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:
- 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?);
- 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.
The more the fuck.
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.