We have, apparently, found a word that President Donald Trump simply will not say: jockstrap.
In the midst of a rant against House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, delivered in front of reporters at a press availability yesterday with the president of Finland, Trump displayed a peculiar case of what linguists call “taboo avoidance.”
Schiff had earlier criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for not complying with congressional subpoenas in the Ukraine scandal. That led Trump to defend Pompeo, whom he called “the most honorable person.” Of Schiff, he said, “You know, there’s an expression: He couldn’t carry his ‘blank’ strap. I won’t say it, because they’ll say it was so terrible to say. But that guy couldn’t carry his ‘blank’ strap.” Trump paused before saying, “You understand that?”
It’s safe to say that the assembled reporters were able to fill in the blank with jock. But many may have wondered why jockstrap, of all words, was Trump’s personal linguistic Rubicon that he dare not cross. After all, just before he appeared with the Finnish president, Trump tweeted out that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was “BULLSHIT,” all caps. As CNN’s Jim Acosta mused, “Trump says ‘bullshit’ but doesn’t say ‘jock strap?’”
By stating—with blank as a kind of rhetorical fig leaf—that Schiff couldn’t carry Pompeo’s jockstrap, Trump was using a long-standing idiom, popular especially among athletes and sportswriters, to say that Schiff is Pompeo’s inferior. With an air of macho bluster, Trump seemed to be striving for a kind of alpha-male domination. While this may be an example of Trump’s penchant for “locker-room talk” (as he and his supporters explained away the crude, sexist language on the Access Hollywood tape in 2016), the president pulled his punches by self-censoring the jock element. But why might Trump think that jock would be deemed by his critics “so terrible to say”?
Answering that question requires taking a more intimate look at the jockstrap, both the physical and metaphorical kind. Jock has historically had several intertwining meanings. As a nickname, originally in Scottish usage, “Jock,” like “Jack,” could be used as a pet form of John. Jockey started out as a diminutive version of the name Jock, and by the 17th century, jockey came to be used for professional riders of racehorses. (Later, in the 20th century, jockey got transferred to other professions, such as radio “disc jockeys.”)
Meanwhile, jock developed on another track as coarse slang for genitalia. Jonathon Green, the author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, derives this meaning of jock from an earlier slang term, jockum. Green takes jockum all the way back to the 1560s, in a treatise about vagabonds in England that includes the line, “He tooke his Jockam in his famble, and a wapping he went.” (Mark Morton, in The Lover’s Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex, helpfully glosses that line as “He took his cock in his hand, and a-fucking he went.”)
The shorter form, jock, originally could refer to genitals regardless of gender. A dictionary of “cant” (the secret language of London’s criminal underworld) from 1790 defined it as the “private parts of a man or woman.” But over time it became a strictly male term, likely influenced by the man’s name Jock. Green cites various bawdy British songs of the 19th century, such as “Said a Quim to a Jock,” an imagined dialogue between male and female genitalia.
In American usage, the old coarse meaning of jock did not make many inroads—except in the case of the jockstrap, an undergarment designed to protect a man’s genitals from injury during athletic activities. According to the indispensable reference Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, “An early version of the jockstrap was developed in Chicago in 1874 by C. F. Bennett for the sporting goods company Sharp & Smith,” but it is unclear what it was originally called. The earliest known appearance of jock strap, as provided by dictionary editors at Merriam-Webster, is in an 1886 Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods catalog. An item in the catalog reads:
No. 900.—Jock Strap, used more by gymnasts, athletes, rowers, etc., made of fine cotton band, bag of sateen lined with fine cotton; size of band regulated with buckle, and strings, to tighten the bag, by fastening through eyelet holes. Price 50 cents.
That same year, however, a similar undergarment was being marketed as a “jockey strap.” An advertisement in The Boston Globe for a sporting-goods store offered jockey straps for athletes playing a kind of roller hockey known in New England as polo. Wright & Ditson’s Polo Guide, also from 1886, makes clear what jockey straps were used for: “Every polo player should wear Jockey straps to prevent rupture.”
Which came first, jockstrap or jockey strap? It could be that jockey, with its horse-racing pedigree, was the prior form, later shortened to jock, or it could be that jockey strap developed as a more innocuous version, lacking the slangy past of jock. In the 1890s, the jockey strap was sold to bicyclists needing protection when riding on cobblestone streets, making the analogy to racehorse jockeys explicit. But regardless of which version was the original one, jockstrap won out. The widespread use of the term suggests that any coarse echoes associated with jock gradually died out, as the word became devulgarized.
In the 20th century, the prevalence of jockstraps in a variety of sports led to the word moving in new semantic directions. Athletes themselves got called “jockstraps” through the process of metonymy, and by the 1950s that became shortened on college campuses to “jocks.” A 1965 article on campus slang in the journal American Speech noted that the term jock had been “euphemized to an extraordinary degree,” as “more recent generations of college students seem to take less cognizance of the taboo meanings.” For those unaware of the word’s vulgar roots, a jockstrap could simply be thought of as a strap worn by a jock.
As for the figurative phrase that Trump used about Schiff and Pompeo, “can’t carry his jockstrap” was recorded in the Dictionary of American Regional English as part of a national survey that DARE researchers conducted in the late 1960s. When asked for “expressions meaning that one man’s ability is not nearly as great as another man’s,” the jockstrap idiom was attested by one respondent from Indiana. (Other expressions, such as “can’t hold a candle to” or “can’t hold a light to,” were much more widespread.)
But it is in the sports world, unsurprisingly, where “can’t carry someone’s jockstrap” has been most common. The sportswriter Bob Considine, in his 1967 memoir, It’s All News to Me, recalled using it in a self-deprecating way back in the 1930s. When Dan Parker, the sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror, had heard a rumor that Considine was gunning to replace him, Considine assuaged his colleague by saying, “You know damned well that I couldn’t carry your jockstrap.”
Athletes have frequently used the expression since the 1970s. The New York Yankees pitcher Sparky Lyle, in his 1979 tell-all about the team, The Bronx Zoo, dished about the outfielders Juan Beníquez and Paul Blair, saying Beníquez “can’t carry Paul Blair’s jockstrap.” And in 1985, the boxer Larry Holmes was quoted as saying, “Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” a boast he later regretted.
Trump’s momentary squeamishness about saying jockstrap seemed to be not so much about the word itself and its vulgar etymological underpinnings, but about the crassness of what the fuller phrase implies. Stating—at an official Oval Office event, no less—that a member of Congress is not worthy to hold the undergarment of a secretary of state must have set off alarm bells even for a president who often appears to lack any sense of linguistic propriety. Bleeping over the first syllable of jockstrap was his ham-handed way of trying to soften an insulting statement. But of course, by being so oddly decorous about it, he drew further attention to the inappropriateness of his language. That’s the problem with taboo avoidance, which results in verbal somersaults such as blank strap: It tends to make the speaker just seem more ridiculous.