Lexicon Valley

Why Swearing Is Just Like Saying “Please” (Sort Of)

The Wolf isn’t here to say please. 

Courtesy of Miramax Films

There’s a memorable scene in Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction. It’s just after John Travolta’s trigger-happy character, Vincent Vega, ham-handedly shoots the kid in the car. “The Wolf” is sent to fix the mess, stalks in, and immediately starts firing staccato orders. But at some point, Vincent interrupts his volley of imperatives with a sullen “A ‘please’ would be nice”—and stops The Wolf cold.

Now this is the cool part, linguistically speaking. What could Vincent have possibly found so unpalatable? Not the content of The Wolf’s orders, surely: They were clear as could be. Not the intent: The Wolf was there to save his ass, and he knew it! No, the real problem was The Wolf’s no-nonsense and brusque tone.

Terms like “please” don’t actually add more information to the sentence, they provide commentary on it. If The Wolf had said: “Please scoop up all those pieces of brain and skull and try to get it out of there,” he would, ultimately, still have been talking about brain and skull. But the “please” and “try” would have added another layer to the meaning, something like “I recognize I don’t have the right to order you, so I’ll frame it as a request.”

Swear words are just like “please” and “try” in this respect; only, instead of softening the edges of a request or statement, these make it sound rougher and more aggressive. If I say, “Someone stole my red guitar,” all I’m saying is that someone stole my guitar, and that the guitar was red. But if I say “Someone stole my damn guitar,” I am not saying that my guitar was stolen and that it was damned (even if I’m in a death-metal band). Instead, I’m saying that someone stole my guitar and that I’m pissed off about it.

Linguistics professor Geoff Pullum writes that “Damn has the syntax of an attributive adjective but the semantics of a scowl.” Other cuss terms like fucking (in “fucking furious”) or the hell (in “what the hell”) may be adverbs or nouns instead of adjectives but, in terms of their meaning, they’re ultimately also the verbal equivalent of a scowl.

Philosopher Paul Grice coined a term for such items and the extra flourish they add to the primary sentence meaning—much like a musical overtone to the main melody. He called them conventional implicatures. The “implicature” tells us their meaning is somehow separate from that of the rest of the sentence: It’s implied, rather than stated directly. The “conventional” tells us that such terms draw on conventional practices and so are often culture-specific.

So if a British English speaker says “Hand me that bloody knife,” she is telling you to give her the knife, but is additionally conveying her annoyance about something else in that context. But bloody doesn’t have this conventional meaning in American English: Someone who is unaware of its slangy use (like, say, my American husband’s 96-year-old grandmother) may be excused for worrying that someone has cut themselves.

In other cases, the sentence may be genuinely ambiguous, even within a culture, and need a proper context to disambiguate it. Like when my husband excitedly exclaimed “Look at those fucking monkeys!” upon spotting some monkeys in a playground near my parents’ house in India. I had assumed he had used fucking to convey his amazement at seeing monkeys outside the zoo (he’s American, after all). But when I looked over, I saw some busily copulating monkeys: no implicature at all, but you had to be there to know for sure.

Why are conventional implicatures so linguistically interesting? Turns out, these little suckers, innocuous as they seem, are actually quite tricky for a famous theory about sentence meaning. “The Compositionality Principle,” from 19th-century German logician Gottlob Frege, says that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of all and only the words in it, and how they are put together. In other words, a sentence should be exactly the sum of its parts.

The thing is, when we look at a normal string of words like “the red guitar,” the Compositionality Principle seems like a great idea. As we’ve noticed already, a red guitar is also a guitar that is red.

But when we also include terms like damn, please, and fricking, we run into problems: They’re clearly a part of the sentence, but their meaning is more about the rest of the utterance than in it. So, in our earlier sentence “Someone stole my damn guitar,” it’s almost as if damn makes up a different sentence all by itself, something like “I am pissed off about it.” Words like please, (British) bloody, and fucking also make up separate sentences in this way. This is why a damn guitar isn’t a guitar that is damned anymore than “please give me that book” tells you to give me the book in a pleasing way. The meanings of these items don’t add up as simply—because they operate on a different level altogether.

And that brings us back to Pulp Fiction. Vincent’s complaint paves the way for a brilliantly Tarantino-esque exposé on rhetoric. “Get it straight buster,” the Wolf barks. “I am not here to say ‘please.’ I am here to tell you what to do. … If I’m curt with you, it’s because time is a factor. … So pretty please, with sugar on top, clean the fucking car.” Please isn’t an adjective with the semantics of a scowl: It’s an adverb (of sorts) with the semantics of a smile. Travolta’s Vincent, like so many of us, just wanted a fucking smile.

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