America Gets Mapped by Swear Words, And It’s Genuinely Surprising

America gets stereotyped quite a bit: we’re a nation of Wal-Martians, fat, nuclear-armed slobs inclined only to learn geography so our missiles can land on target.

But we’re so much more diverse than that, and Dr. Jack Grieve at Ashton University has just found a commendable way to show it.

Dr. Grieve compiled American Twitter data to map the kinds of swear words used most often throughout the United States.  Many Americans already know how Midwesterners say “pop” while much of the rest of the country says “soda.”  But this takes our dialect to another level.

The results are fascinating.

When it comes to dirty mouths, the Mountain States typically have lower filthy tweets.  Maybe people are too polite, or maybe they’re too busy reminiscing about the days Wyoming’s Dick Cheney ruled America as Vader did the Galactic Empire.

Meanwhile, a strong Shit-band extends from Texas to New York City through the South, but, for some reason, fails to make inroads in the Midwest.

And speaking of the old South, Southerners remain on top for use of “damn” – the rest of the country having long moved on to more offensive swear words, like “cunt.”  A fortress of “cunt” reigns over New England and the Northeast, while outposts of every Brit’s go-to swear appear around Portland, Oregon, spots of the Midwest, and curiously enough, in a well-defined region on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.

Once formidable “motherfucker” now clings to the Mexican-American border, which makes some sense.  When was the last time you accused anyone of fucking a mother derogatorily?

Clearly, we may be the United States, but when it comes to how we refer to the guy who just cut us off in traffic, we play regional favorites.

Take a look at Dr. Grieve’s work here.


“Ultimate Survivalist’s Guide to Suicide” Book Excerpt: Carla Washington

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Carla Washington

Carla thought she was a murderer.

That’s a hard starting position for anyone to start with, even someone like me with access to all kinds of cosmic secrets.

Carla was eighteen when she went to a party in Harlem, New York. There, she met a guy who called himself “Bigs,” though he wasn’t particularly big.  He was, however, moderately charming, and after a few drinks, a joint, and some well-rehearsed language, 22-year-old Bigs convinced Carla to let him wriggle on top of her for about three minutes.  She hoped it was the beginning of a relationship, though she was jaded enough to know better than to expect much from him.  When her texts remained unanswered after a few days, she filed the memory under “Asshole” and moved on her with life.

It wasn’t long before she started having morning sickness.  With two older sisters, one of whom was married, and a mother who herself had started her family with an unplanned pregnancy, Carla was well aware of what had happened.  Bigs was nowhere to be found; later, she learned through a friend that he was a well-known party drug dealer from Philadelphia.

Shortly after Carla’s mother’s second pregnancy – this one was planned – she’d started going back to her Baptist church.  There she met a guy, decent in most ways, who married her. The price, however, was complete subsumation into the church.  That became their lives; every Sunday, without fail, they were in their pews, praising, singing, and listening.  Carla knew very well what the church was all about.

Carla was also the first woman in her family to get into college.  On scholarship to New York University, she was already struggling to keep her head above water.  The disruptions of a pregnancy would have ended her student career. Since she’d gotten at least two scholarships from religious organizations, she also knew that if she dropped out to have a child outside of marriage it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get her bills covered by those same people.

God was, for Carla, extremely clear on the matter.  Thou Shalt Not Consider What You’re Considering, she believed.  She told her mom, Stella.  They cried together for several hours.  They sat up late, talking.  By the end, Stella had only one thing to say: “God always forgives.”

Her older sister drove her to the clinic a few days later.  The whole procedure took an afternoon.  She was back home and resting by dinner.  She didn’t eat.

She passed her classes that fall.  None of her friends, professors, or fellow church goers knew.  Stella’s husband and Carla’s stepfather was kept in the dark; he had extremely vocal opinions on the matter that did not favor Carla.  Nobody said a word.  The whole affair went deep into the closet of family secrets.

Carla started having nightmares.  Most of them were wretched things, full of blood, babies crying, fire, the Devil, and always someone accusing her of murder.  She didn’t sleep well and heard her pastor’s voice in her head even during her waking hours.  “A life is a life!” it echoed.  “Hell awaits those who take one!”

I arrived in March just as her NE peaked at 87%.  She was at NYU study hall, by herself, scratching her arm with a sharper-than-necessary pencil.  Drips of blood formed along the length of her self-inflicted wounds – she kept wondering if the fetus had felt the same kind of pain.  Believe you me, I tried to make her think of anything else but that.  But the guilt was lodged so deep into her that nothing short of a car crashing through the wall would break her concentration on it.

What Carla needed, more than anything, was distraction.  I had arrived in the middle of a raging firestorm; I had to react quickly to prevent more damage.  Unlike so many of my other jobs, I couldn’t just throw water on this one and walk away.  I had to deprive it of fuel.  But first I had to keep the damned thing from burning down my house.

When a nice-enough-looking guy named Dan from Boise, Idaho, knocked on the glass, Carla shot up, embarrassed, and tried to cover up her arm by shoving it under the table.  “Are you finished?”

“Um, no, sorry, I’m here ‘till six.”

“Oh.  Can I sit in here and study for econ?  I just need a quiet place and you’re all alone.”

Line in: She thinks you’re a creep.  Well, better than thinking of the Devil eating her soul in a soup of blood.

With much hesitation, she nodded.  She kept that left arm hidden from me as I pretended to read an econ book.  Forty minutes later, she got up and left.  Her NE stayed at around 60% – dangerous but not immediately so.  Wasn’t much reason for me to continue studying econ after that.  Though nobody would ever notice, both the chairs and the table got a few grams heavier.

If your house burns down, what do you do?  Sit around and cry?  I suppose some of us do. But those of us who are determined to get life the way it was have to start small.  We have to build things a step at a time, brick by brick, stone by stone, until one day we wake up in a house. It’s a long, slow, expensive process, and a lot of the time we’d prefer just to give up and find a whole new house.  But I had no such option with Carla.  She was the only house I was allowed.

The most important thing in Carla’s daily life was being denied the opportunity to kill herself.  She wasn’t going to throw herself in front of a bus or subway; wasn’t really her style.  If she was going to end it all, it would be some classic MoD, like hanging herself, slashing her wrists, taking pills, or jumping from a building.  Nothing fancy for her, just a swift ticket to what she believed would be Hell.

That Time My Emirati Students Were Afraid of Google

The beginning of the year was one of the hardest culture shocks for any teacher of the Abu Dhabi Education Council.  Generally, that’s the worst bit for teachers worldwide; having gotten used to a summer routine, teachers lose their voices as they bring order to their new classrooms, drag their feet from self-imposed exhaustion after weeks of an entirely better sleeping schedule, and wrangle with a series of strange kids who sometimes start the year by being utter dicks.

ADEC took all that and compounded it with crippling uncertainty.  School often “started” somewhere in September, and in 2012 that was roughly the first week.  But “started” deserves such quotations; kids appeared and disappeared, as did teachers who were suddenly transferred in and out of schools and classrooms.  A system-wide series of negotiations would get underway between ADEC-HQ and principals over staffing, between principals and teachers over who got how many classes and at what time of the day, between teachers and students over what the students would be allowed to get away with for the rest of the year.  Worst for teachers was that it took an average of a full month before you’d get your real classes; in the meantime, you’d just sit in a room with a random bunch of kids whose grades you knew would be tossed come final roster.

That abject period always led to creative solutions to fill the hours.  By 2012, I knew the game; grammar worksheets, videos, and other rather unimpressive claptrap did the job of at least keeping some of the students busy while the administration lackadaisically went about writing the real, final schedule.  By then I was in Abu Dhabi itself in a school that bothered to have classroom computers and Internet access.  YouTube was meant to be my salvation.

Then that asshole went and made Innocence of Muslims.

Take the swayback machine now.  September 2012 was election season in the U.S.; an unimpressive recovery was largely the headline, but then out came a short, badly-dubbed, apparently deceitful to even its own cast subpar film that lashed into the Prophet Mohammed as a pedophile, drunk, and sex fiend.  This coincided roughly with the September 11, 2012 Benghazi consulate attack, which was initially blamed on protests associated with the film.

Nobody in the emirates was worried about kids setting us Westerners on fire over that stupid film, but it did inspire some noteworthy events.

In my time sink class of grade 11s, filled to the brim with boys determined to do as little as possible, I resorted to films like Kony 2012 to inspire quiet and a semblance of order to students who knew as well as I did that I would never give them a real grade.  Shortly after Innocence of Muslims went viral in the Middle East, I was pulling Google up in front of the class to find films of car accidents to teach about automobile safety.

“No, no, teacher!  Not good, this website!”

You’d get a lot of that nonsense from time to time: some wretch would shout out, “No, no!” when you brought out real work, or tried to get the class to read from a book, as if this was some mortal offense to Emirati culture and religion.  New teachers would get blindsided by it (I certainly did), since the cultural land mines that littered the emirates were hard to spot for newcomers (Was the book banned?  Did the worksheet have a male-female couple holding hands?  Did the vocabulary for the day sound like “fuck” in Arabic?).  The rough kids would always try the same thing; if you took the bait, they’d run your class until you wised up, a process that usually took a full year.

Except this time it was the cadre of nice students; the ones who crowded up front desperate to pick up an American accent, who genuinely believed I’d been sent by their generous Crown Prince to uplift their people and make the UAE the best country in the world.

So instead of telling them to shut up, (“Chop, chop” in Emirati dialect), as I was wont to do by then, I stopped.

“What site?”

“Google!  Google!  Imam say no good!”

The click in my brain was pretty immediate; some imam somewhere had banned Google.  The UAE government was totally mum on the whole film controversy; they preferred to avoid taking strong stances on anything that might offend people, Western or Arab, especially in 2012 as they tried to find a new political balance post-Arab Spring.

“Google?”  I did a rapid calculation, and it struck me as extremely unlikely that this, of all the things I’d done up until that point, would get me fired or deported.  “No problem Google.”

They cringed in the back, worried that film might appear.  The rough kids, the manipulators and layabouts who are the bane of teachers everywhere, found the notion pretty enjoyable.  Should that film show up, they’d get to run me out of the classroom and get me fired.  If not, it still bothered the goody-goodies.  Win-win for them.

As for the good kids, they acted like choir boys who’d accidentally glanced at the underwear section of the newspaper.  They were the types who literally covered their eyes and ears in shock, horrified that something evil might slip into their souls and stay there forever.  That was part of the reason they were good kids; their naivety propelled them to try to help the bumbling Western teachers thrust into their midsts.  I clicked a video on car safety and the moment of danger passed.

Not long after, we had a heated debate over free speech and that film up in our department.  Our department head, Tunisian and Muslim, wanted the U.S. government to ban the film, as governments around the Muslim world were scrambling to do.  He was heavily outnumbered by Westerners; the purge of Arab teachers had run its course by then, leaving Western teachers dominant.  A conversation that, in my first year, would have had me on the defensive against an array of teachers from countries that did not have freedom of speech was now an onslaught of democratically-attuned Westerners against the lone censorship advocate.

This is actually Qatar’s web filter, but it does a good job at expression the absurdity of the whole censorship regime there.

The conversation was pretty typical of the talking past one another misunderstandings that seem to keep causing wars in the Middle East.  Our department head naturally found the film offensive and repugnant and wanted the U.S. government to ride in, with all its might, and ban the film and punish the filmmaker in the brutal fashion his own dictator of Ben Ali used to do.

It took a long time to get our department head to fully understand how sacrosanct we considered freedom of speech.  Raised in a political tyranny, he was as shocked that the U.S. couldn’t ban the film as we were shocked that an educator would wanted government censorship based on hurt feelings.

Since then Charlie Hebdo has been attacked and, more recently, some inept gunmen tried to take down a well-defended “Draw the Prophet” contest in Texas.  All of it boils down to Westerners poking their fingers in the eyes of religious Muslims, and fanatical, militant Sunni Muslims grabbing guns and trying to one up the insult with murder.  The comment threads of these news stories go much the same way, with echoes of my own debate playing out across the Internet in something like a perpetual motion machine.

There’s one thing I resent most of all from my time in the emirates.  This was a genuinely teachable moment: an important news event of great importance worth discussing.  It mattered to the students, to their community, to me as well.  I didn’t want the kids to necessarily watch it, nor to support the right to make it; they could have slagged off America, YouTube, and all of Western civilization for all I cared.  All I wanted was the discussion.

But because the UAE locked up people who talked too freely, I never dared.

That for me still cinches what side I take.

(Feeling frisky, supportive, or like buying a book?  Check out my ebook The Ultimate Survivalist’s Guide to Suicide on!  Buy, share, review!  I don’t even mind if you dislike it.)

When Grade 10 Tried To Convert Me to Islam, It Was A Pretty Great Lesson

By the spring of 2010 the principal of my school in Al Ain had concluded we weren’t a direct threat to him and started being a lot less of a dick.  That meant he shouted at us a lot less, bullied us a lot less; quietly, he was sending signs he tacitly accepted that we were approaching “okay.”

That just about changed everything for me in Al Ain.  Formerly scowling co-workers who dreamed of my deportation morphed into smiling colleagues who would properly greet me on the way to class.  Students who believed they could bully me into abject humiliation began to accept that perhaps I was their teacher after all.

The door was open for someone to try to convert me to Islam.

Before, I was a passing shadow, not really worth the effort, since rumor had it we Westerners were to be fired by December.  (A rumor, no doubt, fed by the principal).  But now I had achieved a bit of a reputation: I was “ok.”  Not “good” – not yet.  But “ok.”  And ripe for an uncomfortable conversation.

Much like Christian Evangelicals, the deeply religious folk of Al Ain felt guilty when they saw nice people who weren’t Muslim.  They believed, quite firmly, that regardless of how nice one was, if you didn’t convert to Islam you were consigned to Hell.  As we ADEC teachers gained acceptance amongst the tribes, many of the Emirati teachers and students approached their favorite Westerners and gave them the spiel on Islam.

That spring a grade 10 class finally made their go at me.

The English department had an “English room” upstairs; there was a rounded u-shaped desk arrangement so all students were forced to face towards a lecturer.  A lavish carpet and a series of frilly pillows recreated a Bedouin tent while a Smart board sat almost utterly unused on the wall.  It was a show piece; when Western inspectors came, different classes would book the room in order to appear to be modern as the inspectors ticked boxes on their little charts.

It was also a great place to hide an entire class.

Nothing was much accomplished in those days; we ADEC teachers were happy to have a stalemate with the students rather than the losing battle we’d experienced in the fall.  The curriculum remained hopelessly out of date, and promises of a great change the next year made most of us feel our primary job was to look pretty for inspectors, provide worksheets that only about 25% of the class would fill out, and change grades so kids could pass come marking time.

So on days where I could sense the kids didn’t want to get anything done, I’d take them up to the “English room,” have them sit on the pillows and carpet, and just chat about whatever we fancied.  It was as close to a speaking skills lesson as could be managed in those days.

I don’t remember how we go onto the topic of Islam; it came up a lot, but mostly as a “You know this, teacher?” set up where the kids tried to teach me new things about their interpretation of the religion.  What began as informational transformed into a class-wide effort to save my soul.

Yusuf was one of the brighter grade 10s; bespectacled, with a wisp of a beard and mustache, he led the effort.  Later on, during the chaotic early days of the Arab Spring, he’d tell me he had political ambition to change his country, but remarked that the rulers would never allow him to climb high enough to do much.

In general, it’s quite hard to get a group of Emiratis to shut up.  I remember watching an interview with a wizened old sheikh from the 1970s; as he spoke, he was interrupted, cajoled, harassed, by other on-lookers.  He didn’t seem to mind one bit.  Our Western need for total silence when we speak is driven by our egotistical belief that everything we say is important.  Emiratis tend to be more blunt; when they’re even slightly by bored by what you’re saying, or what you’re saying doesn’t pertain to them, they’ll start a better conversation right in front of you.

When Yusuf spoke, it was dead silence.

Yusuf told me that the class liked me; that they were worried about me; that they’d like to see me again in Paradise.  He told me there was only one way to get there; the “true religion, Islam.”  (He meant, of course, the Whahabbi strain of Sunni Islam popular amongst the tribes in Al Ain, though I wonder if he knew it).

All this was dodgy for me in the extreme.  Especially back then, I was hypersensitive to the locals’ religious sensibilities.  (That dulled over the years as I saw far too many Emiratis abusing their religion to get out of things).  To refuse to convert was what I wanted to do; to say it outright could be misconstrued as an insult to the students at best and the religion at worst.

It was then that I picked up that ever-so-Arab trait for dealing with people who give me unwanted advice or direction.  I thought of our Egyptian teacher Abuzeid, the man I learned it from, as I responded to Yusuf.

I told him thank you.

I didn’t say another word.  No snide, “but no thanks.”  No full-throated “How dare you.”  Just, “Thank you.”

The class ended; we all walked out; I never converted to Islam; I kept my job.

I’ve been thanking people like that ever since.

Bedouin Classroom Management

In 2010 I was teaching a grade 10 English class at a badly-managed school near the Empty Quarter.  They were, in many ways, a group of nice kids; loud, excitable, but overall pretty nice.  For whatever reason, their English as a group was better than most other classes.

Chief of the loudmouths was a kid named Tareq – scrawny, acted more like a 6th grader than a 10th grader, tended to shout out answers, but spoke passable English.  When I yelled at him in just the right amounts, he did his work.

That grade 10 was scared of me; maybe that’s why I liked them.

One day, in the department office, a wiry, flash-white bearded Bedouin came looking for me.  Tareq in tow, he explained, in the Bedouin dialect that modernization had nearly wiped out, that he was Tareq’s grandfather.

People did this a lot out there; when they wanted something, they just showed up, no matter the hour.  Parent-teacher conferences happened when a guy appeared and hunted you down.

Dressed as though he were fresh from the desert and carrying a thick, heavy camel-whipping cane, the grandfather extolled at length what a good student should do.  My Arabic was horrific; I followed a few bits here and there, mostly about the necessity for Tareq to both read and write in English.  The whole staff froze and listened; getting that group of English teachers to go silent was no mean feat.  The man had gravitas; his meandering speech was given as though he were a sheikh leading his men into battle in the days before oil.

He turned to me.  My department head translated: “If Tareq is bad, if he talks back, you should hit him with this stick.”  He shoved his cane towards me.

And we laughed.  Me, the English department, the Bedouin grandfather, and, nervously, even Tareq.

I declined the cane, pointed to the one I already had sitting on my desk, and thanked him for the permission to beat his grandson.

Tareq was a pretty good student after that.

Second Edition of Ultimate Survivalist’s Guide to Suicide is out! (Grammar repaired-edition!)

It was a teachable moment.  We’re not using that term as much as we used to; some of that is because President Obama (gasp!) has said it, but mostly, it’s because Common Core has eviscerated it as something that can happen in the classroom.  Standardization, after all, by its very nature annihilates creativity.

Anyway, when I first released my book in November, the first few chapters were riddled with errors.  Some of that was because it was written in Doha, where the mercury-laden air didn’t do well for my head, but mostly, it was because I was the sole editor, and I did a shit job editing it.

So I rewrote large chunks of the beginning, fixed the errors throughout, and have now republished it.  If you haven’t gotten it already, do so now!

It’s super key for people to review the book and, most importantly of all, be honest.  People have insulted me all over the world; mild criticism of a literary work is hardly insurmountable for me.

So grab it if you haven’t!  Update it if you have!  And review, comment, and share!

2014: Getting a bad rap, but not as bad as advertised

With the Islamic State raging, riots against police simmering, and cops getting shot left and right, it might seem like 2014 was a pretty horrific year.  Another steadily more violent year than last, another year of civilization slowly unraveling.

But from a planetary standpoint, that’s not true.

U.S. homicide rates dropped to below 5 per 100,000 people – the lowest it’s been since the 1950s.  Meanwhile, violence-associated places like Mexico have a spiraling murder rate, even while cartel violence continues on.

We read newspaper headlines that detail one after another some horrible thing far away, and we think to ourselves “The world is going straight to hell in a handbasket.”  (If we’re not a Baby Boomer, we may really think “The world is fucked.”)

But it’s not nearly as fucked at it once was.  The 20th century produced two world wars – we’re on the cusp of none, thanks to nuclear weapons keeping everyone calm.

The Islamic State’s rise is nothing compared to Leopold’s Congo, or American slavery, or British-induced famine in India and Ireland.  It’s nasty, and when we see it played out blow by blow it can seem nightmarish, but really it’s very small in comparison to the past.

Back during my first year working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, we heard loads of stories about people quitting left and right that first year.  It was wholly demoralizing and made you think that the smart thing to do was bolt for the exit.  Everyone else was running, so why not you?  But then I did two things: I tried to trace the stories back to the original person, and I started to count the stories themselves.

And two things happened: one is that most of the stories being repeated were actually about the same person, and the second is the stories themselves were, when counted out, just a handful. It went like this: you heard a story about a runner from one, two, three different people in rapid succession.  Details were always sketchy, and rarely did anyone actually know the person in question.  But what it sounded like was that at least three people had quit all at once.

In other words, while it appeared there was a torrent of teachers quitting mid-September, in actuality just a few were, and their stories were being told again and again by different people unaware they were talking about the same person.

The lack of stats from ADEC reinforced the “we’re all gonna die” feeling.  With no official word from ADEC, it felt like hundreds were leaving; our assumption was that for every story we heard, several more were not.  When ADEC did not comment, and nobody seemed to know anything, we believed we were just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

In reality, it was just an ice cube.

The following year, ADEC was smarter and reported losses in terms of percentages.  That kept some of the hysteria down.

With that in mind, here’s some fun statistical facts that ought to put 2014 into perspective:

Only 5 out of 18 Middle East and North Africa countries actually were involved in war.  That’s about 28% of countries – not great, but also hardly a majority.

Out of the estimated 340 million people in West Africa, only about 20,000 people have been infected with Ebola, or less than .00005% of all people.  It’s a nasty disease, but it is also not the Apocalypse.

The United States added over 2.5 million jobs in 2014 – that’s more jobs than 56 countries have people.

23 states have legalized marijuana, with 4 states legalizing it for recreational use.

Finally, nachos got better than ever.  Not a bad way to end a year.