OK, no, really. The fuck is going on here? Look at this:
Fuck is this shit?
Did you understand that? Odds are you did, and if it were spoken you’d get it for sure. The fuck?
So, yeah, we’re dropping the what. And sometimes even the the. But consider that we can say
Why the fuck do we do that?
but we don’t say
*The fuck do we do that?
Likewise (the little typographical assholes * mean “this is wrong, asshole”),
When the fuck is that happening?
*The fuck is that happening?
Where the fuck did he go?
*The fuck did he go?
Just maybe, you can say
The fuck were you talking to?
in place of
Who the fuck were you talking to?
Now, we know that we often delete the first word of a sentence in casual use:
Going to the store. Want something?
Makes a pretty good drink, eh?
Since this first word can generally be assumed, it’s not a huge problem. But consider again:
Gonna be a big-ass party over at John’s to welcome him home.
Really? *The fuck is that happening?
Gonna be a big-ass party over at John’s to welcome him home.
Really? The fuck should I bring?
Somehow we can assume what but we can’t assume when. Or where or why or how.
Part of this is surely that what the fuck is more basic than any other wh- the fuck (how is also considered a wh- word). It’s more common and so it’s the automatic assumption. But I think part of it is also that what and who reference simple noun phrases in the nominative or accusative (subject or object – no possessives). The others can be answered with prepositional or adverbial phrases:
When the fuck are you going? At ten o’clock.
Where the fuck are you going? To the club.
Why the fuck are you going? Because I want to.
How the fuck are you going? Quickly. By moving my feet like this.
Going, being intransitive, can’t have a noun complement:
*Who the fuck are you going?
*What the fuck are you going?
(Of course, What the fuck, are you going? is fine, but that’s a different sentence.)
Which proves that all the other ones are adverbial.
As it happens, the fuck is also a noun phrase. Now, I have already said that the the in the fuck is not a normal the. It has an inflectional property that can replace a preposition. I’m not going back on this. But it’s not a preposition. This is an important thing to keep in mind: an inflected noun phrase is, syntactically, different from a prepositional phrase. You can paraphrase “I saw the lady’s underpants” to “I saw the underpants of the lady” but you can’t say “I saw of the lady underpants.” (Notice the extra the in the long version? Possessives occupy the role of specifier so you don’t need a the or a.)
So what I’m heading to is that you can delete what with the fuck because the fuck can stand for what syntactically.
Can you do this with other vexatives?
The fuck is going on here?
The hell is going on here?
*In hell is going on here?
*In the name of fuck is going on here?
(Obviously tone of voice matters.)
You can get away with it if the vexative is a noun phrase, but not if it’s a prepositional phrase. (You also can’t cut where in hell to in hell, but holy shit there’s only so much I can cover here right now; let’s get back to that one.) But you can raise a what the fuck out of a prepositional phrase and delete the what:
What the fuck did you do that for?
The fuck did you do that for?
Next observation: It’s difficult (maybe unnatural) to use wh- in echo questions:
You asked him to buy what the fuck?
But it’s impossible to use just the fuck or fuck in echo questions:
*You asked him to buy the fuck?
In those cases, the fuck by itself would be taken as a simple noun phrase, and it would lack the interrogative quality of the what. It can take that quality on at the beginning of the sentence because that position is more readily interpretable as an interrogative. Also, in echo questions the what occupies an important intonational position and can’t be deleted, whereas at the start of a sentence the the fuck in what the fuck takes on the dominant intonational position. (There will be some who will say that that what deletion is entirely a matter of intonation, but if that’s so, why can’t those other wh- words with similar intonational contours be deleted?)
Next observation: You can easily use wh- the fuck in a relative position:
Somebody needs to tell them what the fuck to do.
I didn’t have the nerve to ask her who the fuck she was planning to talk to.
Could someone please explain to me why the fuck we’re doing this?
But can you delete the wh-?
?Somebody needs to tell them the fuck to do.
?I didn’t have the nerve to ask her the fuck she was planning to talk to.
*Could someone please explain to me the fuck we’re doing this?
You might be able to do it with what and perhaps who. But definitely not with any of the non-noun ones.
So. My mind has been at this one for the last few days like a dog at a feather pillow, but some of my elements of minimalist syntax are rusty and there’s more detail I want to refresh myself on – but, honestly, if I started talking minimalist syntax and drawing those hairy trees it generates, there would be a loud chorus of “What. the. actual. fuck” from most of the readers here.
Let me just state one important principle: In a language like English, all movement is towards the beginning of the sentence. When the fuck merges with (deletes) what, it’s moving to occupy the what spot and taking over its operator role while maintaining its own noun phrase status. Which is why it can’t do it with when, where, why, how: it can’t fill those roles.
Incidentally, Italian does something like this too in ordinary usage. The normal way of asking “What” in Italian now is Che cosa, literally “What thing?” So you can say Che cosa hai fatto? to mean “What have you done?” But you can also drop the che and just say Cosa hai fatto? You can use cosa in place of che cosa generally in questions, informally. Now, that’s Italian, and it does a variety of things differently from English. We can’t assume that exactly the same thing is going on. But it’s a parallel, and perhaps proof of concept.
One more thing. Sometimes you can see or hear a version without the the:
Fuck is that asshole doing?
Once we’ve deleted the what, we don’t need the inflected the to connect it anymore. We can have just the noun head: Fuck.