Gretchen McCulloch’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Sometimes people tell me, as a linguist, that they’re surprised I swear so much. They think linguists must have a mystic access to the higher realms of the language and that we oughtn’t to sully ourselves with anything as profane as swearing.
But what makes swearing so profane is social factors, not linguistic ones, because linguistically, swear words are fucking fascinating. In fact, it’s a professional advantage for me to be fluent at swearing, because I have better access to my linguistic intuitions about them, which makes them easier to study.
I swear, I curse for entirely academic reasons. At least, this is what I tell my father. I’m not sure if he believes me.
I’m going to concentrate on fuck, because it’s the most interesting, and also because there’s been enough research on it to more than fill an article. I could tell you origin stories about medieval monk cyphers and outlandish acronyms, and some of them (the monks) might even be true, but there are already several nice explanations of this side of the topic, so I’ll just point you here as a good start, and get on with the hardcore linguistics instead.
The seminal linguistics article about fuck is called “English sentences without overt grammatical subject” and was written by the suspiciously-named Quang Phuc Dong in the 1960s (we’ll come back to that). The article asks us, is fuck really a verb? That is, the command “close the door” is a classic transitive verb followed by its object, but is “fuck you” the same?
It seems like it could be, until you realize that the equivalent sentence with any other verb just isn’t a thing: there’s no such thing s “*admire you” or “*express you”. You can, of course, say the command “admire yourself” or “express yourself”, but now “*fuck yourself” is the weird one. (We’ll set “go fuck yourself” aside.)
(Note that I will be employing throughout the linguistic convention of marking weird-sounding, aka ungrammatical, sentences with an asterisk. If you like, you may consider them all the natural evolution of doge. Also, for the record, please assume that all innuendoes in this piece are entirely deliberate.)
Furthermore, as Quang points out, an ordinary command can occur in a whole list of expanded sentences, like the following:
I said to close the door.
Don’t close the door.
Do close the door.
Please close the door.
Close the door, won’t you?
Go close the door.
Close the door or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
Close the door and I’ll give you a dollar.
And yet none of these sentences sound okay with “‘fuck you” as our verb+object:
*I said to fuck you.
*Don’t fuck you.
*Do fuck you.
*Please fuck you.
*Fuck you, won’t you?
*Go fuck you.
*Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
*Fuck you and I’ll give you a dollar.
And that’s not all. One of the things that linguists have noticed is that if you want to combine two things with “and”, they have to be the same part of speech: two nouns, two verbs, etc. So it’s fine to say:
Wash the dishes and sweep the floor. (2 verbs+objects)
Wash the dishes and the floor. (2 nouns)
Clean and press these pants. (2 verbs, same object)
But when it comes to fuck, things get, well, fucked up:
*Wash the dishes and fuck you.
*Fuck you and sweep the floor.
*Describe and fuck communism. (Remember, this was written in the sixties.)
But wait! Quang has astutely noticed that if you replace “you” with “Lyndon Johnson” (or really any name, but again, this was the sixties), suddenly all those sentences that were bad with “fuck you” sound okay again.
I said to fuck Lyndon Johnson.
Don’t fuck Lyndon Johnson.
Do fuck Lyndon Johnson.
Please fuck Lyndon Johnson.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson, won’t you?
Go fuck Lyndon Johnson.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson and I’ll give you a dollar.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson and wash the dishes.
What gives? In fact, if you look at the meanings of these two sets of sentences more closely, we can see that there are two possible meanings of fuck. Quang calls them fuck(1) and fuck(2), but that’s rather dull and hard to keep track of, so I’m going to call them copulating fuck and disapproving fuck.
Now, by itself, “fuck Lyndon Johnson” can have either the copulating or the disapproving meaning, but as soon as we add any of this other material, only the copulating meaning remains: “don’t fuck Lyndon Johnson” can only be interpreted as meaning don’t engage in sexual relations with LBJ, and not as “I don’t disapprove of Lyndon Johnson”.
So copulating fuck is, in fact, a verb. Despite its rather more interesting meaning, syntactically it’s a humdrum, ordinary transitive verb just like close and wash and all the others. And you can do with copulating fuck all the same things that you can do with any verb; we saw some of those things in the examples above, but here’s a few more of them:
Fuck Lyndon Johnson tomorrow afternoon.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson on the sofa.
Fuck Lyndon Johnson carefully.
But disapproving fuck, the one that pretty much only exists to be a swear word, that one’s just…not a verb. Not really, by any normal way that we recognize verbs, because you can’t do with disapproving fuck any of the normal verby things. Some of these normal verby things we already saw “fuck you” utterly fail at above, but they also include getting more specific about time, location or manner, like we just did with LBJ. That is, it’s fine to say “fuck those irregular verbs” or “fuck communism”, but not:
*Fuck those irregular verbs tomorrow afternoon.
*Fuck communism on the sofa.
*Fuck you carefully.
(Things linguists in the sixties liked, evidently: teddy bears. Things linguists in the sixties disliked, evidently: communism, irregular verbs. Things linguists in the sixties disliked but were sexually attracted to, maybe: Lyndon Johnson??)
Anyway, the really nifty thing about realizing this is that it works for other swear words too.
Damn those irregular verbs.
*Damn those irregular verbs tomorrow.
Shit on Lyndon Johnson.
*Shit on Lyndon Johnson on the sofa. (Well, it’s okay with the literal meaning, but we’ve already established that’s not the most interesting one.)
To hell with communism.
*To hell with communism carefully.
And this may leave you wondering, as it did Quang, if we’ve at least figured out that fuck and other swears can have objects, kind of, even if they’re not really verbs, what about their subjects? Do they even have them?
If you’ve read any vaguely-medieval literature of the “Gazounds! = God’s wounds” and “Gazooks = God’s hooks” type, you might have assumed that the subject was God, just hanging out there invisibly, as celestial beings are wont to do. But is this actually the case? And how could we figure out whether or not we’re in the presence of the divine?
Fortunately, we’re linguists, not theologians, so we have an easy test. We know that if the subject and object are the same, then the object needs to be a reflexive: we don’t say LBJ fucks LBJ, we say LBJ fucks himself. So if we make the object also God, then if the subject is God, we expect that we’ll need to use a reflexive as the object. And that just doesn’t happen.
(I will take the liberty of adding to Quang’s scholarship that the results stay the same if we do not assume that God is male: “*damn Herself” and “*damn Themself” are equally ungrammatical.)
And it works the same for the other swears:
To hell with God.
*To hell with Herself.
In fact, we can even say:
And this is where we leave the original magnum opus of Quang Phuc Dong, which circulated in the 1960s, unpublished, in photocopies of photocopies passed from one grad student to another, along with a few other, similarly scandalous papers. But the true identity of this eminent scholar of the fictitious South Hanoi Institute of Technology (SHIT) didn’t remain a secret for long. And a few years later, once he was less subject to the vicissitudes of the job market (one assumes), the friends of the late James D. McCawley (pictured) actually organized the publication in 1971 of an entire book of articles in the sorely-neglected fields of pornolinguistics and scatolinguistics that McCawley, alias Quang, had founded, including the original unpublished articles that he’d written as Quang. And then they gave it to him as a birthday present. Adorable.
I had known about “English sentences without overt grammatical subject” for a quite a while, since it’s available online in several places, but when I found out a few months ago that there was an entire book of similar articles, I immediately knew that I would have to get my hands on it. I couldn’t find it in my usual sources, but a ling-friend at another university managed to get out a copy from the university library (both friend and university shall remain nameless to protect my friend’s reputation as a srs rsrchr). And when we finally found ourselves in the same city, we sat down with The Book, a third ling-friend, and a good drink to exult over our treasure. It was worth the wait.
It has a deceptively innocent name, Studies Out in Left Field, and an equally deceptively prosaic cover of the dull, greenish-grey textured stuff found in academic libraries all over. Inside, it’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes arcane, sometimes downright disturbing, and contains about as many misses as hits, complete with a dose of sixties-era racial and sexual politics that you may have already noticed in the faux-Asian innuendo pseudonyms. (I’ve taken the liberty of slightly modifying some of the example sentences for the sake of the current readership, but unfortunately “English sentences without overt grammatical subject” continues to be cited as the work of Quang, P.D.)
But even though it misses sometimes, there are plenty of hits amid its 200 pages. I’d be in violation of copyright—and perhaps decency—laws to reproduce them all (if you happen to have access to an academic library, though…), but here’s a smattering of highlights that continue to address the question we started with: what parts of speech do English swear words belong to?
In a reply to Quang’s original paper, a group of students writing under the collective name of U Pani Shad note that not only are fuck and so on not standard verbs, but fucking and the like are also not standard adjectives. For example, you can say:
That’s too fucking bad.
That’s no damn good.
That’s too goddam much.
That’s no bloody use.
But it doesn’t work to substitute the swear words with normal parts of speech, whether degree words like very or really, or adjectives like blue or happy.
*That’s too very bad.
*That’s no really good.
*That’s too blue much.
*That’s no happy use.
Another paper, attributed to Tina Bopp, notes a further problem with considering fucking as an adjective. Both fucking and any standard adjective formed from a verb, such as playing, can be used both before a noun, as we see below:
Turn off that playing radio.
Turn off that fucking radio.
But playing or play can also be found in a relative clause:
Turn off that radio which is playing.
Turn off that radio which plays.
What the radio did was play.
What the radio was was playing.
And fucking and fuck just don’t work in the same context:
*Turn off that radio which is fucking.
*Turn off that radio which fuck. (which fucks?)
*What the radio did was fuck.
*What the radio was was fucking.
Similarly, Bopp points out, you might think that fucking well is an adverb, like quietly:
John quietly picked the lock.
You fucking well took your time.
But it turns out that fucking well can’t do the things that normal adverbs do. For example,
Quietly, John picked the lock.
*Fucking well, you took your time.
And the same goes for similar profane expressions, like bloody well:
John left quickly, and Fred did so quietly.
*John fucking well paid up and you’d better do so bloody well.
At this point, you’re probably expecting some funny business when we ask ourselves whether swear words can be nouns. But it turns out that at least fuck and shit make quite unremarkable nouns. Here’s a slight elaboration on Bopp’s examples, showing that fuck and shit work just fine in contexts where you’d put man.
John is a man.
That stupid man tried to sell me insurance.
John is a shit.
That stupid fuck tried to sell me insurance.
Both Shad and Bopp also briefly mention the uniqueness of swear words among English words in their ability to be used as infixes, as in fan-fucking-tastic or un-fucking-believable. However, this phenomenon, known as expletive infixation, is a topic that’s actually been discussed in legit academic papers, so it’s altogether too high-brow for our purposes. (That, and there’s already a lovely cartoon explanation of the aforementioned legit academic paper, which you should definitely check out.)
So although the various authors aren’t particularly aiming for a consensus, quite a few of them end up noting that our current inventory of parts of speech is just inadequate to deal with swear words. McCawley, alias Quang, proposes a category of quasi-verbs, which Bopp expands to quasi-adjectives and quasi-adverbs, while Shad goes as far as proposing an entirely separate category of “frigatives”, to contain all and only swears.
Where are we now? Strange to say, but it doesn’t seem like the syntactic study of swear words has really progressed much beyond these obscure, semi-satirical papers from the 60s and 70s. I found a long-ass list on the “anal emphatic,” a sociolinguistics paper on fuck in the British National Corpus, a paper on taboo-term predicates in ASL, and some semantics papers on “that bastard” and on “fucking brilliant” (here’s an accessible overview of the semantics side) but otherwise not much has been written and it’s permeated even less into popular culture. Wikipedia, for example, currently has a mere four sentences under the grammar section of its fuck article, despite extensive usage and etymology sections. It’s certainly not for lack of interest: after all, the history, sociology, and culture around fuck and other swears generates practically a book a year. I do hope that any linguists reading this will let me know if there are other papers that I’ve missed, or perhaps even be inspired to write one. I mean, you’d think we’d know more about swears by now, for fuck’s sake.
Gretchen McCulloch is The Toast's resident linguist. She has an upcoming book about internet language and writes pop linguistics for various places. She lives in Montreal, but actually on the internet at All Things Linguistic.