Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about why you can’t say *abso-jesus-lutely, pointing out that you can only infix certain kinds of swears.
In response, Ed Cormany asked on Twitter whether I thought swears were in the same category as interjections. I said no, but this got me started on interjection infixation, which turns out to be abso-hallelujah-lutely interesting.
But let’s back up for a sec. What’s an interjection? Classic interjections are words like oops, whoa, hey, eek, oh, aww, ouch, yikes, wow. Several dictionaries point to interjections as words that can stand alone as utterances or that have no grammatical connection to other words around them.
We’ve already established that English infixes need to be at least two syllables long (it’s abso-fucking-lutely, not *abso-fuck-lutely), so we’ll have to work with a smaller group, interjections like yippee, hooray, amen, hallelujah, bingo, bravo, eureka, ahoy, wahoo, and encore.
Let’s give it a try:
Okay, so these sound pretty weird. But let’s weed out a couple issues that could be confounding things. First, we’re going to take out all the interjections that have stress on the second syllable, since the classic infixes “bloody” and “fucking” are stressed on the first. Bye to yipPEE, hooRAY, aMEN, aHOY, and waHOO.
Let’s also drop “eureka” because I don’t know what to do with three syllable infixes, plus any of the remaining ones (only “encore”) that begin with a vowel, just in case having a vowel next to the “o” in abso- is too weird.
Now we’re left with:
Welp, they still sound terrible.
My favourite example, hallelujah, shows that it really can’t be stress: HAL-le-LU-jah has the same stress (trochaic) as MU-tha-FUC-king, and yet abso-muthafucking-lutely is so much better than *abso-hallelujah-lutely.
And it can’t be semantics: I know exactly what “abso-hallelujah-lutely” or “abso-amen!-lutely” would mean and I would totally love to have it in my vocabulary (and so would several people on twitter). It just probably won’t actually happen, because ungrammatical.
I do think that some swear words are genuine interjections: the stub-your-toe use of fuck or shit or damn is simply a profaner version of Real Certified Interjections (TM) like oops or ouch or aww. But the swears that you can infix aren’t the interjections: you don’t say “fucking” or “bloody” when you stub your toe, you say “fuck” or “bloody hell”. In other words, “fucking” or “bloody” don’t meet our basic definition of an interjection, because they can’t stand in isolation — they have to be modifying something. No problem when infixes, major problem when interjections.
And, as I’ve spent most of this post showing, none of the non-swears that we know are interjections work as infixes, even when they’re phonologically suitable. So it really, really wouldn’t make sense to call the words we can infix interjections.
What to call them then? In my previous post, I called them expletives, a backformation from expletive infixation, but of course, “expletive” is already used for other purposes, so I’ll open the comments for alternate suggestions. Expletive modifiers, perhaps?