September 05, 2007

[obscene gerund]

Though I vowed to take a vacation from taboo avoidance, here's one that's just too delicious for a linguist: "obscene gerund" as an ostentatious replacement for the modifier fucking (or fuckin').   In a Doonesbury cartoon from 1999, and in a more recent Jerk City cartoon:

(Hat tip to Paul Blankenau.)

[Correction 9/7/07: The Trudeau cartoon above was dated 1999, but the panel is considerably older that that, as correspondents Qnavry Pheevr and Nathan Simpson have pointed out to me.  The panel seems to have first appeared in 1985 and was included in Trudeau's 1986 collection That's Doctor Sinatra, You Little Bimbo.]

You can google up a fair number of other instances.

But, but...  I have to object to the gerund part of obscene gerund, as a reference to fucking (or fuckin') in expressions like your fucking boss.  I've written here before about grammatical concepts and terminology in the world of English Ving, so I'll give just the most basic explanation.

Background: except for a few defective verbs, every verb in English has a form in -ing (with a variant -in') with a great many uses.  The form gets various labels in the scholarly literature on English: among others, "present participle" (or some abbreviated tag, like "PRP"), "gerund participle", "-ing form", "form N".  (The first is the most common label; the second is the term in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language; the third is the term in the big Quirk et al. grammar, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language; and the last is my own preferred label.)

Most of the uses of form N can be classified as one of three types: verbal, adjectival, or nominal.  (The examples in the following discussion are merely representative of a much larger collection of cases; this is not an inventory of all the constructions that form N can appear in.  And, to keep things short, I've swept many complexities under the rug.)

In verbal uses, the form serves as the head of a (non-finite) clause (exclamatory Him having a hat on!) or as the head of a VP complement to a V (progressive Kim was amusing the children by juggling watermelons, with amusing the children by juggling watermelons serving as complement to a form of BE; aspectual It started fiercely snowing, with fiercely snowing serving as complement to a form of the aspectual verb START).

In adjectival uses, the form serves as the head of a adnominal phrase, modifying a N (people not having a hat on, with not having a hat on modifying people, much as a restrictive relative clause like who do not have a hat on does).

In nominal uses, the form serves as the head of an argument phrase, just like an ordinary NP (Kim's juggling watermelons so skillfully entertained the children, with Kim's juggling watermelons so skillfully serving as subject; Kim's skillful juggling of watermelons astonished us, with Kim's skillful juggling of watermelons serving as subject).

I'd prefer to use the terminology above -- verbal vs. adjectival vs. nominal -- for a rough (and incomplete and pretheoretical) taxonomy of the uses of form N, but unfortunately there are other terms, participle and gerund, deriving ultimately from grammatical terminology for Latin, that have long been used for this purpose, and they aren't very satisfactory.  Part of the problem is that in this tradition the same terminology ends up being used for labeling morphological forms and for labeling classes of syntactic constructions, but that's not my concern in this posting.

Here's the immediate problem: in this tradition, participle is often defined as a 'verbal adjective' (or 'verb used as an adjective'), gerund as a 'verbal noun' (or 'verb used as a noun'), which would provide alternatives to my labels adjectival and nominal above, but nothing corresponding to verbal.  In some handbooks of English grammar, this gap is filled by extending the term participle to the verbal uses, while maintaining the characterization of participles as verbal adjectives.  That's just wrong, because the verbal uses have no adjectival properties at all.  Some sources just stipulate that participle covers both adjectival and verbal uses.  And, of course, some use participle for all uses of form N. 

But there's one fixed point in this terminological morass: so far as I know, if a source uses the term gerund at all, it's restricted to nominal uses.  Which brings us back to obscene gerund.  The fucking in your fucking boss is in no way nominal; instead, it's adjectival, located in NPs between determiners (like your) and the head N, in with ordinary adjectives.  The expletive (god)damn has a similar distribution, as of course do alternatives to fucking like freaking, frigging, etc.

Actually, expletive fucking has a wider distribution.  It functions as an "A-al", with adverbial as well as adjectival uses.  (Adverbs and adjectives share a number of properties, so that it makes sense to posit a larger class A comprising both of them.)  It modifies not only nouns, but also A's (adjectives, as in That's fuckin' huge, and adverbs, as in You did that fuckin' fast) and verb phrases (You need to fuckin' stop that).  So expletive fucking doesn't quite fit into the taxonomy above; it's one of the complexities I alluded to above.  But what's special about it is that it's an A-al use rather than just an adjectival use of form N; it's not nominal and shouldn't be labeled a gerund.

(By the way, I don't really understand what's going on in the Jerk City cartoon.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 5, 2007 01:50 PM