If you love words, then you are probably familiar with Stephen Fry, and if you’re familiar with Stephen Fry, then you are damn certain familiar with A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s sketch comedy show featured a number of sketches on language, with special emphasis on subtle but masterfully done profanity. (Video-heavy post follows.)
How many swears can we give?
Sometime in 2010, the ‘Look at all the Fucks‘ image macro went viral:
This is obviously a playful variant of the well-known phrase give a fuck, with the implication (unstated here, but in similar graphics, stated explicitly) that no fucks are given (see relatedly, And Not a Single Fuck was Given That Day). And from there, it just gets entirely out of control, so that you can behold the field in which I grow my fucks.
‘Give a damn’, ‘give a shit’, ‘give a fuck’, and other such items are all examples of negative polarity items (NPIs), which are unmarked when they occur in negative contexts. If you’re familiar with the phrase give a fuck, then you don’t need to be told that this is a rephrasing of I don’t give a fuck, because it rarely occurs as a positive polarity item (e.g. I give a fuck about you sounds odd). All you need to know is that Maria von Trapp is dancing around the fields of Austria giving no fucks at all. You can find more about shit as a negative polarity item at Gretchen McCulloch’s blog All Things Linguistic: Giving a shit about negative polarity items (09/20/13) and Linguistics in Cabin Pressure’s Vaduz episode: the NPI “give a hoot” (12/19/2014).
But I’d like to note another interesting feature of phrases of this form. In the expression look at all the fucks I give, part of the humor relies on the inversion of the phrase give a fuck into the fucks I give. This alteration also highlights the fact that in such phrases, damn, shit, and fuck (and less profanely, hoot, fig, etc.) look like count nouns; that is, nouns that can be pluralized, and can be combined with a preceding numeral, in contrast to mass nouns, which can’t be enumerated or pluralized, like music. But as we’re going to see, our profane NPIs don’t follow the mass/count division quite perfectly, and since I’m a professional numbers guy, I think that’s pretty fucking cool.