How many swears can we give?

Sometime in 2010, the ‘Look at all the Fucks‘ image macro went viral:

This is obviously a playful variant of the well-known phrase give a fuck, with the implication (unstated here, but in similar graphics, stated explicitly) that no fucks are given (see relatedly, And Not a Single Fuck was Given That Day).  And from there, it just gets entirely out of control, so that you can behold the field in which I grow my fucks.

‘Give a damn’, ‘give a shit’, ‘give a fuck’, and other such items are all examples of negative polarity items (NPIs), which are unmarked when they occur in negative contexts.   If you’re familiar with the phrase give a fuck, then you don’t need to be told that this is a rephrasing of I don’t give a fuck, because it rarely occurs as a positive polarity item (e.g. I give a fuck about you sounds odd).   All you need to know is that Maria von Trapp is dancing around the fields of Austria giving no fucks at all.  You can find more about shit as a negative polarity item at Gretchen McCulloch’s blog All Things Linguistic: Giving a shit about negative polarity items (09/20/13) and Linguistics in Cabin Pressure’s Vaduz episode: the NPI “give a hoot” (12/19/2014).

But I’d like to note another interesting feature of phrases of this form.  In the expression look at all the fucks I give, part of the humor relies on the inversion of the phrase give a fuck into the fucks I give.  This alteration also highlights the fact that in such phrases, damn, shit, and fuck (and less profanely, hoot, fig, etc.) look like count nouns; that is, nouns that can be pluralized, and can be combined with a preceding numeral, in contrast to mass nouns, which can’t be enumerated or pluralized, like music.   But as we’re going to see, our profane NPIs don’t follow the mass/count division quite perfectly, and since I’m a professional numbers guy, I think that’s pretty fucking cool.

Let’s start with some historical evidence from the OED and Google Books.  Bear in mind, of course, that when we’re dealing with taboo language, antedating obviously is an imperfect science given the often-reticent, expurgated and bowdlerized quality of the printed text prior to the very recent past.

Give a hoot

‘Hoot’ may be ridiculously euphemistic, but I don’t care a hoot:

1870 H. BRAGG Tekel, or Cora Glencoe 30 He did not care a hoot for anybody’s opinions but his own

And give a hoot comes along a few decades later:

1901  Massachusetts Reform Club, Secretary’s Report 10 I don’t give a hoot for the tariff.

The OED has ‘two hoots’ going back to 1923 but we can do a little better:

1914 S. FORD Torchy, Private Sec. “Oh, it’s you, is it?” says he. “Well, you might justas well trot right back to the Corrugated Trust and tell ’em that Old Hen Rowley don’t give two hoots for their whole outfit.”

Give a damn

Frankly, we could give a damn back in the 18th century (and quite possibly earlier):

1766  Gentlemans Magazine And Historical Chronicle May 1, 35  As absurd as I am, I don’t care a damn For you, nor your Valet de Sham:

1778  London Evening Post Dec 29, 4  If my coffers ye cram, I don’t give a damn For Palliser, Harland, or Keppel.

After that point, not giving a damn was practically ubiquitous (although to do it on film requires an amendment to the Production Code).  Curiously, The OED shows damn used as a count noun very early:

1762 O. GOLDSMITH Citizen of World I. 198 Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.

But then after that point, curiously, Numeral + damns is unattested for almost a century; the next one I can find is

1849 G.W.M. REYNOLDS The Mysteries of the Court of London I, 331 “I wouldn’t give two damns to withdraw them at all,” observed the Prince, flinging upon his father a look of mingled defiance and contempt.

Give a shit

John Dos Passos gave a shit once, before he became a weird right-winger:

1918 J. DOS PASSOS Jrnl. 6 Oct. in Fourteenth Chron. (1973) 218 I didn’t give a shit how much it cost.

But alas, we have to wait several decades for shit to become two shits:

1965 J. CHARYN On the Darkening Green 47  Howie told everybody that the accountant could bang her in the rumble seat for all he cared: he didn’t give “two shits for Sharon.” Two shits or not, Sharon left school in midwinter and married her accountant.

And another decade or so before three shits (or more) were given:

1976 J. BETUEL The Dogfighter 88 “I don’t give three shits for what you think, Vasone.”

And, tellingly, with some metalinguistic commentary, still later for four shits:

2008 murlough23 (May 23) Things people say that make no sense, part 2 (continuing the vulgarity trend): “I don’t give two shits about that”  So I can sort of understand “I don’t give a shit”. I mean, it sounds funny when you have to translate it into another language (“I have a shit here and I’m keeping it for myself”), but ignoring that issue, why two? Is the implication that the speaker does in fact give a single shit, but two shits is right out? When did we switch to this shit-based economy? Is having two shits better or worse than having a single shit? Or is this just evidence of inflation? Maybe fifty years from now, kids will be informing us that they don’t give four shits about that. http://www.thephorum.net/index.php?topic=3659.65;wap2

Give a fuck

We may not have given a fuck, but we definitely couldn’t care a fuck quite early on:

1879 Harlequin Prince Cherrytop 19 For all your threats I don’t care a fuck. I’ll never leave my princely darling duck.

Henry Miller appears to have been the first to give a fuck, in Tropic of Cancer:

1934 H. MILLER Tropic of Cancer 34 Nobody gives a fuck about her except to use her.

But again, it is many decades before we can fail to give or care two fucks:

1973 New Society 24, 368 You can’t say that you’ve got any friends, you don’t give two fucks about anyone else.

And still more decades pass before we don’t give more than two fucks:

1995  JOUR/F94 rec.music.tori-amos (Nov 20)  My being unapologetic concerns only the fact that I don’t give three fucks about Darrien, and that I only posted MY email, with most of his quoted. https://groups.google.com/d/msg/rec.music.tori-amos/hjva3YztULM/6FuPhNUkCZoJ

2001  The Parikrama Guestbook (Dec 27) Anyway, i dont give four fucks as to what the fuck u won in MOOD, it mustve been some some Qawwaali concert.  http://www.parikrama.com/Guestbook/gb2001.html

Putting all this together quantitatively using Google’s Ngram Viewer, we can see the rise and fall of particular combinations of (verb) two (swears):

VERB two swears

By far the most common is care two hoots, especially mid-century, with give two hoots taking over more recently.  And we don’t do much with any of these things except (fail to) give or care them.  Now let’s de-hoot (and de-damn) this fucker, and focus on 1960 onwards, so we can see some detail.

VERB two swears 2

I’d add more numerals beyond two, but it wouldn’t do us any good, because right up to 2000 (which is, as I showed over at my regular blog, Glossographia, the last date for which the Ngram viewer is accurate without conservative skewing) we only have the examples above for ‘three dams’ (Goldsmith 1762) and ‘three shits’ (Betuel 1976).   In other words, shit and fuck, used in negative polarity contexts, seem to only very gradually become countable.   It takes decades for them to become count nouns at all, and even when they do, really only at two and maybe three.  As a professional numbers guy, I can’t resist the comparison with one-two-many numeral systems.

Of course, there are other senses in which shit and fuck are perfectly ordinary count nouns.  We see this, for instance, by contrasting the NPI give a shit with the ordinary non-idiomatic take a shit, in which shit is clearly a count noun.  It is perfectly grammatical, though physiologically improbable and gastrically distressing, to say I take four shits every morning.  Similarly, fuck is a perfectly ordinary count noun in sentences like Those are four of the stupidest fucks ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

So now let’s turn to the end of the story, which is the massive growth in countability of shits and fucks over the past fifteen years or so.  Because, indeed, as speculated in the quotation earlier, we appear to be living in an era of hyperinflation of fucks and shits.  I did some searching of give + NUM + shits / fucks on Google (actually plugging through to the last page of results, rather than taking the inflated total of pages Google gives you on page 1), with the following results:

shits fucks
give three 260 125
give four 49 55
give five 101 78
give six 53 37
give seven 44 36
give eight 32 37
give nine 18 34
give ten 77 60
give twenty 7 16
give a hundred 9 19
give a thousand 32 38
give a million 71 45

A similar count (looks to use the numbers provided by Google) undertaken in 2003 (and posted in misc.education.language.english) shows a much more dramatic decline, and mostly shits in the single digits, and doesn’t account for fucks at all.  But now fucks appear to be on the rise, even exceeding the number of shits given for several numerals.  So we’ve gone from a situation where, in 2001, four is the highest attested number of fucks and shits that one can give, to the contemporary context where there appears to be no limit, and give NUM fucks and give NUM shits are massively productive, not just in wacky GIFs, but more broadly.

Will it continue?  I don’t know, but I do know that it’s worth giving at least one shit about.

19 thoughts on “How many swears can we give?

  1. Todd December 21, 2014 / 5:11 am

    This was neat, but I was fully expecting an investigation into which sorts of words are allowable in this pattern.

    We’ve got some concrete nouns (shit, crap) acting as count nouns, despite perhaps being massy, and some nouny verbs (fuck, hoot) as well. But there are other sweary words which don’t seem to fit: balls, ass, dick, cunt, bitch, tit, puke, etc.

    So what are the (semantic? syntactic? phonological?) features that make these acceptable (within their registers) or not?

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    • schrisomalis December 21, 2014 / 5:25 am

      Todd – that’s a cool question. I don’t think there is going to be a satisfactory answer, though, because there just aren’t enough nouns that follow the pattern to allow us to figure out if there are any such constraints.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chips December 22, 2014 / 12:02 am

    OK for the counting, and as someone who only has sight out of one eye, and not suggesting innumeracy from fully blind people, where do we go with “I don’t give a blind fuck”? (let alone flying fucks and the like)

    Liked by 1 person

    • schrisomalis December 22, 2014 / 2:15 am

      That’s a great question. On the Ngram viewer, only ‘give a flying fuck’ and ‘give a good fuck’ are frequent enough to register for ‘fuck’, and ‘give a flying shit’, ‘give a good shit’, and ‘give a fucking shit’. Of course there are others, as you point out, like ‘give a blind fuck’ but which I don’t think I’d heard before.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Martyn Cornell December 22, 2014 / 7:53 am

    A pedant writes: “Maria von Trapp is dancing around the fields of Austria” – at the point depicted, she was still Maria Kutschera.

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  4. misterslang December 23, 2014 / 11:43 am

    Tiny predate for the ‘hoots’, albeit merely one. Again, It’s one of Ford’s ‘Torchy’ books, about a kid from the New York slums who moves into the middle-class world via work as an office-boy

    1911 S. Ford Torchy 270: I don’t care a hoot what the Captain says, either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • schrisomalis December 23, 2014 / 4:30 pm

      Thanks for finding that! I’m finding (and this is now really getting away from profanity quite a bit) that the ‘don’t care’ forms tend to be earlier (19th and early 20th century) and the ‘don’t give’ forms tend to be later (mid 20th century on) and more profane. Curiously, ‘don’t care a straw’ was the most common of these NPIs in the mid to late 19th century; I can’t ever recall hearing it. I have found ‘care not two straws’ (note the lack of periphrastic do) back as early as 1810.

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  5. kayneth April 13, 2016 / 6:06 pm

    Can I say “Look at these 3 million fucks I am not giving about your opinion.” ?

    Like

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