xkc-infix-d

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The current xkcd deals with the psycholinguistic properties of expletive infixation:

For a fuller discussion of the issues, see:



35 Comments

  1. Neuroskeptic said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    More like xkcid… backwards… no, that attempt didn’t work very well.

  2. Philip Lawton said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 9:08 am

    I thought this was called “tmesis” – is it the same thing, just called something different by the linguistic community, or something different altogether?

    [(myl) As I understand it, “tmesis” was originally used for separable prefix verbs in Homeric Greek, where (what might be considered) a verbal prefix ends up some distance away in a phrase, separated from the rest of the word by one or more other lexical tokens. “Infix” was originally used in contrast with “prefix” and “suffix”, to cover cases where morphological inflection or derivation is accomplished by adding material inside a word rather than before it or after it.

    If you define “tmesis” as “any case where a word is divided into two pieces with other material intervening between them”, then infixation would count as a form of tmesis. But the underlying idea is different, I think; and the literature on “expletive infixation” sees the phenomena as more a form of morphological derivation than a phrasal rearrangement in which a piece of a word is treated as a separable part. Wherefore the terminological choice.]

  3. blahedo said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    I saw this yesterday and my immediate first thought was, well, we’ll be seeing this on Language Log in the next day or so. :)

    The panel poses a sort of interesting question, though: given what we know about speech production errors and repairs, if a speaker did get themself into such a bind, what would be the likely result? “Ridicu-fucking-ridiculous” (i.e. finish the expletive and start over from beginning)? Or something like “Ridicu-fu-ri-fucking-diculous” (i.e. back up just far enough to do the insertion)?

  4. Robert Coren said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:28 am

    Actually, I’m having a hard time coming up with a non-awkward placement of infix “fucking” in “ridiculous”. Neither “ri-fucking-diculous” nor “ridic-fucking-ulous” feels right. The speaker probably wishes he could back up all the way to before “ridiculous”.

    myl: Would the term “tmesis” be applied not only to Homeric Greek but also to the similar structure in modern German?

  5. L.N. Hammer said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    Robert: “Ri-fucking-diculous” rolled easily off the tongue a salty former coworker. As did, when discretion was needed, “ri-effing-diculous.”

    —L.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    I think that prosodically, ri-INFIX-diculous is by far the best fit. In order to make it sound natural, you may need to stress and/or change the vowel quality in the first syllable more than you otherwise would, like REE-infix-DICK-u-lous. I first encountered the scholarly study of expletive infixation in an undergraduate class in morphology way back when (let’s see . . . probably fall semester of ’86), where perhaps understandably (if my rather fuzzy memory is to be credited) the focus was on infixation at morpheme boundaries, as in in-INFIX-credible, without much attention to prosodic factors, but the preview page of the 1980 McMillan piece linked above helpfully lists a number of different patterns, some of which involve infixation at morpheme breaks and others of which don’t. Prosodically speaking, I think you can infix just before a final syllable if the final syllable is stressed (e.g. guaran-INFIX-tee), making the stick-figure-dude’s analysis a bit off unless “awkward syllable” is an idiosyncratic way of saying “unstressed syllable.”

  7. Mike G said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:48 am

    @Phillip Lawton

    I’ll take a stab at a quick answer. According to the Wikipedia entry, “tmesis” includes such phenomena as separable prefixes. The entry also includes the following: “Another kind of tmesis involves the insertion of a word or phrase into another word, for added emphasis and often for humorous effect. The insertion may occur between the parts of a compound word, or between syllable boundaries (dystmesis), but always preceding a stressed syllable (e.g. one would never say, ‘Ab-bloody-solutely’, preferring ‘Abso-bloody-lutely’).”

    Adams (2001) quotes McMillan (1980)–both linked to above: “According to McMillan’s rule, ‘some inserts which are not expletives and which add lexical meaning to their matrices rather than emotive intensity should not be classified as infixes’ (167).”

    Taken together, these suggest that the infix, although a subset of tmesis, has specific rules that don’t apply to the broader category and so requires focused attention. Of course, there may be subtleties that I’m overlooking and correction may be forthcoming.

  8. Chris said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    Robert, I can get “ri-fucking-diculous” iff I slow my speech rate and put heavy stress on “ri”, as in “reeee-fucking-diculous”. I suspect that speech rate has a role to play in infixation, relating, perhaps, to McCarthy’s arguments regarding prosody being the driving factor (see McCarthy 1982 cited above).

  9. Mike G said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    D’oh! I wish I had known myl had already responded before I submitted my contribution. Now I just feel silly.

  10. nnyhav said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 11:32 am

    Actually, ‘expletive infixation’ is too broad a term, since there’s only one expletive involved; the proper denotation is ‘infux’.

    A-and there’s always a correct insertion point:
    Q: So, what about absolutely?
    A: Abso-fckn-lutely.
    Q: Positively?
    A: Clearly posi-fckn-tively.
    Q: I got one. Definitely.
    A: (pause) Fckn’ A.

  11. un malpaso said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 11:40 am

    I think I would fall back on “ridicu-fucking-iculous” to attempt the smoothest recovery during speech. Slightly too much trouble to interpose a “d” between the velar (probably just alveolar “n” actually in this case) nasal and the “iculous”.

    Yes, apparently I am lazy enough to consider the movement of my tongue 1 mm forward and stopping my breath for less than 100 milliseconds “too much trouble.”

    So, I am left with “ridicufuciniculous”…

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    AmEng may be lexically impoverished in this area. Absobloodylutely is perfectly cromulent in BrEng and I believe AustEng, but the morphological/prosodic rules about where the infix may or may not be placed seem to be the same.

  13. fiona hanington said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

    Does “a whole nother…” count as an infix?

  14. Toma said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    This usually works smoothly right after the “un-” prefix. “Un-fucking-believable.”
    BTW, ” Absobloodylutely ” is my new favorite word.

  15. Belial said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    Since, as someone pointed out, the insertion has to come immediately before the stressed syllable, xkcd is alas wrong that the insertion came “too late”, i.e. that the problem is there being only one syllable (awkward or not) left. “Get in the automo-fucking-bile” would be just fine. (Interestingly, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of standard English four-syllable words with the stress on the fourth syllable to illustrate this with other examples – at least, not a lot that came to the top of my head.)

  16. Steve said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    FWIW, I agree with the above comments that the best place to insert “fckng” is after the “ri-“. However, “ridicu-fckng-less” isn’t too bad, either, I think. The worst two placements would be “ridi-fckng-culous” and “ridic-fckng-ulous”, both of which are so awkward that I would wonder if the speaker was making a meta joke of some kind about the infixing meme.

    If I said “ridicu-fckng-” and realized, mid speech, that I’d missed the best off ramp two syllables ago, I would go ahead and finish it off with a, “-lous”, since that doesn’t seem all that awkward to me (unless I was so flustered at having missed the best infixation point that I panicked, in which case all bets are off).

  17. chh said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

    blahedo,

    The ‘fucking’ wants to be to the left of a stressed syllable. I’d expect the speaker in that situation to attempt to pronounce the next syllable of the word as though it had main stress. Like “ridicu-fucking-LOUS”.

    That’s my intuition, anyway, and what happens when I try to go through with saying it.

  18. Rubrick said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    Thumbs-up for nnyhav’s “infux”.

    Of interest (to me, anyway) is that the error which forms the basis of the comic is, I’m guessing, extremely rare in practice. The “decision” about “when” to insert the expletive isn’t really a decision, and isn’t really a when.

    Although it would be instructive to know if it occurred as a speech error during early language development. Perhaps we should encourage our kids to swear, in the name of Science.

  19. Jeff Carney said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    If you picture the comic with a different sort of illustration, the text can be read as genuinely bawdy (on multiple levels, even). This occurred to me when I remembered that Randall is not only linguistically savvy but LLOG-aware. I thought, “Why doesn’t he use the word infix in place of the word insert?” And then I thought, “Ahh.”

  20. pj said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer, Toma
    Alan Jay Lerner is at least one American who looks to have been familiar with the variant ‘abso-blooming-lutely‘, back in 1956.

  21. The Ridger said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

    @nnyhav: “Actually, ‘expletive infixation’ is too broad a term, since there’s only one expletive involved; the proper denotation is ‘infux’.” Not true; “bloody” may be restricted to places more Anglo than the US, but here we can say “guarandamntee”, though “damn” is generally too short, or “absogoddamnlutely”. And of course F-euphemisms (fanfreakingtastic) also exist, though arguably they are the same as words with “fucking”.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

    I assume “blooming” as an infix is merely a minced substitute for the taboo word, parallel to, say, abso-freakin-lutely?

  23. cameron said,

    November 14, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

    Americans definitely infix “damn”. I’ve heard “whoopdedamndoo” in multiple contexts.

  24. GeorgeW said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 6:23 am

    How about infixpletive?

  25. Vanya said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    “Rigoddamndiculous!” actually sounds pretty good.

    What other languages allow expletive infixation? None of the major European languages as far as I know. The next time a Spanish or a Russian speaker boasts to me about their languages’ rich resources for swearing, I may have to point out the lack of expletive infixation as a significant handicap relative to English.

  26. errorr said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    There is a famous audio clip of a John Wayne drunk of his ass say “its gettin’ to be ri-goddamn-diculou… if you don’t start thinking as men… we’re gonna have a pretty poor country. It was supposedly to an ROTC class at UCLA in 1968 and mostly involves him rambling about how those college peace protesters show no respect. Of course it was the height of the Vietnam War soooooo.

    So I can’t hear that word without ‘The Duke’ slurring it in my ear.

  27. Joe Fineman said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    Gowers, in MEU 2 s.v. tmesis, recognizes “hoo-bloody-ray” as an example. He also mentions “to usward” & “what things soever”, as well as the classical “Saxo cere comminuit brum” from Ennius.

  28. John said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    @blahedo

    “Ridicu-fucking-ridiculous” — you, my friend, should be writing for The Thick Of It. Anyone got Armando Ianucci’s number?

  29. John said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    XK-fucking-CD, or XKC-fucking-D?

  30. mark said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Rifuckingdiculous, definitely. Incidentally, what’s with the ‘fck’? Are people too lazy to type a u? In a thread that’s fixated with the correct infixation of ‘fucking’ they could hardly be bothered by the word itself, could they? That would be unbefuckinglievable. Or should that be unfuckingbelievable?

  31. Eneri Rose said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    I’m also curious about “a whole nother”, which I use quite often.

  32. RW said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    This reminded me of Alan Partridge, who has no fear of the awkward syllable.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lGAXzG2zhU

  33. chh said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

    Woah- two Armando Iannucci related comments in the same Language Log post. Did he do the same joke in both shows? I can’t find a clip for “The Thick of It”.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 17, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

    Belial: “Marionette”?

    I don’t tmete, so my intuition may be worthless, but it says “auto-fucking-mobile”?

  35. Lane said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    When people say that “rules” of English are the ones taught in school, and that they don’t know any of them, I’ve always used infixed “fucking” as an example of an implicit rule, a hard-and-fast rule everyone knows and yet no one knows they know. Exactly when to use “whom” may be tricky, but absolutely no native speaker would put “-fucking-” in anywhere but the right place in “Philafuckingdelphia” or “absofuckinglutely.”

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