“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”

Back in June, when the first trailer was released for The Martian, one line in particular jumped out. Matt Damon, as marooned astronaut Mark Watney, says:

So, in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option:
I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.

The line even got the seal of approval from astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the current one, not the future Tyson who explains the movie’s NASA mission in the year 2035):

But one place the line can’t be repeated verbatim is in the pages of The New York Times. The Grey Lady, as we have seen, only takes shit from the president. A recent article about the film expurgates the line, calling it “a more profane equivalent of, ‘I am going to have to science the heck out of this.'” (The online article does, at least, link to Tyson’s tweet for those who want the unvarnished truth.)

On Twitter, Q. Pheevr remarked that “‘heck’ seems an odd euphemism for ‘shit.'” It is indeed odd, but it happens to work in the construction “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something)” (even when we’re dealing with a funny ad-hoc verb like science).

At the Strong Language water cooler, Nancy Friedman mused:

If you must substitute a word for “shit,” what’s the best one — particularly in an idiomatic construction like “science the shit out of”? “Dickens”? “Stuffing”? “Living daylights”? Is “crap” too fecal for the NYT?

It’s not just “the x out of” that’s tricky — you can say “I’m going to get the heck out of Dodge,” but you can’t say “I’m going to get the shit out of Dodge,” unless the shit is That Little Shit who’s been pestering you.

As it happens, some linguists have looked at this very issue. In “Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions” (Journal of Linguistics, 44 (2008), 347–378), Jack Hoeksema and Donna Jo Napoli distinguish two constructions that share a surface similarity but function differently in terms of their syntax and semantics. As examples, they give:

  1. Let’s get the hell out of here.
  2. I {beat/kicked/annoyed/punched/surprised/irritated} the hell out of him.

While both are of the form “VERB the hell out of NOUN,” they work quite differently, so much so that they deserve different names: Hoeksema and Napoli call the first one GET-THE-HELL-OUT, or the G-construction, and the second one BEAT-THE-HELL-UP, or the B-construction. As Nancy observed, shit does not work as the taboo term in the G-construction, while it’s just fine in the B-construction. That allows The New York Times to treat “science the heck out of this” as a softer equivalent of “science the shit out of this.”

Hoeksema and Napoli’s paper is full of fascinating insights on these two constructions, sketching out their history in printed sources since the late 19th century. For the B-construction, they surmise that the origin has to do with exorcism, in which you could literally “beat/scare the devil out of” someone. Then, “at some point, the expletive must have ‘bleached’ to the extent that it became solely an intensifier,” allowing for various taboo terms to take the place of “the devil” (or “the dickens,” etc.).

Hoeksema and Napoli write: “It is hard to tell whether the scatological variants beat the shit out of X or scare the crap out of Y are more recent than the religious ones, because of the strong taboo which the Victorian age put on words for excrement.” At the time of the paper’s publication, the earliest known attestation of the scatological variant was from Leonard Cohen’s 1966 experimental novel, Beautiful Losers: “Let’s beat the shit out of him.” But the revised entry for shit in the online Oxford English Dictionary (released in September 2011) has examples going all the way back to 1886, remarkably enough.

The 1886 example comes from transcribed testimony in a committee report of the Ohio House of Representatives. The committee was investigating some electoral irregularities in Ohio’s Hamilton County, and one of the witnesses recounted what happened when he went to vote in his precinct:

I went up with several others on the morning of the election, and when I got there I was met by one of the judges, I think his name is Donohue; he says to me, “You get away from here, damn you, or I will knock the shit out of you.” I says, “I will as soon as I have voted.”

(Here it is on Google Books — we can be thankful that Ohio’s legislative printers let this one through uncensored.)

The taboo term in this construction can be diabolical like hell/heck, scatological like shit/crap, or it can be the all-purpose fuck. Regardless of what fills the slot, Hoeksema and Napoli note that “the most common verbs in the B-construction involve some kind of physical abuse verb, such as beat, kick, knock, shoot, smash, sock, etc.” In their corpus of examples, there are also many “psychological verbs” such as scare and frighten. In general, the verbs they collected “have a negative connotation,” except for occasional positive ones like impress.

What has happened in recent years, though, is that this construction has expanded to encompass just about any verb, often describing everyday activities that you wouldn’t necessarily expect could be intensified with a hell, shit, or fuck. Urban Dictionary has lots of examples, and a few with shit from a 2007 entry made their way into the book that Aaron Peckham compiled from the site, Urban Dictionary: Freshest Street Slang Defined (2012):

(verb) the shit out of
To do something to a great extent. If you (verb) the shit out of (object), you REALLY (verbed) it hardcore.
The Tampa Bay Rays beat the shit out of the New York Yankees last night. The score was 15-2!
Rachael Ray really baked the shit out of that pie. That motherfucker was tasty as hell!
Haley Joel Osment really saw the shit out of those dead people in
The Sixth Sense.

The first example with beat fits the traditional assaultive model, but then we get the far-from-violent bake and see. These days you very typically see variations having to do with consuming media in a voracious or enthusiastic manner: “I’d watch the hell/shit/fuck out of that movie” or “I’d read the hell/shit/fuck out of that book.”

Things get a little tricky when you want to intensify the act of listening to or looking at something, as noted recently on Twitter by Stacy Dickerman. An intransitive verb that requires a preposition complicates the construction — can you “listen to the fuck out of” something? For more on this, see Laura Bailey’s “Another Sweary Blog Post” from last year. See also Florent Perek’s “Using distributional semantics to study syntactic productivity in diachrony: A case study” (forthcoming in Linguistics), which discusses an example mined from the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape.” (Yes, the problematic to is simply deleted, treating listen as a transitive verb.)

Given the seemingly boundless productivity of this construction recently, it’s no surprise to see it can even be used with the newly verbified science. How newly verbified? Well, the webcomic Questionable Content has been averring since 2009 that “science is a verb now” — you can even get it on a T-shirt. And of course, now you can get the new catchphrase on a T-shirt too.

10 thoughts on ““I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”

  1. Domingo January 14, 2016 / 12:24 pm

    After watching “The Martin” ON DEmand this morning, I felt a new appreciation for Science, Engineering, Ingenuity Friendship and Loyalty. I already recomended the movie to my Algebra class.


  2. Chelsea A Baylor February 17, 2016 / 4:22 pm

    Surely it would be just be easier to say “I fucking well agree.”


  3. Ingeborg S. Nordén May 5, 2017 / 5:04 am

    Whether I chose a real swearword or a euphemism, *listen the ___ out of that tape and ^listen to the ___ out of that tape both feel incorrect to me. Dropping “to” entirely forces “listen” into an un-English transitive role; keeping “to” suggests an unintended meaning. (“I selected the [taboo word] from all the sound on that tape, and listened to it [the selected word].”) If I had to use some expletive to describe hardcore listeners, I’d say that they “played the ___ out of that tape” or “listened to that tape all the ___ time”…choosing a verb and a taboo phrase which fit each other well.


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