Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

10 Responses to “I Fruck Out”

  1. Stan said

    Another one for the list: ejaculate. I could be mistaken, not having researched this, but it seems far less frequently used to mean exclaim than it once was. I think many if not most people avoid using it nowadays in a non-sexual context.

  2. Jonathon said

    I had a coworker who once unselfconsciously said, “I totally froke out” (presumably by analogy with speak). It almost escaped my notice, too, but then I stopped her and said, “Wait, did you just say ‘froke out’?” So then of course we started using it at work.

  3. Stan said

    Here’s a minced oath you might enjoy: fup, as in “Fup off, ya grasshole!”, put to memorable use in an episode of Father Ted (wherein feck is the usual expletive).

  4. Ben Zimmer said

    Surely fruck is the past tense of fra(c)k

  5. Mico said

    Remember the titters from the high school English class when the assignment was to read “There is no frigate like a book”?

    Add “titter: to the list, now that I think of it. And “intercourse” in the sense of interaction.

  6. Mico said

    “titter”. Sorry.

  7. Lonnie said

    There is at least one person I have heard of who uses “heaven-o” as a greeting because he refuses to say hell in any form. He hits the news every few years on an exceptionally slow news day.

    I don’t think that I’ve heard snatch used in conversation as a verb in a very long time. It is still common in literary usage, though.

    On the opposite side, a former taboo word in near-common use is bitch, meaning to complain. It is in wider use as a derogatory term, though no longer specifically female, just as a term of contempt.

  8. Herb Stahlke said

    I haven’t read the Hogg article yet or all of the replies to Mark Liberman’s Language Log posts, my point may already have been made. Several years ago in an undergrad English grammar course, we were talking about weak and strong verbs, and I mentioned the dig/dug, drive/drove, sneak/snuck examples. I was surprised when a student from Buffalo said, “We say, ‘I snuck,’ but ‘we snook [vowel or “put”(HS)].'” I made it a point to raise this in later English grammar and History of English courses and have been rewarded with confirmation from St. Louis and Santa Monica, so at least it wasn’t a nonce oddity. What “we snook” shows, of course, is that we are not only creating new strong verbs, reversing a long term trend in Germanic and English, but we’re also reviving the contrast between preterit singular and preterit plural. I’m pretty sure this a nonce oddity.


  9. Do you think there’s an element of sound symbolism going on with “snuck”? I mean, it’s a very short syllable, which perhaps makes it more expressive for denoting an event that’s over before anyone notices. Sounds plausible to me.

    • Neal said

      It’s possible, but it strikes me more as a “Just So Story”. What if “snuck” followed a regular pattern for past-tense formation, and it was “sneaked” that was irregular, and inexplicably displacing “snuck”? Would we then be saying that “sneaked” was more iconic because it’s a longer syllable than “snuck”, which is reminiscent of the longer, slower steps you take when you’re sneaking somewhere?

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