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.
O shite and onions! When is this bloody state of affairs going to end? (James Joyce, letter, 1920)
Just as different countries develop distinct dialects, so too do they produce their own conventions of swearing. Ireland has an enthusiastic culture of verbal irreverence, among whose characteristic features are the words feck and shite. Feck is a minced oath whose uses, meanings and origins I’ve explored on my own language blog, Sentence first. Shite is a slightly coarser swear, more at home here on Strong Language.
Shite is often but not always a direct variant of shit in the Hiberno-English profanilect.* It’s also used in Scotland, Australia, and other regional dialects, but my focus here is on usage in Ireland. All the main senses of shit are shared by shite. Like its global relative, shite commonly means nonsense, something rubbish or useless, or plain old excrement. We may talk shit or shite, be full of shit or shite, not give a shit or a shite, do a shit or a shite.
Tom didn’t realise what a nasty wee shite Jason has become. (Niamh Ní Bhaoill, Ros na Rún)
Shite carries a long history, intertwined somewhat with that of shit on account of the older phonetic forms of the latter. The Oxford English Dictionary, which has citations from Larkin, Enright, Hemingway, Amis, and (inevitably and repeatedly) Joyce, says shite:
The syntactic role of the seems simple enough: definite article, determiner on a noun phrase. But there are some instances where, if you stop and look at it for a moment, you have to ask, “What the fuck is it doing there?” One such is in the inserted vexation phrase the fuck.
At first glance, it may seem like any other the:
Get the fuck out.
That has the same arrangement of words as
Get the funk out.
Get the cake out.
But clearly one of these is not like the others:
Who brought the funk?
Who brought the cake?
Who brought the fuck?
It is, of course, actually an insertion in the flow of the sentence. Get out + the fuck à Get the fuck out. Likewise, you can say
Who the fuck brought the cake?
Who the fuck brought the funk?
You cannot say (except as a reversal, to be funny)
Who the funk brought the fuck?
Who the cake brought the fuck?
There are only a few positions where we can insert the fuck, as pointed out by Geoffrey Pullum and commenters on his 2009 post at Language Log, “Fucking shut the fuck up” – in fact, in the main we’ve just covered them: Continue reading
Only a few days before this blog started, I wrote an article about the syntax of “fuck” on The Toast, reviving the cult classic linguistics article English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject and the subsequent book Studies Out In Left Field, by and for James D. McCawley, respectively.
I’m just going to quote my favourite example sentences and send you to The Toast for the whole thing:
*Fuck you or I’ll take away your teddy bear.
*Describe and fuck communism.
*Fuck those irregular verbs tomorrow afternoon.
*Fuck communism on the sofa.
*Turn off that radio which fuck.