Cultural Animal

How we find meaning in life.

That's Just F**kingly Great: If "F**king" Is an Adjective, What Is the Adverb?

What and how does "f**king" communicate?

"F**king brilliant." "F**king awesome." "F**king awful." "F**king ridiculous." How often have we heard such usages?

To be sure, I am old enough to remember when use of the F-word was taboo in polite company. How and why it has spread through society is an interesting sociological question (or cluster of questions). There are still arguments and rules restricting its use. (I'm probably getting in trouble with the nice people at Psychology Today by using the word on their blog site; but my post is precisely about the word, so no substitute is possible.) My purpose is not to debate the propriety of its usage at all, however, but its grammatical correctness.

Still, let us review the grammatical rules here. One takes a verb (e.g., love, laugh, f**k) and by adding the -ing suffix creates a word that can be used as an adjective (loving, laughing, f**king). These -ing words are themselves verbs, but to use them as adjectives is permissible. As I recall from junior high school grammar class, such usages are called gerunds.

Adjectives modify nouns, however, and only nouns. If you want to modify a verb or adjective, you need an adverb. In English, adjectives are usually converted to adverbs by adding the -ly suffix. "Quiet" becomes "quietly." And with gerunds, "loving" becomes "lovingly."

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Therefore, shouldn't the adverb form be "f**kingly?" As in, "that was f**kingly ridiculous."

Obviously (note the suffix ‘-ly'), that's not how people talk. But perhaps they should.

One argument in favor of such revisionist scruples is that the usage of "f**king" as an adjective has not been promulgated by the segments of society who are most concerned with linguistic purity and correctness. My friend John Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale, contends that use of profanity is often perceived as a signal of lower-class background. That is how people react to it, at least. If that is correct - and one does associate coarse language more with working classes than with the aristocracy - that could be a reason that educated and sophisticated individuals should not simply adopt such uncouth and ungrammatical uses.

We may surmise that people from lower class backgrounds are less punctilious about niceties of grammar than people from the higher classes, and so they may be relatively indifferent to traditional conventions about the proper construction of adverbs. Obviously, they may speak however they wish, but if the more educated and sophisticated level of society wish to adopt the terms and meanings pioneered by the lower classes, they may need to recognize that grammatical corners have been cut, and they may wish to adjust and correct their usages accordingly.

Drinking alcohol also leads to increases in saying swear words, not just because drunk people are clumsy and thereby discover or create more occasions to swear, but also because they become less inhibited against saying things that might be inappropriate. (Alcohol makes you less aware of yourself and of whether you measure up to various rules, ideals, expectations.) That might also have contributed to carelessness about grammar. A drunken person might skip the "ly" adjective ending, as in "Hey baby, you look real nice." This is all the more reason that sober people ought to be extra careful to promote proper usage, at least by example, rather than follow the lead and thereby adopt the norms of speech stemming from intoxication.

Let us turn now from form to content. What is the meaning of the adverb "f**king" or, by extension, "f**kingly?" Just how does something that is "f**king great" or "f**kingly ridiculous" differ from things that are great or ridiculous without reference to fornication? The dictionary on my laptop offers no definition, nor does its thesaurus have a synonym. Anecdotal impression suggests that it is often used as a synonym for "very." Something that is f**king ridiculous is somehow more ridiculous than something that is merely ridiculous, correct?

If that is it, however, let me suggest that that usage seems colossally wasteful. F**king refers to one of the most fundamental, universal, desired activities that is essential to the survival of the species and also regarded by many as a precious, coveted pleasure. For some it looms as the supreme goal lurking behind many activities, such that men strive for success in the belief that it will afford them more opportunities to f**k. People risk much in order to f**k, and some people harm or kill others based on f**king. The intense desire to f**k is complemented by its ugly obverse, such that unwanted f**king is regarded in many circles as among the worst outrages and most vicious crimes.

My point is that f**king is inherently fraught with oodles and layers of meaning. To use such a richly meaningful word to denote something as pedestrian as "very" is to squander a cultural resource. It could be compared to any huge squandering of a natural resource, such as draining a lake and wildlife refuge in order to provide water for watering lawns.

The question of what is not meant by "f**king" and "f**kingly" raises the question of what its antonym would be and, indeed, whether it would have a derivative form. If something is ridiculous but not f**kingly ridiculous, and this were to be worth pointing out, would one say "unf**kingly" or perhaps "nonf**kingly?"

Note that the pseudo-word "unf**king" sounds familiar, but that is probably based on the briefly popular usage of "un-f**king-believable," an expression of intense skepticism. The "un" in that usage was of course from "unbelievable," and so it should not be taken as an indication of what prefix would negate "f**kingly." One could also propose other forms, such as "f**kless" to be the opposite of "f**king."

As to what its meaning would be, if "f**kingly" means "very," then the opposite of very is slightly ("not very"). Another line of interpretation would be that "f**king" and "f**kingly" are essentially pejorative statements, and so "nonf**king" and "nonf**kingly" would essentially convey positive value judgments. Thus, if "f**kingly ridiculous" meant ridiculous in a bad way, then "nonf**kingly ridiculous" (or "f**klessly ridiculous") would signify being ridiculous in some positive way.

It is the responsibility of those of us who are about the language and its value to the culture to preserve grammatical correctness. Language is our best tool for communicating and for working with information. To allow our language's communicative efficacy to deteriorate would be f**kingly stupid.

Roy F. Baumeister is Eppes Eminent Scholar, Professor of Psychology, and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University.

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