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.

Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t give any. Except maybe at the Cannes Film Festival, where he’s shown here on May 15, 2013.

Photo by Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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):

I think this zero-fucks-X has a lot going for it. It expands the ways we can express this idea of giving zero fucks. The hashtag-like commentary of zero fucks given, for instance, is limited in its applications. Zero-fucks-X really opens up its descriptive power: He has a zero-fucks attitude about Instagram or She’s having a zero-fucks day at the office.

But what, at the core, do we even need to describe as zero-fucks? This is its real magic, I think. In 2015, giving zero fucks isn’t about not caring per se. Giving zero fucks is about an I’m-over-it ignoring of haters, trolls, and bullies, to draw on some popular vernacular; it’s about leaning in, #beingyourself, having swagger, no more ass-kissing or bullshit-taking. But this is a two-sided fuck, if you will. A zero-fucks approach can have a liberating assertiveness and self-confidence, but it also runs the risk of being heedless, uncompromising, irresponsible, or unfeeling, as Emma Gray smartly warned in her exhortation for us to give more fucks. This is an age-old tension for the individual in society, of course, but one that seems like it’s being more intensely staged in the modern psyche, on Twitter feeds, and American politics.

So, will zero-fucks add up to much? Who the fuck am I to say, but I do think it fills a semantic space. I’m hard-pressed for alternatives: devil-may-carenonchalantfoolhardy? None of these quite do the job nor capture the particular shade that zero fucks has in today’s cultural space. But so much of our cultural space these days is quick to change. So I, for one, hope to see the next items in the sequence of zero-fucks-X: zip-fuckszilch-fucksnada-fucksnil-nought-aught-fucks. Hell, big ole goose-egg-fucks. Whatever the case, we do love our fucks, even when there’s not a single fuck around to love.