What the...

By Pacifica, in 'Other Languages', Jan 8, 2017.

  1. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    ... hell, fuck, etc.

    We use these expressions all the time, yet I don't know how they actually work grammatically. I mean, if you analyze it, what exactly is the grammatical function of "the hell" or "the fuck"? I do realize that people just say it without thinking about what function it's supposed to have and maybe it doesn't really have any anymore, but I wonder what it originally was. Did it, perhaps, start as an absolute interjection, like "What—the hell!—is that?" and eventually come to be felt as more of an integral part of the sentence even though it didn't really fit in in any grammatical function? Or maybe an "in" got dropped for some reason, though retained in "what in the world" and even sometimes "what in the heck/hell", I think, but this looks a bit less likely to me.

    Does anyone know?
  2. Imperfacundus Reprobatissimus

    • Civis Illustris
    I would call it an intensifier. In Victorian English one would say e.g. 'How ever did I wrong you?' with the intensifier in the same position. Not sure about the specific origin of 'the fuck, hell' etc., though.
  3. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    "Ever" makes some sense as (originally) an adverb, but how a noun phrase in some unspecified function ended up there is less clear to me.
  4. Imperfacundus Reprobatissimus

    • Civis Illustris
    The most random things can become intensifiers. In Russian, 'your mom' (accusative case, i.e. '[fuck] your mom') is a pretty common intensifier with interrogatives.
    Dantius likes this.
  5. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    Interesting. I still suppose there must be some more or less logical way how those intensifiers arise, though. I think they must be something else in the beginning, with some more definite function.
  6. Terry S. flamen

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Hibernia

    I agree. I think there is usually some kind of ellipsis afoot. In a "What the...?" construction, the thought is probably to be completed by something like, "... is going on?" "...are you playing at?" Perhaps the incomplete sentence originally meant to intensify the shock/surprise by leaving the expected ending unsaid in the fashion of being left speechless. Or maybe it's something completely different.
  7. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    I think you misunderstood me. Even in a sentence like "what the hell is going on" or "what the hell are you playing at", I don't understand the original function of "the hell".
  8. Terry S. flamen

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Hibernia
    I did. 'Sfunny, as I was typing, I myself began to wonder just what their function is.
    Pacifica likes this.
  9. rothbard Civis Illustris

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    London
    It could be a modification of "What in Hell". The earliest occurrence I could find on Google Books is from 1824.
  10. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    Interesting how they censor "bloody" as "bl—y".
  11. The Kenosha Kid Active Member

    Location:
    The Zone
    My reasoning is this: a rather unique usage of the 'definite article' comes to mind which, though it has been around since the OE period, is still a familiar and current one. It may be called 'asseverative', insofar as it serves to give the word which it modifies the force of an oath. Compare:

    My father was somewhat sickly, but his death came as a surprise.
    and
    By the power of God, sir, we twain shall fight to the death!

    Older examples from the OED (under death, I.1.e)
    Gif hit [sc. mod] on ænegum ænige hwile fæstlice wunað, se deað hit huru afirreð þæt hit beon ne mæg þær hit ær wæs. (c900)
    Þai ne han nouȝth loued her lijf vnto þe deþ. (c1350)
    Quhilk hed the deid eschapit. (1513)

    We know that abstractions like 'honor' often acquire new meaning when the article is added, as in: 'Honor is man's greatest treasure.' 'I am happy to have received the honor of nomination.' But in the case of 'death' it is different. My guess is that the construction in question first borrowed this type of 'the' (or at least was conscious of it) and then became absolutive, as Sarah mentioned. The first word to take on this 'the' was certainly 'hell', allowing for things like 'What in the hell!', where 'the hell' is not to say 'a specific hell' (like 'I jumped in the lake (referring to, for example, Lake Michigan)) because quite naturally we don't consider there to be multiple 'hells' that require specification. This 'the hell', already strange in appearance, was then taken to be a particle, much like Russian же, Lithuanian gi, Greek γε, all of which have similar function, and so was used absolutely.
  12. Dantius Homo Sapiens

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    in orbe lacteo
    As well as a vague "Using a vulgar expression".
  13. lepus Member

    In Polish and German (for instance) such interjections usually take the form of a preposition meaning "to" + something evil that may cause death, injury, loss, etc. "Do cholery" (to the plague), "do diabła / zum Teufel" (to the devil), "zur Hölle" (to the hell) - to cite only the basic ones that serve as templates for countless variations. It may suggest that all those expressions are not intensifiers but are (or originally were) curses directed toward the thing or action in question, something like "to the hell with it!", "give it the fuck up!" (the latter perhaps in more modern discourse :) ). When we ask "what the hell are you doing?", or "what the fuck is it?" we usually don't want to satisfy our genuine curiosity, but to express indignation, unpleasant surprise, irritation with what someone is doing or with the mere presence of something.

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