Most people who’ve had an elementary-school education (and that excludes a great many U.S. politicians) can tell you that a pronoun is a substitute for a noun.
Some commonly used pronouns include “he” and “she” and “his” and “her.”
But if you’re my uncle (whose elementary-school education is still a work in progress), the most common pronoun in the English language is “son of a bitch.”
That’s something they didn’t teach me in fifth grade. Thank goodness for family.
Regardless of appropriateness or propriety, my uncle will use “son of a bitch” in place of most any noun, whether it’s a person, a place, a thing — and yes — even an idea.
Of course, this is the same uncle who taught me how to drive. (“I’m going to learn you to parallel-park the son of a bitch,” he once said, unnecessarily substituting his pronoun-of-choice for the perfectly adequate noun of “truck.”)
So not only did I learn to parallel park that day, but I received an unsolicited lesson in linguistics as well.
I minored in English, which required writing copious comparative analyses, as well as subjective interpretations of literature.
Yet to this day, the most valuable English lesson I’ve learned is that “son of a bitch” can be used to describe almost anything.
A parked school bus with flashing lights: “Just barrel past the son of a bitch. Those stupid kids don’t need the whole goddamn road.”
A majestic wildlife creature: “Hand me my rifle so I can put a bullet in the son of a bitch.”
A whiskey-filled flask: “Reach under the seat and hand me the son of a bitch, will you? I don’t want to take my hands off the wheel. It wouldn’t be safe.”
When his wife asked him if he wanted to stream the new Hugh Grant movie off Netflix, my uncle said: “No. I don’t care about the son of a bitch.”
This particular example merited further analysis. Indeed, it was unclear in that instance to which noun “son of a bitch” was referring.
Did my uncle mean that he didn’t care about the movie? Or did he mean that he didn’t care about Hugh Grant?
As an English minor, I felt an obligation to inform him of the murkiness behind his meaning.
To which he responded: “Get out of my face, you son of a bitch.” (In that example, his meaning was all too clear.)
There have been other cases when my uncle’s utterances required professional translation.
For example: “Hitch the son of a bitch to the son of a bitch, you son of a bitch. I want to reach the son of a bitch before the stupid sons of bitches charge us for an additional son of a bitch.”
For an undertaking of this magnitude, I needed to enlist a U.N. interpreter. The one I hired had to listen to the remark several times before he could scribble an approximate translation:
“Hitch the [trailer] to the [truck], you [snot-nosed, ungrateful nephew who’s an elitist bastard because he minored in English]. I want to reach the [campground] before the [incompetent, bureaucratic, lazy government park rangers] charge us for an additional [day].”
It’s almost a language in and of itself.
Indeed, renowned linguists have marveled at the efficient brevity of my uncle’s mother tongue. In what other language could “snot-nosed, ungrateful nephew who’s an elitist bastard because he minored in English” translate to such a concise and descriptive phrase as “son of a bitch”?
The same holds true for “incompetent, bureaucratic, lazy government park rangers,” who were summarily depicted as “stupid sons of bitches.” (Which, in this example, includes a great many U.S. politicians.)
To complete my English minor, I decided to write a paper about my uncle’s proprietary parlance. When I asked if I could interview him for my thesis, he said: “No. I don’t care about the son of bitch.”
“Do you mean the interview, or my paper?” I asked. “Because your intended meaning is unclear.”
To which he responded: “Get out of my face, you son of a bitch.”
And then he raised his rifle … so I hightailed it away from the son of a bitch.