*Abso-hallelujah-lutely: Infixes can’t be interjections (but what are they?)

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.

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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?

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Emphatic affirmatives

English has equipped us with a full spectrum of ways to agree—the noncommittal sure, the tepid OK, the formal yes. But some situations demand a more enthusiastic response than a simple yes, and coming to our aid are our trusty sweary sidekicks, which help us intensify yeah into hell yeah and absolutely into absofuckinglutely. They’ve also made their way into a few (relatively) fixed expressions that we use to convey emphatic assent:

Damn straight

(Also damned straight, goddamn straight, or goddamned straight)

Straight meaning “honest” or “true” dates from the 1530s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but the earliest citation of damn straight comes from Roger D. Abraham’s 1964 Deep Down in the Jungle: Black American Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia:

“God damn straight, I’ll be there.”

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You’re in the fucking army now.

My father-in-law was an elegant man who spoke five languages—six if you count bad language. The latter was seldom spoken in public, but in private among family and friends he could light up the sky with his procession of incandescent oaths. When he caught himself, which was not often, he would then apologize claiming that it was a nasty habit he picked up in the army. Yes, “war is hell,” as the saying goes, and a great deal more. My father-in-law was not alone in this predicament. Most of the veterans of the Second World War and the Korean War with whom I have spoken have, like my father-in-law, blamed the military lifestyle and, in particular, life during wartime, as the source for their unbridled profanity. Considering the unfamiliar, trying, and often life-threatening circumstances, who can blame them? It seems to make sense, then, to dive back into in those trenches.

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Fucking ambiguity

In a post last month on the versatility of fuck, Rob Chirico wrote that the word has ‘escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root’. That is, most current uses of fuck are independent of sexual meaning. But it’s an incomplete escape. All words shimmer with connotations and the shadows of former and parallel meanings, so ambiguity inevitably creeps in now and then.

The polysemy of fuck (and other swearwords) can be exploited deliberately for entertainment – in jokes, comics, innuendo, and so on. Accidental confusion, by contrast, seems rare. This is because semantic, pragmatic and prosodic context normally provide more than enough information to indicate whether the word is meant sexually or not.

So I was struck by a concrete example of this fucking confusion, even though it was fictional. It appears in Michael Connelly’s suspense novel Chasing the Dime (2002), for which minor spoilers follow in the next paragraph and indented text below.

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