August 24, 2006

God dead; "fuck" now the most important word in the language

Yes, it's an irretrievably silly idea, but a wonderful example of linguifying (a phenomenon named here by Geoff Pullum on July 3).  And by the Indian spiritual figure who calls himself Osho, so it has something of a higher imprimatur.  Having floated this remarkable proposal, Osho goes on, in a YouTube video, to riff at length on the uses of the word "fuck", exhibiting along the way the tenuous grasp of grammatical terminology that has so often nettled us here at Language Log Plaza.

"Osho - Strange Consequences" begins with eye-catching screen:

When Friedrich
Nietzsche declared
"God is dead"

F*CK became the most
important word in the
English language

Osho then appears (clad in white and gray, and sitting on a silver-patterned throne-like chair) to announce, "If God is dead, then you lose the most important word in your language.  And you will need a substitute."  God (or perhaps "God", there's no way to tell) is one extreme, Osho explains, and when one extreme disappears, you will inevitably fall to the other extreme.  (Why don't you just promote the #2 item at that extreme, I wondered.  But I'm just a linguist, not a seer, so I probably don't understand these matters deeply enough.)  And so, he tells us, "fuck" has become the most important word in our language.  Beautiful linguification.

After some reflection on how Nietzsche would take this development, should he return from the dead, Osho undertakes to provide a report on the uses of the word "fuck".  And gives us another item in the rich genre of playing in public with the word.

First comes the grammatical prelude.  Osho tells us that it can be a transitive verb ("John fucked Mary" -- all these examples are his, by the way), an intransitive verb ("Mary was fucked by John" -- oh dear, well, passive verbs lack direct objects, but the label "intransitive" would normally be reserved for things like "Mary fucks like crazy"), or a noun ("Mary is a fine fuck").  Or "as an objective", as in "Mary is fucking beautiful".  This last bit of terminology isn't borderline; it's totally fucked.  But we are forever noting here on Language Log that most people -- including a lot of English professors and other people who really ought to know better -- are pretty hazy on grammatical terminology, using it primarily as intellectual parsley, an attractive garnish to the things they really care about.  Why should we expect more of a holy man?  After all, Osho did get "transitive verb" and "noun" right; he's batting at least .500, which is a pretty good average for connecting with grammatical terminology these days.

Then comes a long riff on uses of "fuck", to convey aggression, suspicion, enjoyment, request, and much more -- there's no point in trying to take this inventory of uses seriously -- and concluding advice to begin the day by meditatively repeating the mantra "Fuck you!" five times.  And he grins mischievously.  The audience goes wild.  (Why can't I get audiences like this?)

[Thanks to Vishy Venugopalan for the pointer.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 24, 2006 01:18 PM