Lexicon Valley

# Look at All the Zero Effs You Can Give!

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Some months back on the Strong Language blog, Stephen Chrisomalis counted how many swears we can give. Quite a lot, it turns out. We can give a fuck. We can give two fucks. We can even give a million fucks. We can especially give three fucks, based on Stephen’s numbers. And this doesn’t even begin to account for all the shit’s and damn’s we can give—or, really, don’t give. See, when it comes to giving a fuck, we’re ultimately playing a zero-fucks game.

To recap parts of Stephen’s piece, the sweary construction give a fuck functions as a negative polarity item. We say I don’t give a fuck as a way to emphasize that we really don’t care. The converse, I give a fuck, is not a way we would normally express care, unless for humorous effect, which appears to be increasingly the case of late.

Stephen pointed us to two particular memes illustrating some new ways we are playing with the construction: “Look at All the Fucks I Give” and “Not a Single Fuck was Given That Day.” As he noted, these memes play with the construction’s grammar (e.g., give a fuck > a fuck was given) and countability. Stephen focused especially on the latter, observing the growing use of fuck (and shit) as count nouns: one fuck, two fucks, fucks, (+1) fucks.

Well, furthering Stephen’s observations, it seems giving a fuck has made the big mathematical leap and discovered zero. For its humor, another iteration making the online rounds, “Zero Fucks Given,” takes the giving a fuck construction literally, both logically and numerically speaking:

You don’t give a fuck.
You give no fucks.
∴ You give zero fucks.
QED.

A watertight proof, eh?

Curiously, neither I give zero fucks nor I don’t give zero fucks quite grammatically add up to my ears, which may be pushing zero fucks into the latest usage I’ve heard: zero-fucks, used not as a noun phrase but as a modifier.

I’ve encountered the usage on Podcast for America, Slate’s weekly discussion of the 2016 U.S. presidential race. For the main segment of its most recent episode (audio below), co-host Alex Wagner asks us to consider “whether or not President Barack Obama has officially entered the zero-fucks stage of his presidency” (1:18). Alex Wagner, Mark Leibovich, and guest and former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau delight us with many wonderful iterations of this zero-fucks-X construction (segment starts at 8:41):