What the fuck is the “the” in “the fuck”?

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