Jon Jones famously asked Daniel Cormier through a hot mic, "Are you there, pussy?" Regarding his fight with Chad Mendes, Conor McGregor said his erstwhile featherweight foe "hits like a bitch." And last week, within hours of swapping in Michael Bisping for next weekend's middleweight title headliner at UFC 199, Luke Rockhold – who beat Bisping in 2014 – told his opponent: "It's your destiny to be my little bitch."
How did a fighter calling his opponent a pussy or a bitch become almost totally unremarkable? Are gender-based obscenities just easy substitutes for the homophobic epithets that have become toxic even in swearing-tolerant places? And when fighters and athletes reach for profanity to talk trash, what intentions are hidden within their four-letter words of choice? For answers, Fightland spoke with Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and a renowned expert on swearing and its intersection with media, culture, and sports.
Dr. Timothy Jay: My guess is that taunting and swearing has always been in every sport. It's always been there, ever since men [first] fought with men and women fought with women. It's everywhere. What we see now is nothing unique.
Athletes grow up with their own etiquette or sensibility about [swearing and trash talking]. It depends on the player and the sport: you can look at John McEnroe playing tennis and most of what you'll see is him yelling at the officials. But from what I see, the trash talking in one-on-one sports is really personal...In the fight game, basically, you're trying to not only offend the other guy, but also get in his head – that's the purpose of trash talking anyway. It's to make them think about what you're saying and get their attention off of their game. That's what you saw in [the Bisping-Rockhold interview].
You can't make up your own swear words. You have to use the currency that everybody understands.
I did a bunch of research around 30 years ago on gender-related insults. What's the worst thing for a man to say to a man? Words like faggot, pussy, and homo are at the top. For women, it's words like slut, bitch, whore. Semantically, those groups of words aren't the same: it's about promiscuity for women, or either lack of masculinity or having feminine qualities for men. And I did a study on what are called fighting words – words that are said from one person to another that lead to immediate violence. Faggot is a word that instigates men to fight with other men.
There are hundreds of years [of history] of men using effeminate insults in America, but I think what we're seeing now came out of the prison and gang cultures of the last 30 to 40 years. Calling a man a bitch probably existed in those subcultures or sub-contexts before they made it into the mainstream and appeared on television. Certainly you heard words like that used in gang movies and rap music 30 years ago. When you see two white guys talking like that, they didn't invent it.
Pussy, wimp, and faggot – those are words that just mark you as being effeminate. But when a man says "you're my bitch," that's ownership. When you understand it coming from prison slang, it's like I own you. You don't just get that when you're calling someone a name. To call someone a queer or a faggot, you're not saying I own you, and I think that's why that word might stick a little more as a fighting word and these other words are slurs.
Culturally, it doesn't have to be this way. Maybe calling him a gerbil could [eventually] be the worst thing you could say.
The power to name someone makes it like you own him or her. That's what a put-down is: it reduces you to that label. The power of the word is for the hearer and the listener to somehow feel that it's defining them. Otherwise, those words don't have any meaning. And then I think part of that prison culture and the gang culture where this comes from is whether you suffer that insult and don't retaliate...Fighters are trying to get in each other's heads, so they do that at the weigh-in and try to intimidate each other, and it's there for future reference. They're not going to fight with each other now. They're on television.
You'll probably see this more with women, especially as women are appearing more in mixed martial arts. I think the worst swearing I've seen with women was women college rugby players. That's a sport that has a whole culture and history of swearing during the game, they have these dirty songs, and then when the match is over they're drinking together. When women started playing rugby, they copied what the men were doing. It's not just men who do this.
The kinds of people in tennis and swimming are different from the kinds of people who play football and box. They come from a different part of America and their sports have different histories of aggressiveness. [But swearing and trash talking] is everywhere: these are men and women who are aggressive and competitive, they've got a different spirit than other people, but they've got the same brains, so they all learn the same language.
The other part of this kind of language in sports is that using it invigorates you as a player. It's a way to put the other person down, but it's also a way to get yourself pumped up. Swearing is part of that bigger manifestation of being prepared, being angry, and being ready to be aggressive. I would wonder how you could fight or play football or play rugby without swearing – I don't see how you could play those sports without there being some swearing. Impossible. To go out and physically beat the shit out of each other, but not use profanity? That makes no sense to me.