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.