Not everyone likes to curse, and not everyone likes to hear other people curse. But at some point, everyone discovers that some words can work literally anywhere in a sentence. In English, there’s a particular word that you can put in between every single word of a given sentence–and it will still make sense. Not even if you are a big fan of some fun expletive use, meeting someone who realizes and uses this property probably gets pretty grating pretty fast. But… Why do swear words work everywhere in a sentence?
Further Reading: Why Do We Swear?
Prefixes and Suffixes
You’re probably familiar with affixes in the English language. Particularly prefixes and suffixes. Heck, the “pre-” part of “prefix” is a prefix! Affixes are modifications used to a word in order to change its meaning. Super common prefixes are things like “pre-”, “de-”, or “re-”. You can be active or you can be reactive, for example. One means you’re going and doing something, and the other means you’re doing something because something else happened. Common suffixes are things like “-ness”, “-ism”, or “-tion”. You can assume, or you can make an assumption. The first one is a verb, and the other is a noun.
Knowing that prefixes modify the beginning of a word and that suffixes modify the end–you’ve probably figured out what an infix is already. It goes and modifies a word from the inside. As a side note, the broader “affix”, which you saw earlier, indicates a modifier on the outside of a word.
Back to infixes. This isn’t a feature that you’d be familiar with at all. Not because you’re not up on your words or whatever, English has almost no true infixes. One of the very, very few true infixes you’ll ever see in English is evidence of the nasal infix. Even then, it’s mostly vestigial. That’s inserting a nasal syllable into a word as a modifier to change its meaning–phonetically that would be the “m” or “n” sound. For example, the word “stand” is the word “stood” with this infix. The difference between “confuse” and “confound” is also the result of the Latin nasal infix.
If this is going over your head, you know what an infix is if you’ve ever watched The Simpsons. You know when Homer says stuff like “edumacation”? Well the “-ma-” is an infix. It’s not considered grammatically proper, but it illustrates the point.
Now, let’s start taking words apart. While English is not big in infixes, it does feature tmeses, which is derived from the Ancient Greek for “to cut”. It’s exactly what it looks like on the tin. Tmesis is when you separate a word or phrase between two parts. You most commonly see this with expletives, but we’ll get to that.
Outside the context of being vulgar, English has a lot of phrasal verbs, in which two words basically act as one verb. For example, the phrases “turn on” or “let down” are phrasal verbs. You can often separate phrasal verbs too, remember that phrasal verbs are treated as a single unit. For example, you can tell your friend “hey, it’s because of you that I was let down.” Alternatively you can split the “let down” here. Instead, you could say “hey, you let me down.” We’re still using “let down” as the phrasal verb, but we inserted the “me”.
Now we come to expletive infixation. A good chunk of it relies on how used to splitting things we are in English. It also has to do with what an “expletive” actually is. They’re quite literally nonsense. Expletives are added to sentences (or interposed within words) to convey no literal meaning. They don’t change the meaning of the sentence, beyond conveying the urgency or emotions of the speaker or filling empty space in your sentence. Not all of them are vulgar, though. For example, when you tell your friend “it’s three o’clock”, “it’s” is an expletive. What is three o’clock exactly? The universe? Where is the time actually three? North America? Asia?
You’re just saying “it’s” because it sounds better than just screaming “THREE O’ CLOCK.”
So expletives. They’re not meant to convey literal meaning–saying “the weather is so freaking bad today” is literally the same as “the weather is so bad today”, with the exception that the first one is probably being said by someone who’s a lot angrier about the weather at the time.
Because of this, expletives can just kind of go anywhere–even in the middle of words because they are mostly meant to fill empty space. English has a lot of stressed syllables, which helps us chunk words apart pretty easily. It’s also why “abso-freaking-lutely” sounds a lot better than like “abs-freaking-olutely”. Well the second one just sounds… wrong.
If you don’t like real English swear words, what about ones used in English fiction? See if you know them here.