It’s all too common these days. After a flight, a long meeting, a night’s rest, or any other blissful reprieve, we check the headlines. “Okay, I’ve been colouring my hair all morning and haven’t looked at the news once. Deep breath,” as one tweeter steeled herself. “What fresh hell have I missed?” What fresh hell indeed: While hell is a very mild taboo by Strong Language standards, the phrase is still the perfect expression for the experience of all the news, in its unrelenting cascade of controversies and outrages, in the Trump era.
We’ve had yet another month of record-breaking temperatures—and a corresponding spike in Google searches for hot as balls,
a phrase that’s gotten popular as balls (mostly in the U.S.) in the last ten years or so. Although Urban Dictionary has an entry for the phrase from 2001, it became undeniably mainstream five years later during the heatwave of 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan created this video in response to the scorching weather that year: Continue reading
Many extol King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some even vaunt it as the very height of the Western canon. For their claims, they point, inter alia, to the strength of the tragedy’s language.
Take the mad monarch as he roves the wild heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6). Or the broken father when he cradles his deceased daughter: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.306-07). The Bard’s language plunges us into the depths of Lear’s despair.
But King Lear doesn’t just feature some of Shakespeare’s strongest language. It also showcases some of his, well, strongest language. And when we give it a closer look, much of it is truly below the belt.
Last year, in my post on the line from The Martian, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” I took a look at the more general pattern of “VERB the TABOO TERM out of (something).” I noted the difficulty of using that construction with an intransitive verb that takes a prepositional phrase:
Things get a little tricky when you want to intensify the act of listening to or looking at something, as noted recently on Twitter by Stacy Dickerman. An intransitive verb that requires a preposition complicates the construction — can you “listen to the fuck out of” something? For more on this, see Laura Bailey’s “Another Sweary Blog Post” from last year. See also Florent Perek’s “Using distributional semantics to study syntactic productivity in diachrony: A case study” (forthcoming in Linguistics), which discusses an example mined from the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape.” (Yes, the problematic to is simply deleted, treating listen as a transitive verb.)
I just came across another example along the lines of “I’ve been listening the hell out of your tape,” from the British standup comedian Stewart Lee.
What the fuck has become so commonplace that, as our own Nancy Friedman pointed out, marketers are no longer shy about alluding to it. But its ubiquity has meant a loss of its former power, and we’ve had to find ways to intensify it when our amusement or bewilderment graduates to incredulity.