On not giving a …

October 9, 2009 § 9 Comments

This post may damage  our reputations as linguists.  Many people assume that linguists is all about and only about etymology … the origins of words and phrases.  Other academics often stop me and ask me to explain the origins of words. I smile and say I’m not that kind of linguist and then point them to the Oxford English Dictionary online via the Massey Library website.  Frankly,  I do this because I couldn’t give a fig about the origins of most words. Well actually I do, but honestly I am not that kind of linguist.  Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to investigate that fig I’m not giving.  First of all, let’s do what syntacticians might call a substitution test.

As can be seen from the google corpus below, there are plenty of things we might not give:

  • couldn’t give a rat’s ass
  • couldn’t give a hoot
  • couldn’t give a shite
  • couldn’t give a damn
  • couldn’t give a toss
  • couldn’t give a fuck
  • couldn’t give a flying fuck at a rolling donut

In fact as Ian Stuart-Hamilton (2007, p.62) suggests 

[t]he phrase is followed by a single word or another phrase. The meaning is that the speaker has no interest in whatever is under discussion. The phrase varies enormously in politeness depending on the precise words used.

Paradoxically we might presume that fig is a more euphemistic option compared to the other forms, but according to some fig makes reference to an obscene gesture seen in Spain and Italy.  The gesture, far fico, in Italian, is made by closing the fist and pushing the thumb so the tip is visible between the fingers. This is intended as a reference to female genitalia, as referenced in the extremely pejorative Italian, fica.  Apparently, in polite company this is replaced by fico ‘fig’.

This may be why the phrase “couldn’t give a X” seems to attract a taboo form as the direct object.  The next question might be though, why a rat’s arse and not any other animal’s posterior.




Stuart-Hamilton, Ian (2007). An Asperger’s dictionary of everyday phrases. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.




§ 9 Responses to On not giving a …

  • masseylinguists says:

    While exploring the question of why a rat’s ass, I discovered this site, a mock wikipedia.

    Dodgy but quite amusing spoof of wikipedia

  • Philip says:

    Well, often I:

    couldn’t give a monkey’s
    couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss
    couldn’t give a continental

  • masseylinguists says:

    Thanks for a giving enough of a monkey’s to comment!

  • Philip says:

    And sometimes I:

    couldn’t give a rusty fuck. (1930’s) US
    couldn’t give a stuff. (1990’s+) NZ Aus
    couldn’t give a cat’s ass.(1990’s+) US

    I’m done now.

  • masseylinguists says:

    “A continental”? I had never heard that one before. But a quick google search suggests it is extremely common. Any idea whether there is an elided noun after continental?

  • Philip says:

    ““A continental”? I had never heard that one before.”

    That’s interesting, neither had my partner but for me it’s a most familiar saying; I had put that down to my father using it-he was English- and it having something to do with the Europe-British divide. It seems though that ‘continental,’ originated from the U.S. after a coin issued during the War of Independence by the Continental Congress became worthless once that war was over.

    From this then came, ‘not worth a continental copper,’ and later ‘couldn’t give a continental cuss,’ and ‘…continental damn.’ Apparently in the U.S. these terms have all but disappeared but when used are another polite form of ‘couldn’t give a fuck,’- that fits as the Americans saw Europe as having an overly free attitude towards sexual behaviour. (Thanks to Jonathon Green and his superb ‘Cassel’s Dictionary of Slang,’ for this information.)

    A Google search also gives ‘couldn’t give a continental hoot,’ and ‘…two continental hoots.’ This is familiar to me, too. I like the sound of ‘Couldn’t give a flying continental,’ but must admit I don’t recall having ever heard it and it’s unlikely to ever catch on now, is it?

  • masseylinguists says:

    I like how people keep upping the ante – I couldn’t give a hoot gets outdone by not giving two hoots … Do I hear three hoots?
    Thanks for the comment, Philip. Nice work!

  • Philip says:

    I looked but couldn’t find an example of three hoots/monkeys/rats’ asses/tinkers’ cusses, or anything similar.

    To veer slightly off the subject, though, I did find whilst looking for the above, ‘three blue beans in a blue bladder.’ Can anyone say that quickly and explain how such a tongue twister came into popular usage!

    ‘Three beans…’ means idle, pointless but noisy chatter and dates back to the 16C. Usage faded out in the early 18C. Maybe these words had a slightly different form and thus were easier to string together, then?

  • masseylinguists says:

    I don’t know for sure Philip, but it may refer back to a game played by children in Europe, where beans were put inside a blownup pig’s bladder to make a toy. Barclay’s (c.1518)account is based on his translation of an Italian text:

    Loke in the stretes beholde the little boyes Howe in fruite season for ioy they sing and hop; In Lent is eche one full busy with his top, And nowe in winter for all the greevous colde, All rent and ragged a man may them beholde. They have great pleasour, supposing well to dine, When men be busied in killing of fat swine. They get the bladder and blowe it great and thin With many beanes or peasen put within; It ratleth, soundeth and shineth clere and fayre When it is throwen and caste vp in the ayre. Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite With foote and with hande the bladder for to smite . . 81 _The Eclogues of Alexander Barclay_, ed. Beatrice White (Early Eng. Text Soc., original set., clxxv, London, 1928), p. 184.
    As discussed by Orme, E (1995) The culture of children in Medieval England. _Past and Present_ 148, 48-88.

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