Fucking ambiguity

In a post last month on the versatility of fuck, Rob Chirico wrote that the word has ‘escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root’. That is, most current uses of fuck are independent of sexual meaning. But it’s an incomplete escape. All words shimmer with connotations and the shadows of former and parallel meanings, so ambiguity inevitably creeps in now and then.

The polysemy of fuck (and other swearwords) can be exploited deliberately for entertainment – in jokes, comics, innuendo, and so on. Accidental confusion, by contrast, seems rare. This is because semantic, pragmatic and prosodic context normally provide more than enough information to indicate whether the word is meant sexually or not.

So I was struck by a concrete example of this fucking confusion, even though it was fictional. It appears in Michael Connelly’s suspense novel Chasing the Dime (2002), for which minor spoilers follow in the next paragraph and indented text below.

The protagonist, Henry Pierce, has just been attacked by a small boss-man, Wentz, and his hulking henchperson, who then dangled Pierce over the balcony of his coastal apartment. Wentz runs ‘a burgeoning empire of Internet sleaze’ along with illicit escort services, and Pierce has already scouted one of his insalubrious venues. These background details, combined with Pierce’s hazy post-assault cognitive state, allows for a scenario where fucking can be genuinely ambiguous between native-English speakers:

‘You got a nice view here,’ said the smaller man. ‘What do you pay?’

‘Three thousand.’

‘Jesus Christ! I can get three fucking places for that.’

Now just straddling the edge of consciousness, Pierce wondered how Wentz had intended the word fucking to be interpreted. Was he talking about places for fucking or was he just routinely cursing?

The matter was not resolved, and I didn’t mind. Connelly was just having some fun.

More to the point: the ambiguity of fucking seems to arise very seldom, and I can only think of contrived or anecdotal examples, generally humorous. There’s a joke based on ‘fucking Goofy’, an analogous quip on Reddit (Fuck ’em in response to a sexual proposition by a third party), and an xkcd cartoon with a fucking jacket very similar to Connelly’s fucking place:

xkcd cartoon - fucking jacket ambiguity

All of these are manufactured cases, and I’d be interested in others, borderline or not. But even better would be a true-blue, naturally occurring fuck-related ambiguity – especially (but not obligatorily) between native-English speakers. That would be the fucking business.

I mean, that would be the fucking business.

Update: I recently came across another example of fucking ambiguity, in James Crumley’s 1983 detective novel Dancing Bear:

‘You hear the one about the great North Dakota artist?’ Simmons whispered in a low voice. In Montana, what the rest of the country calls ‘Polack jokes’ we set in North Dakota.

‘No,’ I said.

‘The North Dakota Historical Society hired the most famous painter in the state,’ he whispered even more quietly, ‘to paint a giant mural depicting the Battle of Little Bighorn, and when he finished, they had this big party for the unveiling, all these fat-cat preachers and society matrons gathered to see the finest work of North Dakota’s greatest painter. But when they pulled back the curtain, there was this picture of a huge goddamn fish with a halo over its head surrounded by thousands of Indian couples balling.

‘Of course, all the fat-cat preachers swallowed their snuff and all the society matrons peed in their girdles and everybody went charging out of the room in a great North Dakota huff. So the president of the historical society goes over to the artist, who has been too busy admiring his work to notice the fuss, and he says to the painter, “What in the world do you call this?” And the painter smiles and says, “‘Custer’s Last Words.'” “‘Custer’s Last Words’?” the president says. “Right,” the artist says, “‘Holy mackerel, I’ve never seen so many fucking Indians.'”‘

41 thoughts on “Fucking ambiguity

  1. gh0stpupp3t May 13, 2015 / 12:28 pm

    I love sweariing… I have Tourettes so I swear a sh*t ton… but as you can see, I censor my swears bc I have young viewers and so I respect that. But on my brand new DW I can swear like a sailor bc a) I have no friends on there yet and b) idgaf.

    Like

    • Stan Carey May 13, 2015 / 2:09 pm

      When I see a word with asterisks in it I tend to add the wrong letters deliberately, for devilment.

      Like

  2. linguistlaura May 13, 2015 / 12:36 pm

    I think the xkcd one would be resolved prosodically in spoken language. The Connelly one, on the other hand, would probably sound basically the same on either interpretation, wouldn’t it? There’s this related example: http://imgur.com/gallery/UqknH

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    • Stan Carey May 13, 2015 / 2:23 pm

      Laura: Connelly’s phrase could be more ambiguous because three might also receive some stress. I guess it depends. Thanks for the additional example, which I’ve seen a couple of times but had forgotten about. I’ve cropped and embedded it here for convenience:

      Like

  3. Rob Chirico May 13, 2015 / 1:20 pm

    In my piece mentioned above, I also mention the ambiguity in a demeaning epithet about a group of women on a college campus, referring to them as “fucking nymphomaniacs.” A more literal wag scrawled beneath it, “Aren’t they all?”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. richardsmyth May 13, 2015 / 1:24 pm

    You’ve no doubt seen instances of people unwisely dispensing with commas and uppercase letters in social-media messages, so that, say, “Doing what I love: fuckin’ A, man!” becomes “doing what I love: fucking a man!” and so on.

    Like

  5. sesquiotic May 13, 2015 / 2:04 pm

    There’s a line in Sophie’s Choice, where Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline’s character) says “You spent the whole fucking afternoon with him, or should I say, you spent the whole afternoon fucking him.”

    I just looked it up. I actually like the slightly modified version I was remembering better: “You spent the whole fucking afternoon together, didn’t you? No, you spent the whole afternoon together, fucking!”

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    • Stan Carey May 13, 2015 / 8:12 pm

      Nice – with the two meanings ultimately the same. I like your version too, since it omits the with and so uses precisely the same words, reordered.
      Somehow I’ve never seen that film in its entirety.

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  6. Dave Hill May 13, 2015 / 2:16 pm

    My dormitory in college hosted an annual Halloween party in the interior courtyard. One challenge was to keep inebriated guests from wandering through the dorm and using (or abusing) the various bathrooms. One public bathroom on each side of the dorm was identified for party use, and some of the dorm volunteers were posted on guard to direct people appropriately.

    Some female friends of mine were on duty on one side of the dorm, and they discovered that, with some regularity, drunken guys would stagger up and ask “Where’s the fucking men’s room?” This happened often enough that the hall monitors came up with the rejoinder, “Not sure where that is, but the chaste men’s room is right over there.”

    This usually resulted in highly amusing (so I’m told) befuddlement, which made the evening pass by enjoyably for the hall monitors.

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    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:30 am

      Good story, Dave! I can see how that would liven up the post of bathroom guard/usher.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:35 am

      Glad you found us, Maturin. I enjoyed your piece.

      Like

  7. vox hiberionacum May 13, 2015 / 10:37 pm

    De Nero on Oedipus in ‘Analyze This’: Pfff…Fuckin’ Greeks…

    Like

    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:42 am

      This one’s an interesting case. The ambiguity (at 1:10–1:16) doesn’t seem to be played for laughs, but it’s quite possible the writer meant it as a sly, cough-and-you’ll-miss-it gag.

      Like

  8. datatater May 14, 2015 / 12:04 am

    “I hate fucking asparagus.” “So, stop fucking it.”

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    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:48 am

      Similar to a line by Terry Pratchett in Mort, which Adrian Morgan brought to my attention on Twitter:

      ‘Well,—- me,’ he said. ‘A —-ing wizard. I hate —-ing wizards.’
      ‘You shouldn’t —- them, then,’ muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.

      Like

  9. Don May 14, 2015 / 12:11 am

    One of my all-time favorite jokes:

    Lawyer: “Mickey, you can’t get a divorce just because you think Minnie is crazy.”

    Mickey (use your squeaky voice): “I didn’t say she was crazy. I said she was fucking Goofy.”

    (Okay, capitalizing Goofy pretty much ruins it.)

    Like

    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:52 am

      It’s a good joke. I even mention it in the post…

      Like

  10. Rob Chirico May 14, 2015 / 12:12 am

    I’m so happy that I’m not a misanthrope and hate fucking everything, because I would also be fucking exhausted. But I do not dare go there.

    Like

    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 7:57 am

      James Joyce may have been tired, too, when Nora urged him to ‘Fuck up, love.’ In any case it was not an instruction to make a mistake.

      Like

  11. Duncan May 14, 2015 / 1:39 am

    Nearly choked on my porridge, reading Laura’s example. Wonderful. Of course, the phrase ‘escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root’ has an ambiguity from an Australian perspective, as in ‘he’s a wombat: he eats roots and leaves.’

    Like

    • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 8:00 am

      Laura’s example is great, and apparently real: the ambiguity is genuine, even if not confusing. Root in Rob’s line struck me as suggestive too.

      Like

      • Adrian Morgan May 14, 2015 / 12:35 pm

        Here’s a curious coincidence about the Australian “root”. Arguably the most famous childrens’ fiction writer in Australian history was May Gibbs (1877-1969), whose fictional characters are anthropomorphic interpretations of native plants and animals. These characters have their own botany-rich slang: a literary technique that I imagine must have been extremely innovative in her day. I haven’t read the books for many years (so I’m probably wrong on details) but I think “Treetop!” could be translated as “Cool!”, and then there’s “Good root!” for something highly enjoyable.

        In the past I’ve hypothesised that this might not be a coincidence, because I find the following scene all too easy to imagine. Two Australian teenagers with a soft spot for childrens’ literature have sex in the bushes; one asks “How was it for you?” and the other replies, “Good root!”

        I understand it *is* just a coincidence, though, with the sexual “root” predating the popularity of May Gibbs. Something of a pity, in my opinion.

        Like

      • Stan Carey May 14, 2015 / 8:10 pm

        I don’t think I’ve ever read her, but her books sound intriguing. I must have a look in my local bookshop. In light of her special interest in children’s literature, I’d have been very surprised if the root of ‘Good root!’ had a sexual inspiration. But given how many meanings the word has, both general and specialist, it’s fun to speculate on the derivation.

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      • Rob Chirico May 14, 2015 / 8:53 pm

        It’s always pleasing when someone catches the unintentional/intentional pun. I laughed aloud after I read what I had written.

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      • Adrian Morgan May 15, 2015 / 12:02 am

        I’d have been very surprised if the root of ‘Good root!’ had a sexual inspiration.

        That would be quite obviously absurd, but the (counterfactual) hypothesis I describe in my comment is that the sexual meaning of “root” might have been inspired by the books, not the other way around. For the benefit of casual readers, I’d like to be sure that’s clear.

        I must have a look in my local bookshop.

        Absolutely. If you can find it, the one to get is “The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie“.

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      • Stan Carey May 15, 2015 / 7:28 am

        Sorry, Adrian – I wasn’t concentrating and got the wrong end of the root there. Thanks for the book recommendation.

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  12. Carol May 15, 2015 / 10:03 am

    It’s a blog on sweary words….lol. If I hear any good new ones I’ll be sure to use them with you!

    Like

  13. astraya February 26, 2017 / 11:46 am

    In the movie Fame, one of the students is an aspiring stand-up comedian. Early in the movie, he performs well at an open-mic. Later, under personal stress, he performs very badly. Another character suggests getting a pizza together. The first says ‘I died out there and you’re talking about fucking pizza?’. The second replies ‘No, I’m talking about eating pizza’.

    Like

    • Stan Carey February 26, 2017 / 3:10 pm

      Ha! That’s a good example, and one I must have seen but had completely forgotten.

      Like

      • astraya July 27, 2017 / 11:11 pm

        Recently, a alleged tv personality in Australia has taken up a lavish lifestyle. A few days ago, a pair of alleged radio personalities interviewed him. The Sydney Morning Herald webiste reported on it by quoting one of the alleged radio personalities saying ‘you’re not f***ing Brad Pitt’. Think of the headlines if he was!

        Like

      • Stan Carey July 28, 2017 / 7:02 am

        Thanks for passing on the example. Of course, the only person who can say, “I am fucking Brad Pitt”, categorically and without gossip-stoking, is Brad Pitt.

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  14. John April 5, 2017 / 12:49 pm

    Surely “regular places, with obscene emphasis” would be stressed as “fuck-ing PLA-ces” while “places in which to fuck” would be “FUCK-ing pla-ces”?

    The only time I’ve ever encountered natural ambiguity (or the potential for it) has been in phrases like “I hate fucking horses”; it’s still pretty obvious from context, though. Hopefully.

    Like

    • Stan Carey April 5, 2017 / 12:54 pm

      Well, yes. That’s why I said the listener’s “hazy post-assault cognitive state” allowed for the ambiguity. The character was, as Connelly put it, “straddling the edge of consciousness”. We can assume some of his language-processing faculties were temporarily impaired.

      Like

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