Expletive deficits

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Josh Marshall, "Obama on the Hoofbeats of History", TPM 7/17/2015 (emphasis added):

As the budget deficit has receded from public view, Obama's fucks deficit has come to the forefront. After six and a half years in office, he may have a small stockpile of fucks left. But he has none left to give. He is increasingly indifferent to the complaints and anger of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters. You can see it too in the more frequent lean-in-on-the-lectern moments during press conferences and speeches. He's truly out of fucks to give. 

We could stretch the metaphor into a theory of Keynesian therapy, where the prescription for an emotional downturn is to stimulate the psychic economy by running a fucks deficit. But that's the opposite of Josh's argument, and in any case we'll stick to the linguistic issues.

The linguistic mechanism here is the playful reification of what John Lawler has called the "minimal direct object" in negative-polarity expressions like give a damn. (See"Negation by association", 7/13/2004, for discussion.) A related set of constructions have been studied by Haj Ross and Paul Postal under the name of "Squatatives", and an older tradition of relevant work has described what is known as the "Jespersen cycle".

Know Your Meme documents several illustrated variants of minimal-object reification, dating back to 2010 ("Look At All The Fucks I Give", "And Not A Single Fuck Was Given That Day"), and there are many similar examples Out There (e.g."Behold! The Field In Which I Grow My Fucks", "Welcome to the room where I keep my fucks").

Those images, just to guard against future internet bit rot:

And the appropriate scientific measuring instrument:

The linguistic blogosphere has recently been tracking the language of expletive deficits:

"How many swears can we give?", Strong Language 12/14/2014
"The number of fucks you need to not give", LLOG 2/11/2015
"Hyperbolic scalar indifference", LLOG 7/14/2015

Update — A note on evolving norms:

Update #2 — Josh Marshall explains himself ("The Tall Guy and the F-Word", 7/19/2015). Interesting that he has to…

As long as I created confusion over this, here's what I meant: Obama no longer gives a fuck. I assume you don't give fucks when you simply have none left to give. It's a supply-side phenomenon, which I think squares with most our personal experience. And when I thought of Obama's sometimes achilles' heel of extreme accommodation of his adversaries, often getting little or nothing in return, it occurred to me that President Obama had been overdrawing his fucks account for sometime. Let's call it deficit spending in fucks. And now, he has none left. I noted that he may have private reserve for extreme or personal need. But basically he is out of fucks to give.


  1. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 10:56 am

    Could the president not have his cake and eat it, too, by giving "figs" instead? Everyone would know what he was saying, but couldn't object.

    [(myl) If I understand your point, you've misunderstood the post: the author of the "fucks deficit" discussion is Josh Marshall, not Barack Obama. And Josh is writing in a medium where such phrases have become largely unproblematic (though David Krantz's note indicates that some of the TPM audience was taken aback…)]

  2. Viseguy said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    This kind of playful teasing (apart) of semantic/grammatical unities puts me vaguely in mind of the "up with which I shall not put" ascribed to Churchill.

  3. Brett said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    The Doctor Who one is especially funny, I think, because (as was noted in a comment on a previous post), the Doctor is showing Tegan and Nyssa the "zero room" in that scene.

  4. Joshua said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    Within Josh Marshall's context of discussing whether Obama has no fucks left to give, what does it mean to say that he "may have a small stockpile of fucks left"?

  5. D.O. said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    Why GAFOmeter has linear scale on the positive side and a logarithmish one on the negative side? Or is it only me who has enough of those left?

  6. yastreblyansky said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

    the author of the "fucks deficit" discussion is Josh Marshall, not Barack Obama.

    Nevertheless the president did go through his "rhymes with bucket" list at the WHCD, which was a lot more pointed than figs.

  7. Ed said,

    July 18, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    {x| fuck(x) ^ give(I,x)} = ø

  8. James said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 12:00 am

    Joshua, I take that phrase to mean that Obama may possess fucks, but that he certainly has none available to distribute.

  9. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    Surely one's fucks must be more narrowly specified. If Obama truly no longer gave any fucks whatsoever, he wouldn't be making all manner of audacious policy changes or giving stirring speeches; he'd be on vacation or playing XBox or something.

    Presumably one means that he is merely no longer distributing fucks in a more specific sense, that is, no longer gives a fuck about what some other parties such as Congressional Republicans are going to do in reaction, and therefore is acting more audaciously rather than declining to act at all.

    Has the expression "not giving a fuck" acquired this more specific connotation (rather than just possessing it as one possible connotation among many) recently? In connection with our friend the honey badger, perhaps?

  10. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 19, 2015 @ 11:55 pm

    …though re-watching that video, I now realize that Randall actually repeatedly says that the honey badger doesn't give a shit. Same connotation, though. He does identify it as a "crazy fuck" at one point.

  11. David P said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

    A popular antiwar poster around 1970 was "What if they gave a war, and nobody came?"

    A variant that has stuck with me: "What if they gave a fuck, and nobody came?"

  12. ed said,

    July 25, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

    Lim give(x) = 0
    x → fucks

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