Posted on | April 9, 2012 | No Comments
This phrase is memorably whispered by Carly Simon over the bass and drums which open “You’re So Vain”. Far from that chronicle of high-life shenanigans is a moment in The Wind when the cook is asked about the evening meal. She – or, rather, the intertitle – replies that it will be “son of a gun”. Asked to elaborate by a newcomer to that State, she alliterates, “liver, lights and lungs”.
As in Ms Simon’s aspersion, “son of a gun” is a well-known substitute for a terser phrase which in fact goes back to thirteenth-century England (and a variant appears in King Lear). As H. L. Mencken put it in The American Language (editions from 1919 to 1936), “swearing, of course, is not the prerogative of all men. Many lack the natural gift for it, and others are too timorous. For such toters of of inferiority complexes there is a repertory of what may be called denaturized profanity”.
Meanwhile, in parallel with that insult there grew this Texan term for a stew made from ingredients fresh from the bull. The cook could improvise with such rougher elements as heart and brain stirred into the onions.
As for Mencken, he appears not to have known about this culinary aspect (nor does the OED) but he continues by asserting that son of a bitch “seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or a Latin as ‘fudge’ does to us. There is simply no lift to it, no shock, no sis-boom-ah. The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks of a dozen better ones between breakfast and the noon whistle. The term, indeed, is so flat, stale and unprofitable that, when uttered with a wink or a dig in the ribs, it is actually a kind of endearment, and has been applied with every evidence of respect by one United States Senator to another. Put the second person pronoun and the adjective ‘old’ in front of it, and scarcely enough bounce is left in it to shake up an archdeacon. Worse it is frequently toned down to ‘s.o.b.’, or transmogrified into the childish ‘son of a gun’. The latter is so lacking in punch that the Italians among us have borrowed it as a satirical name for an American: la sanemagogna is what they call him, and by it they indicate their contempt for his backwardness in the art that is one of their great glories.”
What expletive a cowboy would have brought to bear upon a plate of Italian food scarcely bears contemplation. The plate would surely have become a pistol target – a veritable Glen Baxter drawing.