March 21, 2004

Imprecational Categories

I did a "Fresh Air" piece last week on profanity, which led (the preterite of lede?) by mentioning Bono's "really fucking brilliant" remark on the Golden Globes last year (though on NPR, of course, that came out as "effing brilliant"). The FCC had refused to sanction NBC for the remark, on the grounds that their guidelines limit indecency to "material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities," whereas Bono had merely used fucking as "an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation." (Since then, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell has announced that he would be reconsidering the Bono ruling.)

Several commentators were unable to resist observing that the agency had gotten the sentence's grammar wrong -- since fucking modifies brilliant, they said, it must be an adverb, not an adjective. But in the piece, I said I wasn't entirely convinced by that argument -- true, fucking isn't an adjective here, but if it were really functioning as an adverb, shouldn't it have been fuckingly?

The next day I received an email from an English teacher who remostrated with me for making that suggestion. "Of course the word "f*%#ing," as used by Bono, was an adverb! " she wrote, "Why confuse the general public, by implying that f*cking might not be an adverb because it doesn't end in the ending -ly? Maybe I'm old school, but I don't think we can afford to suggest that only words that end in -ly are adverbs."

Well, but not so fast.

True, not all adverbs end in -ly (that was my little joke) -- you wouldn't want to say that very wasn't an adverb in very brilliant. But fucking doesn't behave the way real adverbs do:

1. How brilliant was it? Extraordinarily (so).
2. How brilliant was it? Very.
3. *How brilliant was it? Fucking (so).

In fact, if you say that fucking is an adverb in "fucking brilliant," then aren't you committed to saying it's also an adverb when it appears as an infix in "in-fucking-credible"? And while we're at it, it seems odd to analyze fucking as an adjective in a phrase like no fucking way; -- after all, it certainly doesn't modify way, nor does it pass the ordinary tests for adjectives, as in *The test seemed fucking, etc. (Note that fucking can be applied to just about any idiom chunk, however resistent to modification it otherwise is -- cf He kicked the fucking bucket, They shot the fucking breeze. etc.)

So maybe we should think of fucking as an emphatic particle (whatever that is) in all these uses. But in response to that English teacher's question, is this something we can afford to suggest to the general public? Not on Michael Powell's watch.

PS -- I note that Salon's Scott Rosenberg has gotten this one right. Posted by Geoff Nunberg at March 21, 2004 02:42 AM