What the fuck is the “the” in “the fuck”?

The syntactic role of the seems simple enough: definite article, determiner on a noun phrase. But there are some instances where, if you stop and look at it for a moment, you have to ask, “What the fuck is it doing there?” One such is in the inserted vexation phrase the fuck.

At first glance, it may seem like any other the:

Get the fuck out.

That has the same arrangement of words as

Get the funk out.

Get the cake out.

But clearly one of these is not like the others:

Who brought the funk?

Who brought the cake?

Who brought the fuck?

It is, of course, actually an insertion in the flow of the sentence. Get out + the fuck à Get the fuck out. Likewise, you can say

Who the fuck brought the cake?

Who the fuck brought the funk?

You cannot say (except as a reversal, to be funny)

Who the funk brought the fuck?

Who the cake brought the fuck?

There are only a few positions where we can insert the fuck, as pointed out by Geoffrey Pullum and commenters on his 2009 post at Language Log, “Fucking shut the fuck up” – in fact, in the main we’ve just covered them:

  1. between a verb and a following preposition (as in Shut the fuck up but also as in Walk the fuck down the street already – it need not be a compound verb, and in fact can’t be a transitive compound verb: *Try the fuck out this new drink) – in imperatives, but possibly acceptable in indicatives (would If you’re going to walk the fuck down there, get me a beer sound odd to you?);
  2. after a wh– word (interrogative, whether a question or a statement, but not relative – note we may be able to say Whose the fuck is this and I’ll tell you whose the fuck this is but in my experience we don’t normally say The man whose the fuck house this is) – these wh– [expletive] have been called “vexation interrogatives,” and I like that term, so I’ll keep using it.

Idiolectal variations may allow it post-verbally in other contexts such as before an infinitive (Do you accept Try the fuck to listen? Do you count that to as a preposition like others?). We can also see that you can insert at least some kinds of modifiers:

What the ugly punk-ass fuck do you think you’re doing?

At least for me, it can be modified even further:

What the ugly punk-ass fuck with green sprinkles do you think you’re doing?

In the post-verb instance, Pullum analyzes it as a pre-head modifier in a prepositional phrase. Vexation interrogatives are described by Pullum as a “different construction entirely,” though he doesn’t elaborate (certainly interrogatives and imperatives differ in syntactic construction). As we will see below, however, both kinds require a specific kind of element, and this gives us an idea as to just what the fuck the the in what the fuck is.

We could just say, “Well, this is an inserted noun phrase, and it happens to include the article.” But that doesn’t really help us. Why the fuck would we include the article? We do it with the fuck and the hell and, occasionally, the shit, but otherwise not. Other insertions in vexation interrogatives are in fact not noun phrases at all but prepositional phrases:

What on earth happened?

What in hell happened?

It’s different for pre-prepositional instances: for instance, we don’t say

Get on earth out.

We can say Walk slowly down the stairs as easily as Walk the fuck down the stairs, but with different effect: as with all these kinds of insertions, the fuck signifies the speaker’s attitude rather than actually modifying the action described.

This seems to indicate that in these phrases the fuck is occupying an adverbial slot – in fact, we could say it’s a kind of sentence adverb, since it’s presenting the speaker’s attitude, but it’s occupying a different place than the usual sentence adverb: it’s right after the verb (especially imperative) or wh– word… in second position in both cases, and in both cases right after the exigent word: the question or imperative. (In indicative instances, it’s probably modeled on the imperative.) So, in the basic, it’s the strong word, followed by the vexation intensifier, followed by the everything else. Nice and straightforward, but we still have to have an acceptably formed syntactic output.

We should ask ourselves how we came to be inserting these specified noun phrases. It may have come, historically, by a way of a prepositional phrase. Data indicates that, at least in printed matter, what on earth and what in the world appeared in the early 1800s and grew slowly but steadily in use. Use of profanities in speech can be assumed to have been current before they showed up in print, naturally, but in the early 1900s, at least using a Google ngram, we see what the hell appearing – about contemporary with what in hell and sooner than what in the hell – and rising more rapidly than what in hell and what in the hell to become the favourite. (The same with who show a similar pattern.) A half century or so later, we see fuck replacing hell in the construction as a more intense expletive.

And how about Get the hell out? The data show it appearing around the same time as What the hell; in fact, it shows up reported in unselfconscious use by 1894, which is before the first Google books hit for What the hell. (Get to hell out actually shows up a bit later than Get the hell out.) The fuck-for-hell replacement occurs after Get at very much the same time as after What, at least in Google ngrams.

Now, why the fuck wouldn’t we say what in fuck or what to fuck or just what fuck rather than what the fuck? Or Get to fuck out or Get in fuck out or Get fuck out? What makes that the special? Is it just that it’s transgressive of normal grammatical patterns? If so, why wouldn’t we see more awkward options? It seems there’s something about the the.

The the is apparently not working just like a normal the. But it is working somewhat like another the we use regularly:

The more the merrier.

The better to eat you with.

That the is actually a survival of an old instrumental form, similar in effect to ‘by the’ or ‘with the’. It is a zero-inflected (that’s fancy talk for ‘unchanged’) but case-bearing the. Of course, all instances of the are arguably case-bearing: nominative, accusative, dative – “The [nom] man gave the [dat] dog the [acc] bone.” But this the is bearing an instrumental case, which fills a function like [preposition]+the but not like a specific preposition we could replace it with.

Obviously, you can’t use the fuck in exactly the same way as the more – you can’t say

The fuck the merrier.

or

The more the fuck.

or

The fuck to eat you with.

That the only used with comparatives, and fuck is not a comparative. But we have seen that the can take a case that gives it a function in place of [preposition]+the – something common enough in some other languages, including Old English, but not so much in modern English.

I like looking at the bigger picture, and we know that rhythm has something to do with where we stick expletives when we jam them into words (what I’ve decided to call inkicking). We can see, for instance, that some people might say Fucking what are you doing but it would be exceedingly odd to see What fucking are you doing, whereas What the fuck are you doing has better rhythm; the same applies with Fucking get out versus Get fucking out (though the latter seems less impossible than What fucking etc.). But I don’t think that the rhythm is the determining factor in this case. The rhythmic difference in these cases isn’t that much, and it’s not as simple as inkicking. I think we need to pay attention to the syntactic connections.

What I’m proposing, then, is that the the in What the fuck and Get the fuck out is carrying a case that allows it to give the noun phrase a particular kind of modifier function. It’s very specific – it appears to come in only, or mainly, after exigent parts of speech (imperatives and interrogatives) to signify the speaker’s attitude accompanying the demand (vexation, generally) – but within that ambit, it functions like a preposition plus a determiner (definite article). Prepositions are capricious and idiomatic, but the absorbed prepositional function in the interrogative instance seems to be like that of in:

What in the fuck are you doing?

gets more than 50,000 hits on Google for that exact phrase. With the in absorbed in the the it comes closer to 400,000. You can also do it without the, of course:

What in fuck are you doing?

gets over 100,000 Google hits for a form based on the quite grammatically perspicuous What in hell are you doing?

On the other hand, in the imperative the preposition is much rarer: Only two hits for Get in the fuck out, and none for Get in fuck out. (Well, there will be one now.) But the relation has a syntactic place that suggests an inflection equivalent to a preposition. Could you see Get by God out or Get for heaven’s sake out as possible? They’re unattested as such, but tell me whether you see a similarity of fit.

There are still things to be worked out in this, of course. But the the is present because it’s not just any fuck, it’s the fuck, specified, pointed – but it’s the fuck in an oblique relation, the kind more often indicated by a preposition. This is a deluxe the.

The image this gives me is of the the as a pitchfork allowing wriggling angry fucks and hells to be heaved into place after the exigent word.

38 thoughts on “What the fuck is the “the” in “the fuck”?

  1. sesquiotic December 20, 2014 / 4:40 am

    On Twitter, @Bailiuchan just asked about “The fuck you are.” I’m kicking myself for not including that. But I think it fits very well with the hypothesis. Compare “In a pig’s eye you are” or “Like hell you are” – or non-sweary “To all appearances he is.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. prior December 20, 2014 / 6:26 am

    very scholarly piece and glad to learn about “inkicking”
    really interesting writing here…

    Like

    • prior December 20, 2014 / 7:04 am

      one more thing – side note –
      I grew up in Western New York in the 80’s-90’s-
      and one day recently – when I read a Bio about Dan Marino – well it said his middle name was “Constantine”- I was like “WTF” – well actually- I used the deluxe “the” and said “what the f- are you talking about I know Dan’s middle name and it is NOT Constantine.

      Every Sunday – my brothers used Dan’s full name and well, we always heard “Dan FUCKin’ Marino” – for years – every Sunday – as Dan whupped the Bill’s each week.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. justme792 December 20, 2014 / 10:09 am

    I’m so fucking glad I found this blog ^^

    Like

  4. L.B. December 20, 2014 / 11:09 am

    I like:
    ‘I’m going to drink this beer – drink the fuck out of it.’
    And:
    ‘I’m away to the shops–’
    ‘Like fuck you are, finish them dishes.’

    Like

  5. datn December 20, 2014 / 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the really interesting post.

    One of your starred examples made me think of something similar that wouldn’t necessarily be starred, at least in 2014: “Try the fuck out of this new drink.” The sense is “Thoroughly try out this new drink.” A better example is “I’m going to eat the fuck out of that cake when we get home.” Of course while that’s adverbial too, it seems only vaguely related to the usage you discuss.

    Discuss?

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 20, 2014 / 2:16 pm

      My sense, subject to revision of course, is that that’s making use of a reasonably common existing structure: “I’m going to eat the heart out of this artichoke”; “I’m going to eat the heart out of that fucker and and his shitty car”; “I’m going to play the heart out of this sax”; “I’m going to play the living shit out of this sax.” But everything shifts a little, of course, when you blink over to the wonderful world of sweariness. This does make me wonder whether there’s a connection between “Play the hell out of that sax” and “Get the hell out of the room,” but perhaps from the former towards the latter.

      Liked by 2 people

      • elisehendrick January 21, 2015 / 6:27 am

        On a related note, I think that ‘Try this new drink the fuck out’ actually works, like ‘Shut him the fuck up’. I wonder if what we’re seeing is a sort of bracketing for compound verbs (try out, sort out, shut up) where the vexation phrase can’t be intercalated between the principal component of the verb (try, shut, sort) and the object (*Shut the fuck up him, *Shut the fuck him up, *Sort the fuck it out, etc.), perhaps because this would interrupt the flow of the operative part of the sentence.

        The same thing can be observed in non-compound verbs or non-separated compound verbs:

        [What] (the fuck) [is he doing}? (intercalation between Wh and VP)
        *[What] [is he (the fuck) doing]
        *[What] [is (the fuck) he doing)]

        [Get him] (the fuck) [out of here]
        *[Get (the fuck) him] [out of here]

        Maybe what’s happening here is that the TF-Phrase has to be placed in some logical pause in the parsing sequence in order to be intelligible.

        Like

    • Daniel Barkalow December 22, 2014 / 10:26 pm

      “I’m going to eat the fuck out of that cake when we get home.” means “I’m really going to eat that cake” not “I’m really going to eat out that cake”. So the sense of “Try the fuck out of this new drink.” is actually “Thoroughly try this new drink.” but “try” and “try out” mean pretty much the same thing so it’s hard to tell.

      Like

      • sesquiotic December 23, 2014 / 3:54 pm

        True. And “He played his heart out” doesn’t mean “He played out his heart,” it just means “He really played.” But it’s reasonable to think that the figurative imagery has some transfer. This is in any case, though, not a case of the the carrying a case other than accusative; it fits within an established grammatical structure, although it is not literal.

        Like

  6. Debunker December 20, 2014 / 2:16 pm

    Just a couple of observations about the syntax of foc when it’s used as a borrowing in Irish. For one thing, we tend to say Cad é sa foc a rinne sé? (What the fuck did he do?) which literally means ‘in the fuck’. Also, the mutation which would normally follow a preposition and an article (aspiration in the north, eclipsis in the south) doesn’t normally happen when focan is used, so it’s amach as an bhealach but amach as an focan bealach (out of the way but out of the fucking way). Thus there is a rule in Ulster Irish that you do not aspirate after fucking. I shit you not …

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 20, 2014 / 2:27 pm

      I like that! Not so surprised, though: fhocan would sound like “ocan” and would thus be less recognizable. Loanwords often get special treatment, in English too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Debunker December 20, 2014 / 3:10 pm

    Yes, I don’t think the word focan would be changed, even though it’s in the right place, especially since f tends to be very resistant to mutation and as you can see, sa foc doesn’t mutate, though you would say san fhuinneog (in the window) for example. But what I meant by the rule was that when focan comes between the article and the noun, the mutation doesn’t happen on the noun. In theory, the same is true for intensifiers like iontach (wonderfully, very) with the adjective. Thus according to the Caighdeán, you say bean dheas (a nice woman) but bean iontach deas (a very nice woman). However, natives speakers in Ulster often break this rule with iontach, if it can be dignified with the title of rule rather than tendency.

    Like

  8. Petrichand December 20, 2014 / 3:18 pm

    I’m curious how this might relate to Scots ‘get tae fuck’. Presumably that ‘tae’ is a ‘to’ rather than a ‘the’ so perhaps the answer is ‘it doesn’t’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debunker December 20, 2014 / 6:29 pm

      I think you’ve answered your own question there, Petrichand! As you say, it’s a cognate of English ‘to’ but the phrase is interesting as it once again shows that Hell is the template for the uses of fuck in English.

      Like

  9. Bob December 22, 2014 / 2:04 am

    To contradict “in fact can’t be a transitive compound verb”, how about “you gotta stand the fuck up for what you believe”. Trips the fuck off the tongue.

    I’ve noticed before that this “the” is no ordinary “the”: it’s pronounced audibly in Yorkshire.

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 22, 2014 / 3:17 am

      Hmm. Good point. The difference, prima facie, would seem to be that stand up is literally up, whereas try out is idiomatic and not literal, but no, because We’ve run the fuck out of them is OK. But that and your example are both intransitive, making the adverbial preposition effectively the complement, whereas Try the fuck out this new drink is transitive. So the syntax tree will be different. Now, we can say Run the fuck out the door, but the door isn’t actually the object; out the door is an adverbial prepositional phrase. Would we accept Break the fuck up this fight? I can say Let me break this the fuck down, but can I say Let me break the fuck down this problem? (Part of the problem is that the more I look at these odd ducks the more I am habituated to them and find a way to assimilate them.)

      I think these considerations help confirm that the the fuck attaches as Pullum has diagrammed it at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1608 . The key, then, is where the preposition attaches in the tree.

      Like

      • Bob December 22, 2014 / 9:35 am

        Ah, I was thinking that the “up” in “stand up for” would be regarded as a particle given that it’s a figurative rather than a literal standing. (The “for” is inescapably a preposition, but we could use “stand by” instead.) Same for “trips off”.

        I looked the fuck up some similar examples and I think you’re right.

        Like

    • John Cowan December 25, 2014 / 3:47 am

      It’s really, I think, that ‘t Yorkshire article is no the at all, but something cognate to the Dutch neuter article het and West Frisian it. Hence I write it with the apostrophe in front.

      Like

  10. Anna S December 23, 2014 / 6:34 am

    I assume you are considering ‘how’ as an honorary wh- word, since ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ is a phrase which crops up a lot in my house.

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 23, 2014 / 3:50 pm

      Absofuckinglutely. There’s a category linguists et al. like to use for shorthand, wh– words, that’s always understood to include how as well. I suppose it would have been good to make that explicit.

      Like

  11. Ron Stack December 24, 2014 / 2:48 pm

    Excellent post and a great new blog. When I saw Prof. Pullum’s post on LL I wondered what a scholarly article on “fuck” would look like. Now I know.

    One question: Are you sure about “Whose the fuck is this?” I don’t think I have ever heard that. What I have heard is, “Who the fuck does this belong to?” or (being a New Yorker) “Who the fuck belongs to this?” I get why “Whose the fuck …” should work but it just sounds wrong.

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 24, 2014 / 3:38 pm

      That’s one of the things that keep this sort of thing fun and lively: there’s quite a lot of variation in sense of grammatical acceptability. It’s not unreasonable that “whose the fuck is this” would not work for some people, since it’s a genitive construction rather than simple nominative or accusative, so it’s a little different structurally. But you will find it used – Google “whose the fuck is this” and you’ll get results (also with who’s rather than whose)?

      Like

      • j0egreen January 4, 2015 / 4:57 am

        I’m with Ron Stack on this. While clearly grammaticaly legitimate, “Whose the fuck” just doesn’t sound right, any more than “Whom the fuck” (“Whom the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” but still there are 5 million Google hits for that. Ah well, YMMV.

        Like

    • Bouncing_b February 13, 2016 / 5:52 am

      I agree that “Whose the fuck is this?” is odd-sounding, and would move the possessive: “Who the fuck’s is this?”. That is, “whose” stands for “which person’s”, so intensified becomes “who the fuck”, and is naturally turned into a possessive with “‘s”.

      Like

  12. Marcelo December 27, 2014 / 3:27 pm

    I think you focus your analysis too much on syntax and don’t pay enough attention to rhythm. English is spoken in meter and, in examples like “what the fuck”, “what” and “fuck” are stressed syllables, so “the” functions as an unstressed syllable. “What the fuck are you doing?” is a trochaic trimeter.

    Like

    • sesquiotic December 27, 2014 / 3:48 pm

      I do mention this in passing, and I did consider it. But it’s not as persuasive as the metric argument for insertion into words (what some call infixing and other call tmesis). “What the fuck are you doing?” has, for instance, trochee, dactyl, trochee. “Fucking what are you doing?” has exactly the same meter, and “What are you fucking doing?” has dactyl, trochee, trochee, which is, if anything, smoother. In order to give a rhythmic explanation for the variation we need to give a sufficient motivation for the change, and “the fuck” doesn’t present a strikingly superior rhythm to what’s already available with “fucking”; it just works with a different placement (and in some cases doesn’t work striking rhythmically there either; consider, for instance, “What the fuck happened?” Not superior to “What fucking happened?” or “Fucking what happened?”) Beyond that, even if we choose it for rhythmic reasons, we still process it through our morphosyntax; we don’t have to use exactly the same rules as we use in normal usage – taboo language is exceptional – but we do process it, so we still want to account for what we do.

      There’s more to be said on the history of this construction than I really covered, though, and I’d like to return to it; the real digging has been done in a paper by Hoeksma and Napoli, http://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/dnapoli1/Just%20for%20the%20Hell%20of%20it.pdf , which Pullum linked to.

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  13. ctanwriter January 20, 2015 / 5:03 pm

    Any thoughts on the recent mutation to just “the fuck?” (Or “the hell?”) to mean “what the…?” Is it purely our familiarity with “what the fuck?” that allows us to leave off the “what” and it still be clear what we mean? although I’ve yet to see WTF shortened to merely TF in text.

    Like

    • sesquiotic January 20, 2015 / 5:51 pm

      I’ve been thinking about covering that. I need to gather some good examples. Also just fuck in place of what the fuck – as in “Fuck is he doing?” I first saw it in a play by David Mamet back in the 1980s, but it would take some textual spelunking to find it. Once I can dig up good examples (hard to extract from corpora because there’s so much to filter out) I do want to cover that.

      Like

  14. Mairsil September 4, 2015 / 5:45 pm

    It would seem that “the fuck” is more and more becoming an independent language construct, like a new word with it’s own uniquely defined meaning, no longer directly related to the words it was derived from. This is also visible in modern internet language where thefuck, dafuck and dafuq are fairly normal words, the last version perhaps spawned by the ubiquity of profanity filters.

    On another note, “The” plays an even more important role with the word shit. Where something being shit and something being the shit have the exact opposite meaning.

    Like

  15. Tim Gatewood September 6, 2015 / 5:53 pm

    All I know is I laughed hard enough to hurt myself at several spots in this article, even though I don’t understand your lexical jargon. So, good job! 😀

    Like

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