A Fan-fucking-tastic Word: The Linguistic Versatility of Fuck

Kama Sutra statue of woman having sex with two men

While fuck is one of the more aggressive swear words in the English language, there are a lot of other ways to use it, and it’s pretty high in cathartic value if you’ve happened to, say, drop something heavy on your foot. It really is remarkably versatile, even if remains taboo as an imprecation (a new word I learned that means spoken curse). After having some fun with the word ass in a recent post, I figured why not dive into fuck as well.

Infixation is one way of using it. That involves sticking it in the middle of another word, like fan-fucking-tastic. This infixation happens at different places in different words; for example, you would say abso-fucking-lutely, but not fanta-fucking-stic (which sounds more like what someone who’s got a high opinion of themself might call their penis). We know, without knowing that we know it, that the expletive infix goes before a stressed foot of a word (source). What does that mean? Well, you would probably never say this or have ever heard it, but if you were to plunk fuck into kindergarten or amalgamated, you would naturally place it as kinder-fucking-garten and amalga-fucking-mated.

In an article in The Toast, linguist Gretchen McCulloch divided fuck as verb into senses of the word, copulating and disapproving. These behave differently grammatically. The copulating sense behaves like other imperatives, but the disapproving sense doesn’t. I could say “please help me” or “please fuck me”, but “please fuck you” makes no sense, nor does “don’t fuck you.”

You might say “fuck Ashley” if you were telling someone you were angry at me, but if you start adding modifiers, like “fuck Ashley slowly” or “fuck Ashley tonight,” you’re suddenly telling that person to get in my pants. “Fuck you” and “I want to fuck you” mean very different things. “Fuck me” can be used in the copulating or disapproving sense, depending on your tone of voice. I’m trying to think of how to explain that difference, although I don’t actually know the linguistic terms to do so properly. I think the disapproving sense would start with a high tone and move to a lower tone, and it would be staccato and be formed in the mouth. “Fuck me” as a command would be more even-toned and connect the words smoothly together, and you’d probably put some diaphragm into it to give it some extra oomph and urgency.

The disapproving sense doesn’t play nice with other imperatives. I could tell you to describe and evaluate communism, or I could say fuck communism, but it wouldn’t make sense to tell you to describe and fuck communism. Tacking on a preposition changes the meaning again; I could tell you to describe but not fuck with China’s communist government, or else they will fuck you up.

“Fucking” is sort of like an adjective, and fucking well is sort of like an adverb (as in “fucking well do it already” rather than “oh, oh baby, you’re fucking well tonight”), but they behave differently. Steven Pinker, an academic crush of mine, has weighed in on this word in his essay What the F***? in The New Republic. He characterized the “fucking” in “fucking brilliant” as an adverb, as it modifies the adjective brilliant. Who knew?

Pinker suggested that the syntactic oddity of expletives like fuck is because they’ve been substituted somewhere along the way for religious swear words. For example, “who (in) the hell are you” became “who the fuck are you,” while “damn you” became “fuck you.”

Fuck goes along quite nicely with the wh- questions who, what, when, where, why, and how (although they probably don’t teach that in journalism school). To amp up the disbelief level, you can speak in terms of actual fucks (as opposed to hypothetical fucks?). It can also be used for negation, as in “like fuck I will” or “sweet fuck all” (source).

Fuck can be a noun, but if you’re referring to a person, I can’t think of a way that you would say that without an adjective to go along with it. Someone can be a good fuck or a dumbfuck, but can they just be a fuck? Fucks can be given, there can be none to give (“I’m all out of fucks”), or one can choose not to give them (“I don’t give a fat flying fuck”). I think fucks only fly when you refuse to give them.

A clusterfuck could be an orgy if we were to take it literally, but it’s most likely to be used to refer to a fucktangular situation (a neologism coined by a student that a professor shared on Twitter). I think I’ll need to incorporate that into my vocabulary.

I like words, especially when you can do a lot of different things with them. And I have a potty mouth, so talking about swearing is always fun. Next week, I’ll round out my swearing miniseries with shit.

58 thoughts on “A Fan-fucking-tastic Word: The Linguistic Versatility of Fuck”

  1. Ooh I love fucktangular! Sometimes I say fuck me and a half to express super duper frustration. There’s also fuckton and fuckload, which I believe are larger than shit-ton and shitload. What the actual fuck (WTAF) is also a good way to express shock at a news article or something…

    Great post 💖

  2. I don’t get ‘fucktangular” . As I said in a previous comment, ‘shit’ is my favorite “curse’ word and hopefully you will have found out why it is still banned and bleeped. I suppose I could research it myself but since you’re already on it, I’ll wait for your report 😁

    1. To me, fucktangular is multiple angles of fucking all in one go, like a polyhedron of fucks.

      In this article in the Brown Political Review, the author points out an upside of hanging onto some degree of taboo: “In the short run, an accelerated rate of acceptance appears to be beneficial for content creators, but this is most definitely not the case in the long run. Carlin’s seven words that you can’t say on TV are so powerful precisely for the reason that you cannot say them on TV. The restriction makes them more appealing, and absolute freedom to use them may ruin the mystique, and in turn, the power of these words.” https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2018/08/the-bleep-you-cant-say-on-tv-a-history-of-swearing-in-television/

          1. Haha, uptight is an apt term. Both my parents hate the word “shit” and related words like “asshole”, “ass”, “butthole”. Same for “damn”, especially “goddamn”. And of course, “fuck” in ALL the ways you listed.

            As a result, because I can’t stand their uptight hypocrisy where harmless words are huge criminal offences but actual harmful behaviour (including politely worded belittling)…I love swearing. I’m learning swears in various Chinese dialects for the fun of it.

  3. “fucknut” is a favourite insult of mine, though I’ve no idea where I picked it up. Awesome post. It’s the best of the curse words.

  4. My sister used to date an Irishman. I swear he could make an entire sentence just using the word “fuck” and he made it sound so funny and delightful! Thanks for the reminder — and the laughs!

  5. I prefer clusterfuck to fucktangular, which I have never heard of before this post. Fucktangular implies some degree of order in a rectangular shape, whereas clusterfuck implies no such order. Generally, I am describing total chaos.

    I enjoyed this post

  6. I love how fucking versatile the word fuck is in English. I wish we had a word like this in Polish, but our literal equivalents of fuck/fucking etc. don’t quite do this, and it’s only mild expletives that have a wider degree of linguistic versatility, yet still far from being as versatile as fuck. I do prefer to use shit on a regular basis though, and I like substituting fuck with flip in not quite so extreme situations just because flip sounds cool. I like fucktangular. 😀

      1. Hahahah, well I love swearing in all my languages and even those that I don’t know just yet but plan to learn, it’s fun indeed, you can use a different swearword in all sorts of different situations, whatever fits the occasion.

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