The road from “blankety-blank” to “fuckity-fuck”

Hey, you blankety-blank! How in the world did blankety-blank end up as a euphemism for a whole range of taboo words? It goes back to the nineteenth century, when even words like damned and hell could only appear in upstanding publications when bowdlerized with dashes. Those printed dashes in the place of words or letters were called blanks, so it was a funny way to euphemize your speech by verbally inserting blanks where the naughty words would go.

Blank works as a euphemism for a punchy monosyllable. Other variations — blanked, blanky, blankety — developed as euphemisms for taboo adjectives. The OED suggests that blankety was used to self-censor bloody. Perhaps it was, once, but then how did it gain an extra syllable? Why not just use blanky for bloody?

I would conjecture that it’s because blankety simply sounds better than blanky, regardless of what adjective it might have once been expurgating. That’s especially true when accompanied by a blank or two. Blank blank blankety blank. Blankety blank blank. It sets up a punctuated rhythm that is appropriate for obscenity, even obscured obscenity. The rhythm is a bit like hail falling on a roof, or perhaps a hail of bullets.

John Stephen Farmer (an elusive figure, as Jonathon Green has noted) was evidently the first to document blankety combinations in his 1889 book Americanisms Old and New. Here is Farmer’s entry:

BLANKETY. — A euphemistic oath, the derivation of which is clearly an outcome of the practice of representing an oath in printing by a dash or blank space e.g., d—d. Blankety is used in many combinations, a person being told to be blankety blank blanked, or that a thing is not as good as another by a blankety blank blank sight.

Farmer gave a couple of examples appearing in American newspapers from 1888 (“that blankety blankety bar,” “not by a blankety blank blank sight”), and the OED included his examples under the entry for blank. With Google Books we can push the usage back another decade or so in U.S. sources:

What in the lippety, clickety, slam, bang is the blankety blank reason that that girl can’t bring some ice-water up here at night?
Puck (New York), Aug. 29, 1877, p. 4

He sat complacently smoking his favorite meerschaum, discoursing calmly, philosophically with his chum, when he suddenly leaped three thousand millimeters into the air, with — “Blank, blank, blankety, blank!”
The Chronicle (Univ. of Michigan), June 8, 1878, p. 252

Blankety-blank is the simplest of the blankety combos, and it has survived quite well over the years. In that form, it has entered various dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, which glosses it as “a generalized expression of disapproval” used as an adjective (synonymous with “damned”) or a noun (synonymous with “wretch” or “fool,” as in “that blankety-blank”).

In metrical terms, blankety-blank is a choriamb, or a trochee followed by an iamb (long-short-short-long). That same meter shows up in Scarlett O’Hara’s minced oath, fiddlededee, as well as the wonderfully Wodehousian nonsense word, rannygazoo. (See Michael Quinion and John McIntyre for more on rannygazoo, and check out more nonsense words on Stephen Chrisomalis’s Phrontistery.) Among our currently favored obscenities, only son of a bitch scans similarly.

But the stylized euphemism blankety-blank has, in a sense, been re-vulgarized, with the blanks replaced by fucks. Now we get fuckity-fuck as a new kind of vulgar reduplication. (The spelling of blankety is probably influenced by blanket, while fuckity or fuckitty may be influenced by fuck it. However you spell it, the Xity-X form is akin to the ablaut reduplication we find in clickety-clack, clippety-clop, flippity-flop and hippity-hop.)

Contributors to Wiktionary have come up with a nice batch of citations for the fuckity entry. A selection:

  • 1981, Peter O. Chotjewitz, The Thirty Years Peace, p. 29:
    And he is both obsessed and repelled by all this fuckity-fuck stuff, as he has come to call it in his mind.
  • 1995, Emma Thompson et alThe Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries, p. 276:
    Old injury from Me and My Girl days. Lumbar region goes into spasm. Fuck. Fuckity fuck.
  • 1996, D. L. Flusfeder, Like Plastic, p. 168:
    -I’ll come back tomorrow.
    -Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.
  • 2007, Chris Jones, Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing, p. 73:
    How could this be happening? How could I have been so wrong? Fuckity-fuck, I think to myself. Fuckity-fuckity-fuck.

One notable pop-culture appearance is Cartman’s flurry of fucks in the 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: “What’s the big deal [about the word fuck]? It doesn’t hurt anybody. Fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck.” And then there’s The Wire’s famous fuck scene in the 2002 episode “Old Cases,” wherein Detectives McNulty and Bunk communicate solely through variations of fuck. Jennifer Ralston, a sound editor on The Wire, had this to say in a Reddit AMA:

Which reminds me, the “Fuck” scene (McNulty/Bunk) – when picture came to me, there were only about 30 “fucks” in it. We brought the guys in together and played the scene over and over and slammed a variation of “fuck” everywhere it would fit. I think the final mix tops off at somewhere in the 80 range? My personal contribution was Bunk’s “fuck, fuck fuckitty fuck.”

Collections of movie subtitles also turn up fuckity-fucks (or fuckety-fucks) in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Disco Pigs (2001), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), Our Idiot Brother (2011), and many more. In a particularly sweary episode of the Planet Word series, Stephen Fry takes part in an experiment on the hypoalgesic effects of swearing and blurts out “Fuckity, fuckity fuckity fuck poo” after plunging his hand into ice water.

While fuckity is most often followed by fuck, other monosyllables will do the trick. In the swearing scene in The King’s Speech (2011), Colin Firth as Bertie follows fuckity with shit. (The fuckity, but not the shit, had to be muted in the PG-13 version of the film.) And finally, there’s Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop (the 2009 movie spinoff of The Thick of It), who signs off a cellphone conversation with fuckity-bye.

(We’ll have to return to Malcolm Tucker. Stan Carey notes that he “provided enough creative swearing material for a whole blog” and calls him the patron saint of Strong Language.)

If the euphemistic blankety-blank is getting replaced by the dysphemistic fuckity-fuck, the old rhythm remains. Many of the examples I’ve mentioned involve extended litanies of swearing, where maintaining a rapid-fire delivery is key. Interestingly, fuckity-fuck and its variants have entered some people’s standard repertoire of swears, as with Stephen Fry’s outburst in the ice-water experiment. It’s a peculiar case of modern-day expletives carrying a trace of deleted expletives from the past.

Update: On Twitter, Barney Grubbs shares a musical example: “Effity Eff,” by The Heroine Sheiks (lyrics, audio), whose refrain goes, “That’s when I say… fuckity fuckity fuckity fuck!”

8 thoughts on “The road from “blankety-blank” to “fuckity-fuck”

  1. John Kelly January 17, 2015 / 4:52 pm

    The Wolf of Wall Street feature an excellent “fuckity-fuck-fuck” at 1:47 into this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJKY9uCUtCo

    “Blanky,” to me, evokes “blankie,” a children’s blanket. Could this have created any influence on “blankety”? I agree that the choriambic rhythm of “blankety” explains much.

    Like

  2. Keith Houston January 17, 2015 / 5:04 pm

    The use of the dash gave rise to another, more literal euphemism. Read aloud, “———— it!” became “dash it””, still to be heard today.

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  3. John Cowan February 1, 2015 / 4:35 am

    In Larry Niven’s sf novels, bleep and censor are strong obscenities.

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  4. cicatricella January 11, 2016 / 9:40 pm

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of the magnificent opening scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is where I personally first encountered the ‘fuckity fuck’ construction https://youtu.be/bjixdVvkfL4

    Like

    • Ben Zimmer January 12, 2016 / 5:07 am

      I did actually mention Four Weddings and a Funeral in passing, but thanks for sharing the YouTube clip.

      Like

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