The poetics of expletive clickbait

Expletive infixing is a much-loved mode of profanity. Is profanity good for you? Absofuckinglutely. Does infixing serve profanity as what James B. McMillan once called an “emotional stress amplifier”? I guarangoddamntee it. For most of us, infixings like these and interposings like shut the fuck up aren’t everyday speech, but nowadays, they’re hardly shocking. If you’re just not paying attention to your conversation, an infixing might take you by surprise, but the surprise will be mild, and the forms cleave so well to rules that they are obviously — gasp! — conventional. How does one draw attention to the unconventionality of one’s speech when infixing gets — yawn — a bit tired?

In fact, the rules of infixing are constantly under construction and repertoire of profanity thus constantly renewed. A March 2016 post at Celebslam, “Model at Midnight,” celebrated the Polish model Kate Sajur’s putatively “sweet rack.” It attracted the attention of Carmen Ribecca of The Superficial, an even better celebrity gossip site. Ribecca’s “good morning” post of April 1, 2016, included “Hell the fuck to the lo Kate Sajur” among several other enticing links. I’m less interested in the rack than I am in Ribecca’s novel twist on infixing. Like much other slang and profanity, Ribecca’s headline is poetic. Like many on-the-fly poets, Ribecca does what Ezra Pound exhorted poets to do when they could find nothing new under the sun: “Make it new.”

Alan C. L. Yu catalogs the variety of infixing in languages around the world in his book A Natural History of Infixing (2007). In most languages, infixing is inflectional and does grammatical work, like English suffixes to indicate plural nouns or past-tense verbs. But English infixing is never inflectional, not part of what Arnold M. Zwicky and Geoffrey K. Pullum called “plain morphology,” but instead part of what they identified as “expressive morphology,” which, they wrote in 1987, “is associated with an expressive, playful, poetic, or simply ostentatious effect of some kind.” Ribecca’s headline operates in all categories.

Every infixing includes a base and an insert, or infix. Ribecca’s base is Hello; his insert is –the fuck to the-. Or, and this is an interesting possibility, there are two inserts in sequence: –the fuck– and –to the-. One “rule” proposed for expletive infixing is that the insert should enter the base at a stress-appropriate point, after an unstressed syllable, since –fuck- or the first syllable of  –goddamn- are stressed syllables and infixings usually start with a stressed syllable and then alternates stress. James D. McCawley, in an article titled “Where You Can Shove Infixes” (1978), proved that the stress rule was far from ironclad. In turn, Zwicky and Pullum note that the rule’s instability is part of what makes infixing so expressive.

Of course, expletive infixing requires an expletive insert, and the fuck is well established as belonging to the whole fucking family, but what should we make of the extraneous to the, whether it’s an insert by itself or part of the larger insert? When base and insert are both non-expletive, the supposed infixing may be an example of a poetic figure called tmesis, as in E. E. Cummings’ democra(caveat emptor)cy and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wind-lilylocks-laced. These are examples of what the now defunct called lexifabricography, a word which performs its own meaning. Technically, such words are tmesis rather than infixing, but those who coin such words have infixing rather than tmesis in mind — they know absofuckinglutely, but nothing about ancient Greek poetics. Alongside these examples, to the hardly seems poetic yet it has an unexpectedly poetic effect. Ribecca makes infixing new by combining expletive insertion and tmesis into an unexpected, hybrid form.

Why not follow the supposed rules of expletive infixing and say something like Hellthefuckinglo? Perhaps that’s just not expressive enough for Mr. Ribecca. Ribecca would have broken the linguistic rules by writing Hell the fuck lo, because it’s missing an unstressed syllable. Where, you ask? Do I have to do all your fucking prosody for you? It isn’t easy to think of a relevant two-syllable word with a weak/strong stress pattern to insert at just that point, so Ribecca resorts to the ear-catching anapest to the lo. Mind you, –to the- doesn’t mean anything. It’s a prosodic extension, like the –a– in nowadays or in Rock-a-bye baby. True, Ribecca could have written Hell the fuck-a-lo Kate Sajur, but let’s keep the nursery rhyme as far away from Ms. Sajur’s sweet rack as possible, despite the natural relationship between babies and racks.

Why are we talking about the obviously not profane –to the– on Strong Language? Because inserting a non-profane extension draws attention to the infixing and its profane element in ways that infixing alone just can’t do, now that it’s so familiar. The extension enacts what I call the Stinson Principle. Barney Stinson is one of the self-absorbed protagonists of the American situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, which aired on CBS from 2005 to 2014. A couple of seasons into the show, he begins to announce his exploits in an infixy way: “It’s going to be legen wait for it dary!” In Barney’s case, the insert is highly performative — saying wait for it makes you wait for it. Ribecca’s infixing operates by the same principle and draws attention to itself by making anyone visiting The Superficial at 10:30 on April 1, 2016, wait for the resolution of an overly long, profanely admiring salutation to Ms. Sajur.

So, an old profanity and infixing — which is getting a bit long in the fucking tooth, too — learn new tricks in context. Headlines are often sites of verbal sleights of hand. Tone is hard to convey on the web, as we all know. Fuck! Hello Kate Sajur, or Fuck, Kate Sajur!, or WTF, Kate Sajur?, or Hello, Kate fucking Sajur, or Fuckin’-A, Kate Sajur can all be read as admiring. Ribecca’s headline, however, had to guide the reader’s mouse over to the Celebslam link and prompt it to click. Admiration, then, but also amazement, the type of amazement that would cause you to slow the fuck down when expressing it. The extension –to the- not only calls attention to the infixing but also slows it down. It’s not the profanity per se, but it helps Ribecca make the most of his profanity.

What will those crazy kids who run the internet come up with next? I can’t predict except to say that they’ll come up with something, because they’ve got to keep it fresh, keep eyes and cursors moving. We don’t have time to click on every fucking link, and fuck itself, or any other basic profanity, won’t induce us to click rather than look for something newer and cooler — we’ve become immune to them. But if a profane headline requires a double-take and is innovative enough, we might take the bait and click to see what it’s all about. The right sort of expletive infixing or interposing will do the trick and embellish English profanity at the same time.

6 thoughts on “The poetics of expletive clickbait

  1. mikemosz January 31, 2017 / 10:46 am

    As Mikepope says, you’ve probably missed a trick – ‘hell to the no’ is extremely popular slang, and in fact the first thing I thought was that maybe ‘lo’ was a new slang for ‘no’ (from Hebrew?) that I hadn’t heard of, and didn’t pick up on the connection to ‘hello’ at all. Still, this is what The Thick of It would call top swearing.


  2. Michael Adams January 31, 2017 / 2:21 pm

    It’s interesting, Mike Mosz, that you went for “hell to the no” first, and it’s probably proof that you and Mike Pope are right, that the ear hears the rhyme coming and makes the association. But the two features aren’t competitive — the effect of the extension and the rhyme just add to the headline’s poeticity. Thanks for bringing this into the conversation!


  3. dz February 11, 2017 / 3:10 am

    “- To the -” is definitely its own thing. Check out the song Izzo by Jay-Z (2001).


  4. John Cowan February 16, 2017 / 4:19 pm

    “antici…” (long pause) “Say it!” “…pation”.


  5. lab owl 4 February 20, 2017 / 4:45 pm

    I’m intrigued by infixing as evidence for ambisyllabicity in English, and this is a nice example. Note how the /l/ of shows up on both sides of the infix. When I try to infix “fucking” into “inexplicable,” I always end up with /s/ on both side of the infix (in-ex-fucking-splicable; *in-ek-fucking-splicable; *in-ex-fucking-plicable).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s