Abso-jesus-lutely not: Why can you infix “fucking” and “bloody” but not other swears?

Here’s a puzzle: why can’t you say “abso-jesus-lutely”? (Recently brought to my attention by Leland Paul Kusmer.)

Let’s back up for a sec. The classic case of expletive infixation involves “fucking” or “bloody” as in abso-fucking-lutely, abso-bloody-lutely. And one syllable swears can’t infix: there’s no abso-fuck-lutely or abso-shit-lutely. But “Jesus” is two syllables, people swear with it, and it even has the same stress as the other two. Why doesn’t it sound right as an infix?

I took the question to twitter, and we came up with some great examples.

(Note that for most people, abso-fucking-lutely and abso-bloody-lutely are definitely the best, so if you’re a really conservative infixer you may only accept those two, but for most people “good” novel examples like abso-shitting-lutely are at least kinda okay, while “unacceptable” novel examples like abso-bastard-lutely are completely out.)

First off, it’s not that you can’t infix religious swears: abso-goddamn-lutely and even abso-christing-lutely are fine. And while there’s a 2-syllable minimum, there doesn’t appear to be a syllable max, as long as you can find a swear that’s long enough: abso-muthafucking-lutely is fine as well. In fact, you can even do an apparent double infixation, as in abso-mother-bloody-fucking-lutely. (Try saying that five times fast!)

But when we run through the list of two or more syllable swears, we get a suggestive contrast.

Pretty good:
Abso-shitting-lutely
Abso-arsing-lutely
Abso-goddam-lutely
Abso-christing-lutely
Abso-mothafucking-lutely

Flat-out terrible:
Abso-asshole-lutely
Abso-douchebag-lutely
Abso-shithead-lutely
Abso-bastard-lutely
Abso-jesus-lutely
Abso-sonofabitch-lutely

The glorious minimal pair “abso-arsing-lutely” but “*abso-asshole-lutely” illustrates several things: it’s not about needing to be polymorphemic, since they both have ass/arse plus another morpheme, nor about which swear is used as a base, since ass/arse are really the same swear (and *abso-arsehole-lutely is equally bad, I just don’t think North Americans have “assing” as a swear really in the first place).

What sets abso-arsing-lutely apart from *abso-asshole-lutely, and indeed all the good to relatively okay examples from the terrible ones, is that the bad ones are all nouns: you can say “what a bastard” or “what an asshole” but not “*what a goddam” or “*what an arsing.”

There is one apparent counterexample of a noun being infixed, from Leah on twitter, who reports that she had a prof who chickened out at using actual swears with students, and instead taught expletive infixation using the word “bunny” : abso-bunny-lutely, Pennsyl-bunny-vania, and so on.

Which is a) adorable, and b) the prof couldn’t have even used bloody or frikkin?? But I don’t think it’s a real counterexample — it seems to be okay only because “bunny” sounds very similar to the uncontroversial “bloody”: Elise McClay pointed out to me that abso-rabbit-lutely is utterly terrible.

(Twitter then turned into a conversation about whether you could infix emoji, with abso🍆lutely standing for approximately what you’d expect.)

There’s also a slightly weird case in abso-shitty-lutely. It doesn’t sound great to me, but I feel like it should be fine because it’s an adjective, like bloody, not a noun. But is “bloody” in, say, “bloody hell” really an adjective? You can exclaim “bloody hell” if you stub your toe, but “shitty hell” has to be descriptive, as in “I hope you end up in shitty hell” — for a stub-your-toe version, I’d have to exclaim “shitting hell” instead. So maybe the constraint goes in the other direction: infixes really have to be exclamatives, not nouns or adjectives or other parts of speech. It’s just that we don’t often think about exclamatives as a distinct category.

And this brings us to the closest minimal pair yet, the variant “jaysus.” As far as I know, “jaysus” is only used as an exclamative and never to refer to the person, so as an infix I think it sounds abso-jaysus-lutely fine.

30 thoughts on “Abso-jesus-lutely not: Why can you infix “fucking” and “bloody” but not other swears?

  1. Catherine December 14, 2015 / 6:02 pm

    “Jesus-fucking-Christ” and “Oh My Fucking God” are better in my world of good Catholic girl cursing. It’s all in the art of how you say it. For instance: I’m quite fond of “Abso-fucking-lutely”. It’s one of my faves! Oh. I love me a great post like this on a Monday morning! Thank you. Abso-fucking-lutely thank you!

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  2. John Cowan December 14, 2015 / 7:18 pm

    Infixing ordinary adjectives into swears also works well, at least if you agree that “Jesus Christ” and “Holy Jesus” are single words as swears (despite their orthography), e.g. “Holy jumping Jesus”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Karen McM December 14, 2015 / 8:31 pm

    Isn’t it because other swears don’t work as intensifiers even when they aren’t infixed? You can replace “abso-fucking-lutely” with “fucking right”, “bloody right” or “goddamn right”, but “shitting right” sounds like a laxative advert and “jesus right” doesn’t really parse at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Conor Quinn December 14, 2015 / 10:31 pm

    All the acceptable ones seem to have second syllables that are not only unstressed, but have only an unstressed vowel-sonorant coda. Which is pretty close to a purely unstressed-vowel coda.

    This would then fit with forms like “bunny”, etc. And my instinct is that while they don’t fit semantically, forms like “pretty” and “happy” sound quite reasonable from the purely phonological side.

    abso-pretty-lutely
    abso-happy-lutely
    abso-Billy-lutely

    abso-purple-lutely
    abso-bottom-lutely
    abso-barren-lutely

    So it sounds like sonority’s a thing here. And given the extended/polysyllabic examples, it appears that felicity is primarily decided only by looking at the terminal dysyllabic component of an extended sequence. (I ❤ locality.)

    We could also test this against the noun vs. non-noun claim:

    abso-kitten-lutely
    abso-kittie-lutely
    abso-doggie-lutely
    abso-chicken-lutely
    abso-pencil-lutely
    abso-gender-lutely

    These meet the working phonological criterion, and sound pretty good to me, semantics notwithstanding.

    There's an interesting phenomenon in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet and related languages of the region, where there's a sort of expletive insertion that goes almost entirely not by phonological structure, but morphosyntactic structure. Paper here:

    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/anl/summary/v051/51.1.lesourd.html

    Another interesting question: it seems like this pattern also doesn't like monosyllables, i.e.

    *abso-dog-lutely

    but another construction does:

    I triple-DOG-dare you….

    (Get the movie ref?) So what's up with this one?

    It's interesting to see the overall pattern intersect with the more syntactic pattern of "the hell" insertion:

    Why the hell aren't you helping them?

    Why the freakin' hell aren't you helping them?

    Interestingly, my judgements for the "the hell" alternatives given below start out iffy, but then improve. I think the initial negative judgement just a frequency effect, due to these specific types of sentiment expression typically not co-occuring in the same domain:

    Why on earth aren't you helping them?
    Why on freakin' earth aren't you helping them?

    Why in the world aren't you helping them?
    Why in the freakin' world aren't you helping them?

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  5. Family Values Lesbian December 15, 2015 / 2:46 am

    I used to work with a guy from Waycross, Georgia. He had a drawl a mile deep. To express the affirmative, he used, “guaranteed”. And when it was really affirmative, it was “garrrannn-dayum-teed” or “Ah’ll garrrann-dayum-tee yah,”

    Liked by 1 person

    • CMH December 16, 2015 / 3:19 pm

      Yeah, despite the general rule of the two-syllable minimum, I think damn doesn’t sound so bad inserted. It’s abso-damn-lutely OK to my ears.

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  6. Jake@ThePeasantBlog December 15, 2015 / 8:54 am

    I think the real fucking question is why is ‘fuck’ such a versatile word? It can literally be used in every fucking sentence you ever say or write. Go and fucking try it! And in this bloody case the word ‘bloody’ can be used in place of ‘fucking’ for a less vulgar product.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. lastsmokerant December 15, 2015 / 9:45 am

    Abso-ruckn – lutely.
    ‘Ruck’ – the perfect insertion for Fuck when you just need to swear but can’t.
    Ruck it
    You ruckn asshole
    For rucks sake
    I ruckn rate this blog

    Like

    • Avery Kate Hardin December 21, 2015 / 7:48 am

      This is what the writers of Battlestar: Galactica created when they implemented “frack” and its parsed forms for the characters in that show. This fictitious swear word fits into English just like “fuck” (I could not think of an exception, anyway.

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      • Avery Kate Hardin December 21, 2015 / 7:57 am

        Also, I have to add that for me, it would be very odd to work under a prof who had any issues with pronouncing, discussing, and learning about all words in an appropriate manner. Learning about this concept with the kiddie-word “bunny” in place of the right terms would be odd to me to say the least.

        I understand having replacement words and training oneself to use them when only a good swear will do. I speak Spanish and a “nice” substitute for mierda (shit) is “miércoles” (Wednesday). I believe it’s a similar habit in French. I teach adults, this is an intriguing little facet of the language, let’s learn.

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  8. samhorta December 15, 2015 / 2:31 pm

    I suspect this is at least as much about part of speech as scansion. For example, the “fucking” in “abso-fucking-lutely” is an adverb meaning “very,” just as “absolutely” itself is. Ditto for “bloody,” “goddam,” and “motherfucking,” which, to my ear, are the only other options. “It’s bloody stifling in here,” “it’s absolutely stifling in here,” etc. are all pretty interchangeable. I wouldn’t accept “abso-shitting-likely,” and I also wouldn’t use “shitting” as an adverb, though maybe this is a dialect question. All the terrible infixes listed use nouns.
    Connor’s point about “the hell” is interesting in this case. I think “the hell” in this usage just repeats the grammatical function of “why” (“why the hell did you do that?” = “why, oh why, did you do that?”), and I think “why” is an adverb modifying the main verb (“to do” in the case of “why did you do that?”). So, here, “the hell” isn’t a noun but an adverb. Again, adverbial swears can replace or complement adverbial non-swears.
    Great topic! It makes grammar way more fun!

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  9. sesquiotic December 15, 2015 / 2:59 pm

    To my knowledge, on Cape Breton Island Jesus is used adjectivally and adverbially. It’s supposedly a sort of signature feature of their dialect. For example, I heard one Caper say “It’s my Jesus apartment!” and I remember a version of the shanty “Haul Away Joe” that had the line “then I married a Caper, she Jesus nearly drove me crazy.”

    Like

  10. Pat The Plant December 15, 2015 / 3:12 pm

    I think this one works, as long as it is a negative like: abso-bugger-lutely nothing.

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  11. amanda (Just in Queso) December 16, 2015 / 2:16 am

    I just stumbled across your blog and found this abso-bitching-lutely hilarious! Thanks for the fun read.

    Like

  12. modernwizard December 16, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    I have no idea what that emoji infix is. Abso-eggplant-lutely? Abso-aubergine-lutely? Abso-purple-turd-with-a-green-top-lutely?

    Like

    • Pat December 20, 2015 / 9:12 pm

      The aubergine enoji is a penis euphemism, famously banned in searches by instagram. If theirs look like that and they use instagram, double sympathy.

      Like

      • mmmat October 29, 2016 / 10:38 pm

        Abso-cocking-lutely is probably my favourite of all of them. It’s even better in a Welsh accent.

        Like

  13. rtwx December 17, 2015 / 5:31 pm

    You are actually the 1st person I’ve ever heard even imply that exclamatives are “…as a distinct category”. You absofuckinglutely hit the nail on the head! As a former teacher, it used to drive me up a fucking wall that exclamations are taught as a 4th ‘kind of sentence’ (illocutionary force) alongside declarative, interrogative and imperative, when there is so much substantial evidence that this is a false parallel.
    In fact, exclamatives are an undeclared form class, paired with interjections as adverbs-adjectives, pronouns-nouns, conjunctions-propositions and +/- transitive verbs are paired.

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  14. Jonathan Tallis December 21, 2015 / 8:27 pm

    I was delighted to discover that there’s a proper term for this: “tmesis” … also that rare beast, a word that starts with “tm”.

    In the UK, various softer alternatives to “fucking” follow exactly the same rhythmic pattern, but tend to make the speaker sound like a comedy Victorian chimneysweep: “abso-flipping-lutely”, “abso-blooming-lutely”.

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  15. Chokyi Nyingpo December 22, 2015 / 4:18 am

    My father (b 1920) used not to swear and thus neither did we children until much later in life when society’s norms permitted us all to do so.

    The only two swear words i recall him using were hidden ones for us kids to discover later in life, eg “s..h..one..t” (for shit) and “Jeel..feesus..Chryl..fyst” (for Jesus Christ). The latter expression is, i believe, another example of tmesis?

    Like

  16. Pedant March 20, 2016 / 8:32 pm

    Is this new thing of using “swear” as a noun a thing? Like really? Because it grates on my ear and drives me abso-fuckin’-lutely bonkers.It’s swear WORDS not swears. Swears is a verb. Is it really so exhausting to use that second word in the phrase? And in the expression “when only a good swear will do” that should also have either “word” added in or use the term oath or some other actual noun like epithet.

    Like

    • sesquiotic March 20, 2016 / 8:55 pm

      You know what grates on me? Self-procalimed pedants who can’t be bothered to check their facts. Just because something seems so to you doesn’t make it so. If you were more eager actually to be correct and less eager to denounce, you could have taken the 15 seconds to check and see whether swear as a noun was a well-estabished usage. Is it so exhausting to actually look it up? Here, since you’re too fucking lazy to do it yourself: swear as a noun dates back to at least 1643 (first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary), and as a noun meaning a profanity rather than a literal oath to at least 1871.

      So, you fucking dumbass, the next question is just this: Why in the name of god’s tingly cunt are you asking why we should use one word when two words will do? Do you not know one speck of fly diarrhea about effective communication? The usual rule among people who are professionals at communication is to try to use fewer, not more, words. Given that swear as a noun is more concise and cogent than swear word, and given that it has the approval of established usage (never mind that you’re unfamiliar with that usage; it seems that being unfamiliar with things and resisting finding out about them may be a talent of yours), your objection is completely fucking baseless.

      Do try to learn something about language before opening your cakehole about it again, won’t you?

      Like

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