Obscene intensificatory adverb frequencies

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In the latest xkcd cartoon you can see a graph on which the frequency of intensificatory adverbs (fucking ____ in red, and ____ as shit in blue) accompanying a selection of adjectives, from annoying and pissed down through broadly decreasing frequencies to fungible and peristeronic. (The latter really does exist, and really does mean "of or pertaining to pigeons".)

Looks like the result of a Breakfast Experiment™ — with the small exception that Mark Liberman actually runs R scripts on billion-word corpora to get his Breakfast Experiment™ results, where I suspect our beloved cartoonist might (am I being ungracious to think this?*) have made the results up for our reading pleasure and amused speculation.

Of course, it would be possible to check. I'd bet my laptop and my salami sandwich lunch that fucking pissed consistently outranks fucking fungible on frequency, naturally, and I thought that even before I checked the raw Google hits (77,000 hits versus 8 hits seems solid). But I haven't checked them all with careful counts on real corpora of text, because I have to go and teach phonetics now. See you later.

*[OK, I'm back from class to read a slew of comments pointing out that I was being ungracious, and in fact I was being totally dumb. It even says on the cartoon that it's based on Google hit counts. In fact the counts seem to have been normalized to allow for the fact that pissed is much more frequent than fungible from the get-go, and so on for the other adjectives. See all the comments below rightly reprimanding me for my careless hasty reading. The research on these collocations actually touches on some interesting facts about style and register: in the kinds of texts where you use learned adjectives you're usually not swearing, and in the kind where you use commonplace crude words like pissed you are vastly more likely to be swearing. There's actual linguistics here, as many of you have noted.]


  1. Barney said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    I don't know if you're being ungracious, but I think you may not have been reading enough XKCD if you think that the results are made up. I haven't checked either, but I'd be surprised if they're not genuine search engine hit counts.

    Randal has done several 'comics' that are really visualisations of real data, such as gravity well depths and a map of the internet arranged by IP address. His 'color names if you're a girl/guy' comic did have made up data, but then he put it right by doing an internet survey to find out what colour names people actually use and test for gender differences. (women tended to use slightly more detailed colour names)

  2. Will said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:20 am

    Right at the top it says "Based on Google Hits". Not the most scientific of methods for sure, but also certainly not made up.

    [Amazing carelessness on my part not to have noticed the words "BASED ON GOOGLE HITS! Sorry about that. With only ten minutes to go before class I glanced too little and wrote too fast! Quite right, he has actually done it with Google counts. —GKP]

  3. Barney said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:21 am

    It's will be worth reading the forum entry at http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=64557 along with this discussion. Someone there has said that they've "checked four or five points and they all seem to be plotted in the proper place."

  4. David said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:26 am

    Now you've written the article the number of hits for this phrase has increased largely

  5. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    Randall has done these kind of things before ("strip games") for example, and I trust him to get the numbers right. At the time of posting, that is.

    "Peristeronic as shit" currently has 2 google hits, which puts that point to the right of "annoying as shit" already.

  6. SeanH said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    Barney: a minor correction, which I only recall because Munroe had a blog post explaining it. His colour survey did not separate by gender, but by chromosomal sex (as I recall, the question was something like: "Do you have an XY chromosome pair? If you are unsure, answer "yes" if biologically male at birth, "no" if biologically female at birth"). The question is germane to the likelihood of colour blindness.

  7. Yuval said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:36 am

    It also says the numbers are relative (to the general # of hits the adjective gets), so GKP's pissed/fungible test is meaningless.

  8. Will said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:37 am

    Of course, the xkcd itself changes the numbers over time. As Eugene noted, "Peristeronic as shit" has is already getting hits.

    And "strip iterated prisoner's dilemma", with zero hits at the time of that comic, now has 316 hits.

    And there's this classic one as well: http://xkcd.com/369/. "Died in a blogging accident" had 2 hits at the time of posting, and now has 1790 hits.

  9. Okko said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    I think the results are sound.

    In addition, if I get this right, what is being ranked is not the relative frequency of "f*ing pissed" vs "f*ing fungible" rather than that of "f*ing pissed" vs just "pissed" without modification, the scale being ln(intensified/alone).

    Granted, the fact that the ranking also seems to correlate to the "commonness" of word-use is interesting in itself. I wonder if the same would hold if the intensifier wasn't by obscenity (e.g. by adding "highly ___"). A quick spot check indicates for example that "highly fungible" ranks higher (-4) than "highly pissed" (-7) so that intensification-by-obscenity correlates with "commonness".

  10. Will said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    Something that just occurred to me is that in phrases like "fucking [adjective]", fucking must be an intensifier. On the other hand, in "[adjective] as shit", as shit might be an intensifier, but it it's also possible it's just a description. I wonder how "[adjective] as fuck" would compare (since as fuck in this construction must be an intensifier).

  11. Will said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    And I understand that it practice as shit will almost always be in intensifier, but the mere possibility of ambiguity might affect the frequencies in a noticeable way.

  12. AlexB said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    From now on, I'll start using 'fucking peristeronic' at every possible occasion.

  13. Richard D. Morey said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    @Will, since the numbers plotted are relative to the frequency of the adjective, your point about ambiguity only applies to a couple of words on the list. The only adjectives on the list that it makes sense to apply to feces are "disgusting," and "delicious" (as in not) — and then maybe, piquant (ew).

  14. David said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    "Fucking peristeronic" will have more hits than "peristeronic" by lunchtime, EDT.

    [Yes it will; but normalizing to take account of how rare peristeronic is will make sure it is still low down in the list. —GKP]

  15. iching said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 6:41 am

    What Yuvo and Okko said.

    The scale is Ln(Hits for intensified phrase/hits for adjective alone). Ln means "natural logarithm" or "logarithm to base e", so on that scale -5= about 6,700 per million (or just under 1%). This shows that the words "annoying", "pissed" and "stupid" are likely to attract the f-word almost 1% of the time. In my opinion this is an impressively high statistic. BTW my 83 year old mother came out with the f-bomb (is that an Australianism?) the other day, for the first time I can ever recall in my life. I was so surprised I can't for the life of me remember whether or not the following word was "annoyed", "pissed" or "stupid". FYI, the probabilities for the other X-scale points (in parts per million) are:
    -17 (0.04), -16 (0.1), -15 (0.3), -14 ( 0.8), -13 (2),
    -12 (6), -11 (17), -10 ( 45), -9 (123), -8 (335), -7 (912),
    -6 (2500 )

  16. Acilius said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    "Fucking ineffable" is as brilliant as shit.

  17. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    @Will, who wrote, "in phrases like 'fucking [adjective]', fucking must be an intensifier": that may be true, but word-sequences like "fucking [adjective]" aren't guaranteed to be phrases. Even if we ignore uses of the gerund-participle of "fuck", "fucking" can also be used as a non-intensifying expletive (for example, "fucking [nationality-adjective] people" clearly does not mean "very [nationality-adjective] people"; something like "fucking annoying people" is ambiguous).

  18. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    This is a nice example of the observer effect wherein the observation alters the value measured. Perhaps we should formally describe a messenger effect that changes social phenomena by virtue of revealing their existence.

  19. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    I suspected that "kafkaesque as shit" shouldn't be "never" (Anglophones living in Prague might say this a lot, along with "fucking kafkaesque" and "literally kafkaesque" and every other possible amplification of the term).

    On the first page there were two hits, and I was smug, but on further inspection I noticed they were post-xkcd.

    Oh well.

  20. Brett R said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    I'm surprised to see GKP referring to as shit as an adverb, especially when xkcd doesn't.

  21. arensb said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    What I found odd about that strip is the distance between data points for "delicious" and "obscene": people are more likely to use "delicious as shit" as a synonym for "fucking delicious", than they are to use "obscene as shit" as a synonym for "fucking obscene".

    This strikes me as odd, because a) shit isn't delicious, and b) shit is obscene in many contexts.

    On second thought, if people paid attention to what they were saying, I wouldn't hear "I could care less" quite so often.

  22. James C. said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    For those of you confused about the status of “fucking _”, I recommend reading Quang Phuc Dong’s excellent “English sentences without overt grammatical subject”. See http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001888.php for an introduction.

  23. Barney said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur

    I think in most sentences with a phrase like "fucking [nationality-adjective] people", the 'fucking' is there to intensify the sentence as a whole, rather than just the adjective. Or rather intensifies the adjective, but not to show how strongly the people posses their nationality, but to show how strongly the author feels about their nationality.

  24. groki said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    great comic, but:

    – did double counting of constructions like "fucking annoying as shit" taint the stats?

    – where's that footnote for "disgusting as shit"?

    fucking pedantic as shit types want to know!

  25. ignoramus said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    such effluent linguistics about a useless word that replaces "eh!"

  26. Will said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    effluent as shit

  27. Rubrick said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    Fucking pigeons.

  28. J Lee said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:43 am

    Definitely read Dong's work. Fuck Lyndon Johnson!

  29. Stavin Chain said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    @ arensb

    You say,
    'If people paid attention to what they were saying, I wouldn't hear "I could care less" quite so often.'

    People, in fact, *do* pay attention to what they're saying and that's precisely why phrases become catch-phrases. I first heard "I could care less!" used by members of the basic-training cadre at Fort Leonard, MO, in 1959. It sounded *incredibly* strange to all us trainees. We began to use it ourselves to *mock* the cadre, made up of hillbillies, blacks, and Puerto-Ricans, who otherwise owned our formerly-civilian asses, regardless of race, creed, color, or previous condition of servitude. But, because we heard it so often and *used" it so often, the formerly almost-unbelievable mangling of sentential semantics became "standard," part of the essence of being a soldier.
    After I left the military, I stopped using this, because, on Civvy St., the reaction of hearers was that of arensb. But others, no doubt, continue or begin to use "I could care less!" precisely because their *intention* is to annoy people like arensb. A friend once objected to my use of "I'm hip!" instead "I agree! You're right!" or some such. I needn't describe how that worked out for him.

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