The Power of Swearing.

Philosopher Rebecca Roache at Aeon analyzes what makes swear words so offensive; she develops the concept of “offence escalation,” which I was not familiar with and which makes sense to me. She distinguishes swears from slurs and from religious taboo language, though she says up front that the lines are fuzzy, and she provides the requisite list of foreign examples (I particularly liked Mandarin 肏你祖宗十八代 ‘Fuck your ancestors to the 18th generation’ and Korean 당신의 어머니는 일본어 전함을 충족하기 위해 밖으로 수영 ‘Your mother swam out to meet the Japanese battleships’) [N.b.: Apparently this is incorrect Korean — SD]. I was tickled by seeing this exchange from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which I recently edited (I was tickled by it there too):

Demetrius Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron Villain, I have done thy mother.

And there’s a nice brief discussion of why swear words often fail to function like other words:

Steven Pinker argues that ‘fucking’ is not an adjective because, if it were, ‘Drown the fucking cat’ would be interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is fucking’, just as ‘Drown the lazy cat’ is interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is lazy’. Quang Phuc Dong – a sweary pseudonym of the late linguist James D. McCawley – thinks, for various reasons, that ‘Fuck you!’ is not an imperative (that is, a command) like ‘Wash the dishes!’ One reason is that, unlike other imperatives, ‘Fuck you!’ cannot be conjoined with other imperatives in a single sentence. We can say ‘Wash the dishes and sweep the floor!’, but not ‘Wash the dishes and fuck you!’ And Nunberg suggests that ‘fucking’ is not an adverb like ‘very’ or ‘extraordinarily’, because while you can say, ‘How brilliant was it? Very,’ and, ‘How brilliant was it? Extraordinarily,’ you can’t say, ‘How brilliant was it? Fucking.’

In short, if you’re interested in swears and swearing, click the goddamn link. (Thanks go to both Pauls.)

Comments

  1. What is going on with that purported Korean example? It is ungrammatical, sounds like the result of a bad machine translation from the English, and in fact doesn’t sound like any kind of authentic Korean swearing I’ve ever heard of. Are any of the other language examples similarly inauthentic?

    For example, “Japanese battleships” is translated as 일본어 전함, which actually means “Japanese language battleship(s)”, “meet” is translated as 충족하다 or “fulfil”, and the phrase is abruptly cut off without the final verb ending. It’s mind-boggling how this nonsensical example came about.

  2. Oh dear. I’m very sorry to hear that, but it doesn’t surprise me — I’ve seen far too much bad journalism about foreign languages. Thanks for the correction; I’ve added a bracketed caveat to the post.

  3. I’m surprised McCawley finds “Wash the dishes and fuck you!” to be ungrammatical. Sounds perfectly alright to me, if sociolinguistically a little weird. Perhaps a more apt pair would be “Get off my lawn and fuck you!”

    As for Nunberg and his adverbs, I think we’ll very shortly see fucking functioning as a full adverb (at least in the way that Nunberg thinks of adverbs). While its use as a single word response doesn’t sound fully OK to me, I’ve certainly used it as a joke response to similar questions, which I think is the precursor to a previously non-standard grammatical usage being accepted as grammatical. For what it’s worth, it feels more natural to me to respond to “How brilliant was it?” with “Fucking brilliant”. I wonder if it’s a US vs. UK difference.

    Also, the “신의 어머니는 일본어 전함을 충족하기 위해 밖으로 수영” came from this BuzzFeed article. The author even admits to just putting the English into Google translate in the comments at the bottom.

  4. Steven Pinker argues that ‘fucking’ is not an adjective because, if it were, ‘Drown the fucking cat’ would be interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is fucking’, just as ‘Drown the lazy cat’ is interchangeable with ‘Drown the cat which is lazy’.

    This type of argument to parts of speech is unconvincing, because it covertly relies on the lexemes selected as examples and counterexamples.

    Suppose I tried to argue that way, as follows: in “Drown that annoying cat”, “annoying” is not an adjective because, if it were, “Drown that annoying cat” would be interchangeable with “Drown that cat which is annoying”.

    “Annoying” is in fact an adjective, but the last two quoted imperative sentences are not interchangeable. Here’s why:

    The second sentence “Drown that cat which is annoying” doesn’t make much sense if you think “is annoying” is semantically like “is sleeping”. “Annoying” is not something anyone, including a cat, “does by himself” – unlike running, puking, sleeping. “That annoying cat” means “that cat by whose behavior we feel annoyed”. A cat can’t “be annoying” unless there are people to feel annoyed by it. Whereas cats can and will be running, puking and sleeping (and fucking too) even when humans are dead and long gone.

  5. ‘Fuck you!’ is not an imperative:
    So what if it isn’t? (To me, it sounds more along the lines of a wish, “let you be fucked”, than of an order. It might be helpful to consider some other similar structures, for instance, “[God] damn you!” and “[God] bless you!”) There are plenty of variants where it is an imperative and none the worse for that: e.g. “go fuck yourself”. Not to mention other languages: French “va te faire foutre” clearly is an imperative, while Russian “еб твою мать” isn’t.

  6. ‘Fuck you!’ is imperative, because it is semantically and performatively in the same category as “go to hell”

    It may not be an imperative in contrast to “Eat shit” – but that’s only because the claimant is obsessing over parse trees. He thinks that “Fuck you” can be an imperative only if “fuck” is an imperative verb with “you” as object.

  7. Bad journalism aside, the Korean fake example is a funny illustration of the perils of machine translation. It starts with 당신의 어머니 dangsin-ui eomeoni, which does literally mean “your mother”, but would rarely ever be uttered naturally. 당신 dangsin is a formal and literary second-person pronoun that only came into popular usage through translation from Western languages, as 너 neo is too familiar to be used as a general translation of “you”. In polite conversation, “your mother” would simply be expressed as 어머님 eomeonim, that is, 어머니 eomeoni combined with the honorary 님 nim, with “your” left unexpressed, or when it isn’t clear from context, with the appropriate form of address in that situation (in Korean, instead of a catch-all pronoun for “you”, you might have a word corresponding to “master” or something referring to the position of the addressee). Or an old-fashioned way (heard only in historical dramas nowadays) might be to say 마님 manim, “madam”.

    In much more familiar conversation between close friends, you would hear 네 엄마 ne eomma or 너네 엄마 neone eomma “your mum”. And if you were swearing, you would even use 네 어미 ne eomi using the “lower”, impolite form of 어머니 eomeoni (normally used only for animals or when talking about one’s mother to a superior in a situation where self-abasement is required).

    So seeing 당신의 어머니 dangsin-ui eomeoni as “your mother” in an attempted insult is hilariously awkward.

  8. “Get off my lawn and fuck you!”

    That works for me, if it works at all, only because and isn’t always logical conjunction in English; sometimes it’s just a semantics-free way of joining sentences: “Get off my lawn! And, by the way, fuck you!”

    There are plenty of variants where it is an imperative and none the worse for that: e.g. “go fuck yourself”.

    Exactly. It sounds much more natural to me to say “Get off my lawn and go fuck yourself”. If we switch from and to or, like “Kiss me or lose me forever”, then “Kiss me or fuck you” is surely impossible: it needs to be “Kiss me or fuck off” or the like, where the two arms of the disjunction are both genuine (pace Stu) imperatives.

    “Drown that cat which is annoying”

    Indeed, Pinker’s argument is bad, because some adjectives are only attributive, like alleged and main: we can say the alleged murderer or the main reason, but not the murderer who is alleged without saying what he has allegedly done, or *the reason which is main. Others are only predicative, like alone and afraid: we can say the woman who is alone/afraid but not *the alone/afraid woman. These usually arise when the adjective is a participle that has gotten semantically disconnected from its verb, or the verb itself has been lost, as afraid < affray ‘frighten’, or otherwise has an oddball origin, as alone < all one.

  9. So what if it isn’t?

    Sounds like you’re not interested in the topic. Which is fine! But linguists care about which things are which form.

    It may not be an imperative in contrast to “Eat shit” – but that’s only because the claimant is obsessing over parse trees.

    Again, if you don’t want to obsess over parse trees, that’s fine, but that’s what linguists do. I could go up to Socrates and say “Who cares whether it’s a virtue or not?” but all that would show was that I wasn’t interested in philosophy.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with parse trees, but obsessing over them – over anything, in fact – tends to encourage narrow-minded arguments. Anyway , I don’t see linguists in general as “obsessing”. Is that your experience ?

    In the present case, Pinker has simply lost sight of obvious counter-arguments.

  11. After years of reading blogs by profession linguists, I am puzzled that Pinker is taken seriously as a linguist. Why?

  12. Sounds like you’re not interested in the topic.
    I’m sorry if it does – it’s not what I meant. My point is that “fuck you” isn’t an imperative because it isn’t intended to be one, any more than “curse you” or “bless you” or “so be it”

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    NB that some of the same points apply to other expletives: “drown the bloody cat” isn’t synonymous with “drown the cat which is bloody.” I don’t take that to mean “bloody” isn’t an adjective, but that there is some subset of adjectives (and also adverbs) whose function is to serve as intensifiers, as to which special syntactic rules apply. (See also the datapoint that “eat the hot dog” generally doesn’t mean “eat the dog which is hot” — is it possible that all NP’s of the form EXPLETIVE NOUN are in a certain sense non-compositional in meaning, even though it’s an extraordinarily productive formation?)

    “Fuck off” is a perfectly normal imperative that can be conjoined in a single sentence with other imperatives — that the specific fixed phrase “fuck you” may be a bit syntatically odd (my native-speaker intuition matches up with John Cowan’s as to the example he addresses, fwiw) tells us something about the specific phrase, not about the particular swear-word more broadly.

  14. My point is that “fuck you” isn’t an imperative because it isn’t intended to be one, any more than “curse you” or “bless you” or “so be it”

    I’m not sure what you mean. Is anything intended to be an imperative? People just say what they say, they’re not (so far as I know) intending any particular grammatical category. It’s the job of linguists to put things in categories, and if “fuck you” doesn’t fit a particular classification of the imperative, then it’s not one under that classification. Now, of course you can say “so much the worse for that classification,” but it seems to me perfectly natural that an expression like “fuck you” (or, to take a Russian example, еб твою мать) would not fit easily into the usual categories and would have to be treated as a special case. If, say, “pick it up!” didn’t work as an imperative in a given theory, then that theory would be pretty questionable.

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    Is it possible that Pinker is good at arguing against certain inaccurate (but perhaps widespread) understandings of language in an accessible/persuasive way, yet not good at arguing for accurate understandings of language, at least on any point where there are more than two potential answers? I imagine there are other areas of science where scholars who do excellent critiques of hitherto-dominant-in-the-field-but-seriously-flawed Theory A don’t necessarily follow through in terms of their own pet rival theory being persuasive or accurate in detail.

  16. Also, I agree that Pinker is not an ideal linguist. But he is, for better or worse, a professional linguist.

  17. it seems to me perfectly natural that an expression like “fuck you” … would not fit easily into the usual categories
    But it does: roughly, it seems to me a subjunctive expressing one’s wish to see the opponent fucked (rather than an order given to the opponent as it would be in the case of imperative). Granted, it’s a structure only surviving in a limited number of set phrases but the number isn’t one.

  18. it seems to me

    That’s your personal interpretation. It can’t be anything more than that unless you formally analyze it in terms of a particular grammatical analysis and show how it’s paralleled in similar constructions. Linguists aren’t singling it out to be perverse but because it’s genuinely unusual.

  19. Pinker is a psychologist and an expert in language acquisition. However, it seems to me that whenever he opens his mouth about other areas of linguistics, he does not seem particularly knowledgeable.

  20. ‘That annoying cat’ and ‘that cat which is annoying’ seem exactly the same to me, apart from clumsy phrasing. (And it can’t be non-native phrasing which makes them different, or it would apply to the ‘lazy’ example too.)

  21. Jim (another one) says:

    ” It can’t be anything more than that unless you formally analyze it in terms of a particular grammatical analysis and show how it’s paralleled in similar constructions.”

    In this specific case “fuck you”, “damn you”, “bless you” are structurally identical. In the first and the last ones it’s not clear who the subject of the verb describing the action would even be. Doesn’t an imperative imply the presence of a subject to do the action?

    These constructions look like they are structurally ambiguous. They may be subjunctive or they may be imperative or that may just be a distinction without a difference, as in Spanish where there isn’t even any distinction; the subjunctive form of the verb is the imperative form.

  22. “Fuck off” is a perfectly normal imperative

    Sure. As far as I know, nobody argues that fuck isn’t a normal verb, merely that fuck you isn’t a normal imperative construction. There are other lines of evidence for this, such as indirect speech: “He told me to (go) fuck off” is fine, but “He told me to fuck me” is not. “He told me to fuck myself” is also okay, but reflects underlying “Fuck yourself”, which is an imperative, even if not literally meant.

  23. January First-of-May says:

    To quote from Barkov’s (attributed) opinion on a sex-related Russian obscenity:

    Ебёна мать не то значит, что мать ебёна,
    Ебёной матерью зовут и Агафона,
    Да не ебут его; хотя ж и разъебать,
    Всё ж он пребудет муж, а не ебёна мать!

    (Thereafter said opinion becomes so ridiculously philosophic than further quotes from it would be nearly meaningless.)

    The situation in this English case in similar.

  24. An excellent quote (from a poet too little appreciated by foreigners)!

  25. AJP-fucking Crown says:

    McCawley thinks, for various reasons, that ‘Fuck you!’ is not an imperative (that is, a command) like ‘Wash the dishes!’ One reason is that, unlike other [other?] imperatives, ‘Fuck you!’ cannot be conjoined with other imperatives in a single sentence. We can say ‘Wash the dishes and sweep the floor!’, but not ‘Wash the dishes and fuck you!’

    ‘Fuck you’ isn’t an imperative, because (except as this odd sworn declaration) the ‘you’ isn’t correct. ‘Fuck yourself’ or ‘Go fuck yourself!’ or ‘Get fucked!’ all make sense. You can say ‘Wash the dishes and get fucked!’ The problem is with the ‘you’ part of the exclamation, not with the word ‘Fuck’.

  26. Elessorn says:

    I’m also puzzled by the half-consensus for calling “fuck you” an imperative construction. Like “the devil take you!” or “long live the king”, the force feels subjunctive to me, a wish that something happen rather than a command for the addressee to make It happen.

    Imperatives have a big role in swearing, sure, but the verb in “eat shit” just doesn’t, to my mind, work the same as in “fuck that shit.” Do people disagree? I see the argument for pragmatically grouping the two in a joint category of” language act,” but surely the grammatical architecture underlying is dissimilar.

  27. I agree – to me it seems like a subjunctive along the lines of “bless you”, and syntactically quite distinct from an imperative like “go fuck yourself” (which maintains more of the literal sense of fuck). To me the meaning of “fuck you” is more like “may you be fucked”, not commanding any action on the part of the fuckee.

  28. Tim May says:

    McCawley’s pseudonymous papers on “fucking” etc. were previously mentioned on this site here, and are available online here. (There are three papers in the pdf, “English Sentences without Overt Grammatical Subject”, “A Note on Conjoined Noun Phrases”, and “A Selectional Restriction Involving Pronoun Choice”.)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    … you!

    There is also thank you, which is not an imperative either. There must have been a wish or similar intention in those now interjective phrases, as in (May the Lord/the Devil) …. you!

  30. Jim (another one) says:

    M-L,

    I think it’s a reduction of “I thank you” the way “Say…” is a reduction of “I say”.

  31. I heard the line “Your mother swims out to meet troop ships” in an American rugby taunting song. It could be an independent development of the same compelling idea, but more likely there’s intercultural transmission involved.

  32. J. (a. o.), diachronically maybe (though I doubt it), but synchronically thank you has no subject, just like bless you or fuck you.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    J, Y: The current fashion of saying Love you! at every opportunity is indeed short for I love you, but Thank you is much older, like Bless you! for God bless you!, which uses the subjunctive.

  34. George Gibbard says:

    In this specific case “fuck you”, “damn you”, “bless you” are structurally identical.

    Except that when focus stress is not involved, it’s fuck yóu, but dámn you and bléss you. And thánk you: the humorous Fúck you very múch is based (I edited this post-posting from the inexcusable “calqued”) on Thánk you very múch, as the stress shows us.

  35. I was delighted with the examples until I got to the Italian ones, which made me seriously question the accuracy of the rest. “Figlio di troia” is indeed “son of a bitch,” but “figlio di puttana” isn’t “motherfucker” by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just a synonym for “figlio di troia” (and an obvious one, so the mistake is pretty lazy).

  36. As far as I know, nobody argues that fuck isn’t a normal verb

    I recall this article seeming to use these sorts of arguments to say just that:

    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 …

  37. There’s also that the you in thank/bless you can only be reduced as far as /ju/, but in love you it can be /jə/, at least in my accent.

  38. Hi, everyone. Very interesting topic, as usual. 🙂 (I actually did my dissertation on the translation of profanity from Spanish, and the inadequacy of literal translation… the differing levels of offensiveness offered by Spanish expletives and their equivalents in English… so it’s a topic I’m very interested in).

    Just a brief point on the nature of “Fuck” in “Fuck you”… I wholeheartedly agree with D.P above… it’s more of a “let you be / may you be… fucked”. A Spanish friend of mine taught me the rather archaic “¡Que te folle un pez!” (“May you be fucked by a fish”… or perhaps more naturally, “Go [and] fuck a fish”. On one occasion when I wished him such fortune 😉 he retorted “¡Y a tí un tiburón!” (“And you by a shark!”)… We could then, perhaps, translate the exchange as
    – “Go fuck a fish!!”
    – “Go shag a shark!!”
    I love Alliteration’s Artful Aid!!!

    Have a fucking excellent day, everyone … though not an excellent day that is fucking.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    I have long thought that fuck you is from I fuck you, with parallels to the latter construction showing up around the world. Whether that is an indicative or a subjunctive is an interesting question. 🙂

    Nowadays it’s just some kind of interjection anymore.

    As for Nunberg and his adverbs, I think we’ll very shortly see fucking functioning as a full adverb (at least in the way that Nunberg thinks of adverbs). While its use as a single word response doesn’t sound fully OK to me, I’ve certainly used it as a joke response to similar questions, which I think is the precursor to a previously non-standard grammatical usage being accepted as grammatical. For what it’s worth, it feels more natural to me to respond to “How brilliant was it?” with “Fucking brilliant”. I wonder if it’s a US vs. UK difference.

    For the record, you can answer Viennese questions with just ur. That used to be a prefix of about four adjectives.

    After years of reading blogs by profession linguists, I am puzzled that Pinker is taken seriously as a linguist. Why?

    Because he’s the one who talks to the media?

  40. @David Marjanović: I meant that Pinker seems to be taken seriously by some of the linguists who hang around places like this—and I don’t see why.

  41. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @B. Engel:

    A Spanish friend of mine taught me the rather archaic “¡Que te folle un pez!”

    There’s nothing archaic about it; it’s very much a current expression, though one almost invariably used tongue-in-cheek. More suitable for actual, practical cursing would be ”¡que te den!” .

  42. @Alon Lischinsky: Ahh. I didn’t realise that… two years living in Salamanca, I never once heard it. Que te den, sí, lo oí… Ánda a tomar por culo… Me cago en la puta que te parió (o en cualquier otra cosa…)… I think Spanish is a wonderland of sweary sweetness.

  43. Engel or Alon, how would you idiomatically translate into English the Chilean huevón/weón?

  44. I don’t know about Chilean specifically, but in NYC, which is a convergence zone for many varieties of Spanish, it is usually taken to be equivalent to English asshole.

  45. My Oxford dic gives ‘dumb’ for the adj. use (“¡hay que ser ~ para creerse una cosa así!”) and ‘jerk, prat’ for the noun use, with the Spanish synonym “imbécil” (all these are labeled “Andes” — there are other senses for “Méx vulg,” “Esp vulg,” etc.), so I’d plump for “dumbass” or “dumb fuck,” just based on dictionary knowledge.

  46. It’s used as a straight-out insult, but also in banter among dudes, and as an emphatic exclamation. I don’t really expect to find an single English equivalent for all three, but I still hope for satisfactory precision.

  47. Alon Lischinsky says:

    I think the ‘asshole’ meaning, to use JC’s accurate gloss, is specific to Mexico.

    ’Dumb’ is accurate for the predicative/attributive usage I’m familiar with, but in Peru and Chile the vocative use is much milder; it’s essentially analogous to ‘dude’, where the negative connotation is entirely gone. As an interjection it’s basically an emphatic ‘hell!’ or ‘damn!’.

  48. Thanks! What about at the end of a phrase? What would you do with “¿Oye, hueón, cachaste que hueón más hueón es ese hueón, hueón?”

  49. @Y – sounds a bit like “I say a boom boom boom… let me hear you say a way-oh…WAY-OH!!!!” 😀 I’d suggest something like: “Hey, man! Did you see what a fucking dickhead that arsehole was?” What do you reckon, folks?

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