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David Evans (University of Nottingham)

“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”. Taboo words as emphasizers and amplifiers.


Taboo words play a special role in the world of emphatic language. Many expletives can directly replace more standard amplifiers such as very or absolutely when modifying gradable adjectives or adverbs. At the same time taboo words are unique in that they can cross the boundary within the category degree to act as either boosters (bloody good) or maximisers (bloody brilliant). They can also combine with other amplifiers and emphasiers (pretty damn good). Additionally they can be used to modify force in ungradable words (a fucking genius). Beyond this they can be used emphatically with most other parts of speech for example nouns (the bloody door), verbs (I fucking hate him) interrogatives (What the hell is that?) and even response tokens (Hell yes!).

Yet these functions are relegated to footnotes in most major grammars of English. Studies of amplifying intensification have been inconsistent in which types they choose to include; virtually all choosing to avoid dealing with fucking in spite of its frequency, especially in spoken data (McEnery & Xiao, 2004).

As part of an on-going study of intensification in English, this paper examines the use of taboo words as amplifiers and emphasizers in use with a variety of word classes across both spoken and written registers in the British National Corpus and CANCODE. It builds on work done by McEnery and Xiao by investigating their E (emphatic intensifier) category in more detail and breaking it down in a number of subcategories. In so doing it calls into question a number of the divisions such as degree and force, and gradability that Quirk et al (1985) outlined and that have formed the basis for much of the subsequent research in this area.

McEnery, A. and Xiao, Z. (2004) ‘Swearing in modern British English: the case of fuck in the BNC’. Language and Literature. 13(3). 235-268.
Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. & Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of English. Harlow: Longman

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