we turn to our French romance roots when we’re looking for a little more formality. (Romance words: saunter, devour, chastise.) It’s not precisely the same thing, but a similar duality has come to affect our sentence constructions. We get short and direct when we’re being casual, but we tend to add layers and buffers when we’re reaching for a formal air. Perhaps the X sucks/stinks/rocks/rules formulation is just so blunt it strikes us as unseemly.

Personally, I wish sucks could escape from its slangy ghetto. It’s a terrifically punchy little syllable, with that “k” lending it the proven Starbucks/Nike/Kinko’s power of the “sticky consonant.” And take heart, sucks-haters. Soon enough, another bit of slang will come along and gain entrance into our common language, and it will be vastly more offensive than sucks ever was.

For proof that this escalating battle of raunch has been going on for years, I present a fantastic exchange (click here to listen to part of it) from the 1940 film classic The Philadelphia Story. Witness a mother and daughter debating the relative merits of vulgar intransitive verbs:

Dinah Lord: “This stinks.”Margaret Lord: “Don’t say stinks, darling. If absolutely necessary, smells. But only if absolutely necessary.”