The connotations of the F-word

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The Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in FCC v. Fox Television Stations, the case of the fleeting expletive. Bono got things going when exclaimed "really, really fucking brilliant" at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards.[*] The FCC first judged such usage non-offensive, then back-tracked in the face of pressure from the Parents Television Council. In this note, the FCC declares that

given the core meaning of the "F-Word," any use of that word or a variation, in any context, inherently has a sexual connotation

Language Loggers have commented on this and related topics before, and Arnold recently went meta on the Times coverage of the case. I recently spoke with Jess Bravin at the Wall Street Journal about the FCC's statement and the coming Supreme Court hearings. (His article with Amy Schatz appeared today, along with a cool wordle-like graphic on the results below.) During out conversation, Jess asked how a linguist might test the FCC's claim about the connotations of the F-word. Does it in fact have sexual connotations even when used as an intensive, as in Bono's "really, really fucking brilliant"?

Formal linguistic theories of meaning have, unfortunately, had relatively little to say about connotations. However, I think there is a chance here to apply methods from information extraction. Soon after talking with Jess, I undertook a small pilot experiment to try out an idea that bridges these two fields nicely. The pilot begins from this hypothesis:

Connotations hypothesis: A word's connotations are reflected in the words that it tends to co-occur with.

Political operatives know this hypothesis well. It is why they repeat the same phrases over and over again, seeking to instill particular words with new connotations. This is a core insight behind Latent Semantic Analysis. George Lakoff discusses similar hypotheses under the rubric of framing. The most famous recent example is the systematic, large-scale effort to link Iraq and Al Qaeda in people's mind by mentioning them in the same breath again and again.

Using the connotations hypothesis, we can evaluate the FCC's claim. To do this, I gathered about 9.5 million words of blog posts from Eschaton (left-wing politics), Say Anything Blog (right-wing politics), and DListed (celebrity gossip). Posts at DListed tend to be about sex and sexuality in one way or another, so it's a good one to include. The full collection is designed to ensure that we don't see too many influences from particular domains or usage patterns. The main motivation for using these blogs, though, is that their authors are not shy with the F-word.

I then built a word-by-word matrix consisting of all the content word with counts above 150. Here is a snippet from it (the full matrix is 808 x 808):

  fair fall family federal
fair 223 6 12 123
fall 6 176 21 24
family 12 21 456 48
federal 123 24 48 894

The cells are filled with the number of times that the two words co-occurred in a blog post. The posts are mostly short (average length: 119 words), so it's safe to say that these associations are close.

We can now compare word distributions by comparing vectors of counts. The closer the vectors for w and w' are to each other, the closer their distributions match. For this, I use a cosine measure. For a given target word w, we can compare w with all the others words in the matrix, then rank the results for closeness. Here, for example, are the nearest content words to a few target words (bold), ranked in decreasing order of closeness:

  • speech: free, speak, political, speaking, calling, sort, terms, freedom, called, group
  • movie: love, watching, family, girl, guys, mind, couple, head, hell, back
  • video: people, thing, time, playing, part, telling, play, watch, statement, called
  • obama: barack, obama's, campaign, mccain, candidate, election, presidential, john, race, senator
  • mccain: john, obama, barack, campaign, obama's, presidential, candidate, election, senator, race
  • america: great, terrorists, hope, protect, step, work, nation, lives, tonight, americans
  • tax: taxes, income, spending, property, cut, rate, pay, measure, economic, lower
  • sex: life, woman, women, happy, gay, young, thing, love, called, parents

These results look pretty good. Thus, let's move to the punchline:

  • fucking: time, imagine, here's, understand, things, wanted, wrong, hell, stop, stay

This looks chaotic to me. It certainly doesn't look sexual. The reason for that seems clear: contra the FCC's claims, the F-word is primarily a marker of emotional content. It is compatible with a wide range of emotions. In addition, it is extremely flexible syntactically.

Consider this a pilot study. I do not pretend that this is the best approach to (or the ideal data set for) characterizing connotations, but I think it might be a step in a useful direction. Perhaps other approaches would support the FCC's claim that the F-word is invariantly sexual, though I would now approach such claims very skeptically.

Much of the strength of this approach rests on how good the overall model of connotations is. We should get intuitive results back for the majority of words in the database. Since I do not presently know of a way to automatically evaluate the model, I'd like to enlist the help of the Language Log readers:

Enter a word. If it is in the database, the script will give you the top 15 nearest neighbors to that word, closest neighbor leftmost.


How do the results look to you?

Caveats: You'll notice that some non-content words are still in the database. Also, I didn't do any morphological analysis, so perhaps try variants of the form you are interested in before giving up. (The Javascript source containing the mapping to top-15 nearest neighbors is here.)

* Since Language Log is based in Philly, it is worth noting that second baseman Chase Utley got a big cheer with "World Champions" and an even bigger cheer with "World Fucking Champions".


  1. Lisa said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Well, that is interesting to see that even native speaker don't use it so much in a sexual manner.

    I'm a Quebec French native speaker and worked a bit in the rest of Canada. We, the youth of Quebec, usually use fucking -outside of a given phrase/insult like "go fuck yourself"- as a intensifier meaning "really". Fucking nice, fucking big, fucking cute, fucking great, etc. In English speaking provinces, if I had a slip and said "this room is fucking big!" I was immediately laser-shot by eyes from all around me.

    Maybe English-speaking people just need a really really bad word to focus on and prevent it from being said (The Word-that-mustn't-be-pronounced). I'm sure we can find a much worse word for them. :D

  2. K said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    Results for "vote," "voted," and "change" looked intuitive to me.

  3. Grep Agni said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:31 am

    It looks like fuck is almost always used as an intensifier in your data. Fucks, fucked, and fucker all have insufficient data.

    How about some comparisons:

    Friend: party, back, 2, night, couple, wasnt, girl, hours, didnt, nice, watching, total, mind, fun, guys

    Friends: put, bring, people, give, good, set, true, make, made, find, side, time, part, decided, turn

    Friend looks a lot sexier to my eye than fucking, most likely from the phrase "girl friend." Indeed, friend is the first hit for girl.

    To see what a word with sexual connotations looks like, I tried sex:

    Sex: life, woman, women, happy, gay, young, thing, love, called, parents, case, makes, wanted, kids, person

    Huh. Not much exciting there; apparently sex is for procreation on the internet. Sexy and sexual have insufficient data. How about ass:

    Ass: girl, shit, hot, night, pictures, love, damn, source, friend, couple, hell, back, crazy, head, party

    That seems to work. Based on this data, ass is much more sexualy charged than fucking, and even more than sex. Who Knew?

  4. John Cowan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong." (Wolfgang Pauli)

    If "fucking" really does carry a sexual charge, then there's no need for it to be associated with other words carrying a sexual charge. On the contrary, it is the otherwise bland words that it is associated with that become sexually charged by its presence.

    I don't say this is true, but it's at least a plausible interpretation of what the FCC meant, in which case such correlations are meaningless.

  5. Chris Potts said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:07 am


    If "fucking" really does carry a sexual charge, then there's no need for it to be associated with other words carrying a sexual charge.

    I think this is quite reasonable. It's sort of strange to imagine that, even when sex is not the subject, speakers feel compelled (feel it would be useful) to inject a bit of irrelevant sexuality, but, then again, we do speak generically of "sexing things up".

    I've got a follow-up post in the works that provides some positive suggestions for how to probe the contribution of items like the F-word. More soon.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    Here in Philadelphia, the local angle on this is "Utley drops F-bomb at Championship Ceremony":

    Utley smiled as he approached the microphone and proclaimed "World Champions!" The crowd cheered.

    Then he smiled wider, leaned in and repeated the phrase, inserting an F-bomb between "World" and "Champions." The fans erupted and cheered for several minutes.

    Later Friday, shirts and caps featuring Utley's phrase were offered for sale on the Internet.

    The TV and radio stations that were covering the event live failed to hit the bleep button quickly enough. So they now have a special interest in this decision. You can watch it for yourself, since neither YouTube nor Language Log is regulated by the FCC:

    One of the many associated souvenir items is here.

  7. Mark P said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    I tried "media" and good intuitively reasonable results. "Worst" as well. "Hot" gave interesting results. I think this approach is looking pretty reasonable, and interesting as well.

  8. Eric said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    Water gave bad results — I wouldn't consider these semantically similar:

    spent, guess, lot, people, light, back, head, couple, decided, total, put, good, started, giving, million

  9. Vincent said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    DH Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover stripped all offensiveness from the word "fuck" when he applied it reverently to the sex act.

    The offensiveness is surely the word's being used in other non-sexual contexts. To use it merely as an intensifier is, to my ears, the most offensive of all. I ask myself why it offends me so much, as in the quoted example of Bono using it in this context before a huge audience. The answer I come up with is that it shows contempt, principally for the English language and by extension for the sensibilities of the various generations listening.

  10. Sarah Blake said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Of course, the problem with 'fuck' has never been its sexual connotations. If it were, then the word 'sex' would be forbidden as well, which, of course, it isn't.

  11. D Sellen said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    I remember being in the Van Gogh museum and hearing someone standing in front of a painting saying very audibly “Fuck!” I take that to mean that the effect of the painting had an equivalent effect to an orgasm, in other words fuck as metaphor. Similarly, Bono’s use or any use. Yes, metaphors fade with time and use – but I don’t think you can take the sexual connotation, however distant, out of the word, whatever its nearest neighbours are. Whether that makes it offensive or, as in the case of the museum, a rather effective act of art criticism is another question.

  12. Blake Stacey said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    Asking the Machine to teach me about "love" brought back some good found poetry:

    watching, head, back, 3, couple, life, hell, family, guys, girl, room, put, give, good, watch

  13. Martyn Cornell said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    I'm not at all convinced by John Cowan's argument that "fuck" doesn't need other sexually charged words near it to be itself sexually charged, and be capable of sexually charging its neighbourhood. Look at the results for "sex" and "ass", Both sets of "co-words" contain items you might intuitively expect to occur nearby. Not so with "fuck". And did anybody who heard Chase Utley's declaration think for a nanosecond he meant: "We're world champions at fucking"?

    Rsults for "truth", btw: time, people, hear, give, telling, american, make, long, country, find, years, speak, true, coming, making. No particular surprises there.

  14. Cephi said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

    john seems to have it backwards. potts' claim is not that a word has its connotation because it appears around words relevant to that connotation; potts' claim is merely that a word's having a connotation correlates with its appearing around words relevant to that connotation. and that claim can be true, john, even if everything you say is also true.

  15. Michael Straight said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    Perhaps one thing that is offensive about the word is that it is seen as adding sex where it doesn't belong. Adding it to a phrase like "World Champions" is akin to putting a nearly-naked woman in an advertisement for a car. A ham-handed attempt to use sex to create an emotional arousal to something that is itself unrelated to sex.

    If one of the functions of the word is to introduce sexual connotations where they otherwise don't exist, then this data would be evidence of the word being used offensively.

  16. Forrest said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    There's a (free) software package called Rapid Miner (Community Edition) that can help you evaluate your models. It's even fairly intuitive.

  17. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    I don't think it's necessarily the sexual aspect of fuck that turned it into an intensifier, but the violent connotations of the word.

    I also wonder whether your results might be skewed because people are more likely to, I don't want to say censor, but choose alternatives to "fuck" when they are actually talking about sex. I don't think, in the realm of lovemaking, that fuck has a very good connotation. Plus, there are so many fun ways to dance around the topic of sex, but nothing has the power of "you fucking idiot!"

  18. G.D. Ritter said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

    I think the issue with John Cowan's claim is that, if it were true, it would be true for other words beside the one in question. If saying, "Move that fucking chair!" imparts a sexual meaning, then "Move that goddamn chair!" might similarly impart a religious meaning. I have met many atheists and agnostics who nonetheless use 'goddamn' in conversation, as well as a whole mess of exclamations and profanities with religious origins. It seems apparent to me that they don't mean to impart anything religious to the utterance – just strong emotion.

    I'd suggest that, at least for some speakers, there are two separate lexical entries for 'fuck', one which has connotations of sexual activity and one which is a generic intensifier. For instance, the intensifier 'fuck' can be replaced by a minced oath such as 'frig', as in, "Move that frigging chair!" Sexual 'fuck', however, cannot be replaced in such a manner, as one cannot say (at least in my dialect) "There are two people frigging in that room!" The question then becomes, do the sexual connotations of sexual 'fuck' color the semantics of intensifier 'fuck', and to what extent?

  19. Nick Lamb said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    It's rather weird to see that some people here are actually rejecting the reading of "fucking" as an intensifier outright, for apparently no better reason than the etymological fallacy.

    Lisa, the much worse word is "cunt". It has lost some of its capability to shock, but it is definitely subject to more censorship and taboo avoidance than mere "fuck". In British English you also see "cunted" often meaning very drunk, and perhaps a violent drunk rather than a quiet one, as-in "You were fucking cunted last night" or "let's go out and get cunted". Perhaps this is related to one of the meanings my dictionary offers for the root word, "a mean or obnoxious person". I don't know if "cunted" exists in US English.

  20. Alexandra said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

    Results for "child": children, mother, legal, life, abortion, women, baby, woman, choice, union, law, rights, lives, ways, kill

    These are obviously skewed by two of the three sources for the data set being political blogs. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't consider them intuitive. (The association with "kill" is particularly disturbing.)

    Results for "shit": ass, source, pictures, hot, damn, love, crazy, girl, hell, yesterday, , im, watch, shes, fucking

    So, judging by the first word on the list, "shit" is still clearly associated with excrement. It's also interesting that "fucking" is in the top 15 for "shit," but not vice versa. (I'm not sure what that blank slot in the middle is all about.)

  21. Christian Campbell said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

    @Eric, regarding 'water', I'm not surprised to see random co-occurring words. That just indicates no connotations.

    While this test may fail to find connotations or may uncover co-occurrences which are for reasons other than connotation, I'd expect words without connotations would come up pretty scattered wrt co-occurring words.

  22. Mark F. said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    It's pretty clear what's going on — there is a largish but shrinking group who who want the FCC to support the taboo on taboo words. Taboo avoidance is a social convention, and there are reasons for following social conventions (eg, conveying solidarity).

    The problem the FCC has is that the suitable legal rationales for censorship involve sexuality and religion, and so they have to make the argument that all uses of the word are essentially sexual. The irony is that, even if it were established that all uses of "fuck" *did* carry a sexual connotation, it would still be its special taboo nature that made the FCC want to ban it.

    Personally, I find taboo avoidance less irrational and bizarre than most language loggers seem to. There are lots of entirely arbitrary social rules that we follow. Why is avoiding certain words that have a history of being used in anger or aggression crazier than wearing clothes on a hot summer day?

  23. GAC said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 1:18 am

    Just a side note, I don't think I hear "fuck" used much to describe sexual acts. Now, I'm an undergrad, and it's not uncommon for me to overhear someone mentioning their sexual exploits, but they almost always will use the term "have sex". I suspect that when it does hold a sexual meaning, "fuck" can often be too strong for many contexts, even for speakers that might not necessarily be shy about using it as an intensifier.

    That's all based on informal observation, though. And I've only really once heard someone explicitly state that they felt "to fuck" implied something stronger (and, ahem, "rougher" I would think) than "have sex".

  24. Rick S said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 3:49 am

    Alexandra: So, judging by the first word on the list, "shit" is still clearly associated with excrement.

    Hold on there! "Ass" isn't exclusively limited to connotations of excretion. See Grep Apni's results for "ass" above.

    Using "fuck" for the sex act is commoner than a poll of cultured and well-educated LL readers might suggest, at least in my experience. (I have some pretty uncouth undergrad friends.) Fucking is for fun; having sex is for dating; making love is for commitment. Maybe the taboo stems from the connotation of promiscuous, selfish sex?

  25. Mark F. said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 9:21 am

    Following up my previous comment — even though I defended taboo avoidance, I still think the FCC should lose its case. You can defend the idea of social norms without thinking it's always the government's job to enforce them.

  26. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    @Mark F.: You're right; avoidance is no more stupid that wearing clothing inapropriate for the wheather for purposes of modesty (note that I didn't use your specific example because there is very good cause to protect oneself from a hot sun in many cases; go take a peek at what Bedouin wear)

    In particular, it's no more stupid for the simple reason that they are two aspectes of exactly the same thing: doing (or not doing) things for no purpose other than "fit in"; i.e. they are both equally stupid.

  27. Kevin Iga said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

    There's another problem with the Connotations Hypothesis (that "a word's connotations are reflected in the words that it tends to co-occur with"): there may be a stock phrase that involve two words, and it is possble that this stock phrase gets used often. And yet, there may be no real connotation connecting the words that comprise the phrase.

    Type "room" and "back" is the closest word. Perhaps "back room deals" is perhaps the reason (especially in the political blogs), but "back" and "room" hardly share any connotations in my mind. Say them both, and there are other words that are associated with both, but say one and it's not likely I would think of the other, and say one and the words that are associated with both are not likely to come up.

    Incidentally, I tried to feed the script some words that had strong emotional connotations and most of the ones I tried had "insufficient data" to process. Here are some that did work:
    nice: back, couple, didnt, wasnt, mind, ive, party, friend, side, decided, gave, started, hell, wouldnt, night
    love: watching, head, back, 3, couple, life, hell, family, guys, girl, room, put, give, good, watch
    hate: people, simply, things, understand, matter, point, rest, thing, idea, find, reasons, reason, telling, part, make
    friend: party, back, 2, night, couple, wasnt, girl, hours, didnt, nice, watching, total, mind, fun, guys
    fine: people, decided, put, kind, reason, side, lot, pretty, dont, imagine, guess, bad, point, good, actual
    good: people, give, make, thing, idea, put, bad, turn, happen, giving, find, time, lot, bring, kind
    bad: good, thing, people, make, reason, put, idea, side, lot, kind, give, happen, pretty, imagine, guys
    crazy: hell, didnt, nice, back, head, started, watching, love, gave, ive, wasnt, couple, wouldnt, im, imagine

    Clearly, there are lots of cases where there is some association, (like "fine: people") but they don't separately connote each other: the connotations I have for "fine" are not at all the ones I have for "people". "Friend" seems to be the only one of these attempts that confirms the Connotations Hypothesis.

  28. Bernadette said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    Mark F. has it. The FTC is making a spurious argument, but they're stuck with it as their best alternative. Isn't it easiest to blow up their argument with examples of sexually charged words that are allowed? How about "fisting" ?

  29. Dan T. said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

    High court conservatives favor “fucking strong” indecency rule

  30. David in Brooklyn said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 12:03 am

    Does no-one else think that "fuck" is onomatopoeic, and hence inherently sexual?

  31. Sili said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    I'm not sure I understand completely.

    But wouldn't a better way of determining connotations be something along the lines of not looking just at the coöccurring words – John Cowan gets into one of the problems with this – but rather to compare those 'neighbours' to those of words for which the connotations are clear?

    What I mean is that "time, imagine, here's, understand, things, wanted, wrong, hell, stop, stay" do not on their own say anything about the connotations of "fucking", but because they differ significantly from " life, woman, women, happy, gay, young, thing, love, called, parents" the connotations of "fucking" are different from those of "sex".

    I'm not sure I'm making myself particularly clear here.

  32. John Cowan said,

    November 11, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    G. D. Ritter:

    I am, in fact, one of those agnostics who says "God damn" and "Hellfire" and other religious swear words. However, meaning, like joy, is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks. The effect I intend my words to have is a merely private matter: the effect they actually do have is a public one. I may shout "The theatre's on fire!" merely as an expression of enthusiasm, but the law will blame me nonetheless if there is a panic as a result.

    As for "frigging", there may indeed be two people frigging in a room, because "frigging" is not a mere minced oath like "darn" for "damn", it is an independent word meaning "masturbating". For me, it is actually far more taboo than "fucking", probably because the sexual sense of "fucking" has become denatured over time and use, whereas the sexual connotations of "frigging" remain vivid to me, as in the anonymous song lyric about bored sailors: "Frigging in the rigging / There's fuck-all else to do."

    The OED says that "frig" has earlier senses "move about restlessly" and then "rub, chafe, scrape, fray", from which the transition to "masturbate" is an easy one. There is a cluster of mostly obscure, dialectal, or obsolete verbs ("frike", "fridge", "fig", "fike", "fidge", "fidget") of much the same original senses; only "fidget" (which is apparently never sexual, despite the tempting rhyme) survives in general usage.

  33. SamC said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    @Alexandra – I looked up "shit" in the tool, too (great minds?) and was actually struck by how sexual the results are. If we had the same results come up for "fucking," we might be assuming that it supports the sexual connotations claim. I've put asterisks around the words I would think (completely subjectively) could be construed as related to sex, in many contexts:
    *ass*, source, pictures, *hot*, damn, *love*, crazy, *girl*, hell, yesterday, , im, watch, shes, *fucking* (<-under dispute)
    Heck, even "pictures" could be used in sexual contexts, though I think most uses with "shit" were just to point out bad resolution or framing.
    Too bad there weren't enough instances of "shitty" to compare.

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