fuck communication economics

Recent scholarship on fuck jurisprudence has been downloaded 28,305 times from SSRN. This scholarship ranks fifteenth among SSRN’s all-time most downloaded papers.  That’s an impressive achievement.

As an ambitious spare-time scholar, I thought of this achievement when I heard someone on the metro say, “He has no fucking idea!”  What about fuck communication economics?

Fucking in “no fucking idea” functions semantically as an intensifier.  Fuck is also a common ejaculation: fuck! Fuck and its derivative forms are verbally performed in a variety of positions: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, e.g. “he got fucked over,” “I don’t give a flying fuck,” “she’s a fucking idiot,” “that’s a fucking beautiful dog.”  In communication, fuck has achieved astonishing penetration and has been highly generative.

Fuck’s communication market success occurred despite considerable irregularity. The scholarly literature has analyzed well this irregularity:

[fuck] exhibits syntactic irregularity (e.g., the word’s noncompliance with the English reflexivization rule in allowing the object pronoun you instead of yourself in the common imprecation “Fuck you!” — cf. “Punish yourself!” or “Abuse yourself!” vs. *“Punish you!” or *“Abuse you!”); if one analyzes the common imprecation not as an imperative (with the underlying subject you) but rather as a speech act, the word exhibits pragmatic irregularity (e.g., the word’s inability to co-occur with hereby when used as a speech act verb of condemning or cursing — cf. “I hereby condemn you” and “I hereby curse you” vs *“I hereby fuck you”).[1]

Words that are irregular tend to have shorter communication industry lifetimes.  Fuck, however, has had a long history.  Some etymological evidence indicates that fuck predates the development of the English language.  Fuck appeared in an Italian-English dictionary in 1598.[2]  Many communication goods have come and gone while fuck has endured.

To better grasp fuck’s valued attributes, imagine that the word leeniddle replaced fuck.  If you fully believe that languages are fundamentally arbitrary social constructions, then words have no essential significance, and a leeniddle is as good as a fuck.  In that imagined alternate universe, the person on the metro would have said, “He has no leeniddling idea!”  If you think that’s plausible, you have no fucking common sense of the real world.

The phonological form of fuck supports its use.  The initial f blows air through lips pressed to teeth.  The short, low u echoes dread.  This efficiently monosyllabic word then ends with a harsh, explosive k.  Four-letter words have a characteristic linguistic and sensory form.  Fuck has a superb design for obscenity.

horse's ass


[1] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996.  “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at. p. 30. The phrases that have a preceding asterisk in the above quote are phrases that a competent English speaker would not normally produce.

[2] Read, Allen Walker.  1934.  “An Obscenity Symbol.” American Speech 9: 264-79, at p. 268.

formal characteristics of obscene words

Some words are perceived as shocking and in proper circumstances cause persons to turn away.  For the purposes of the following analysis, those words will be called obscene.[1]  Obscene words in English have common phonological characteristics:

  1. the form CV(C)C, where C is a consonant and V a vowel (four-letter words)
  2. the outer consonants usually are produced “by an abrupt stoppage of air in the vocal tract followed by an abrupt release,” e.g. k, t, p (hard consonants)
  3. the medial consonant usually is sonorant like l,m,n
  4. the vowel usually is short and pronounced with the tongue relatively close to the mouth’s roof, i.e. a close or high vowel [2]

These characteristics make short, violent-sounding words.  Such words are efficient and communicatively propitious for ejaculative, shocking use.  Insightful scholarship explains these characteristics through word survival under selection for these characteristics:

it seems unlikely that speakers consciously create obscene words to fit some abstract phonological form for obscene words.  This kind of competence simply does not exist.  Nor is it likely (or at least demonstrable) that obscene words, which are in some ways akin to onomatopoeic words, originate from some natural connection between meaning and sound.  It does seem highly plausible, however, that given a set of semantically related words vying for survival,those words having some match between sound and sense have an added edge in the struggle {to endure}, other things being equal.[3]

That general process also describes the evolution of biological organisms.

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[1] U.S. administrative and case law has distinguished between obscenity and indecency.  All seven words at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) include two or more of the above characteristics for the word or prominent components of the word.  Adjudicating indecency is a challenging and often challenged task.  Vagueness of indecency standards is a a central concern.  See, e.g. Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations (2009) and U.S. Supreme Court, certiorari granted, June 27, 2011, 10-1293, FCC v. Fox.

[2] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996. “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at p. 34.

[3] Id. p. 41.

prisoners make a lot of telephone calls

Securus Technologies, a leading inmate telephone service provider, recently stated that the company “now completes over 120 million calls from inmates to friends and family members per year on all its calling platforms.”[*]  Assuming that Securus handles about a third of total inmate calls, and that prisoners (inmates) in the U.S. number about 2.2 million, the Securus figure indicates that prisoners average about 14 telephone calls per month.  This total does not include the large number of calls made using contraband cell phones.

One of the busiest calling days for prisoners (and non-prisoners) is Mother’s Day.  According to Securus, “concurrent calls (calls made and completed at the same time) on its Secure Call Platform increased from 4,321 in 2009 to 8,689 in 2011 on Mother’s Day.”  Non-prisoner voice call volumes have been falling.  Reductions in telephone calling prices for prisoners may explain the large growth in prisoner telephone calls.

Call volumes for non-prisoners vary a lot across persons.  The call volume distribution tends to be a heavy-tailed distribution, with some persons making no calls and a few persons making a very large number of calls.  The call distribution for prisoners is likely to have a similar shape.

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[*] Securus press release, “Securus Technologies, Inc. Establishes New Record For Call Volumes,” dated June 15, 2011.