Obscene intensifiers (probably NSFW)

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Today's xkcd comic strip shows a graph of frequency of usage, for a variety of adjectives, of the intensifiers “fucking” and “as shit.”

It's a cute graph, and some of the adjectives are kind of entertaining. I like the phrase “fucking apropos,” for example.

However, a lot of the instances of the phrases in question don't actually consist of intensifiers modifying adjectives at all—especially the instances of “fucking,” because there are a great many random-word spam pages containing that word in which it isn't used as an intensifier.

[A day after publishing this entry, I rephrased the above sentence for clarity, and added a couple of mentions of adverbs below.]

For example, try doing a Google search for ["fucking stochastic" -xkcd]. (The “-xkcd” part is to skip all the instances that were created today in response to the comic.) That search currently tells me there are about 28 results, which is presumably the number Munroe used for the comic. But in fact, if you click through to page 2, you see only 16 results.

Of those sixteen, eight (including all six on the second page of results) are porn spam pages that happen to have the words “fucking” and “stochastic” next to each other. (Including the amusing phrase “fucking stochastic frontier models with spatial component.”)

Two more results are for the phrase “XANAX is that fucking stochastic” on a Xanax spam page.

And five are for phrases in which “fucking” doesn't modify “stochastic” (that is, where it's an adjective rather than an adverb): “Fucking stochastic shite”, “FUCKING STOCHASTIC PROCESSES” (2 identical instances), “Fucking stochastic life-support system” (2 identical instances).

So it turns out that before this comic, there was actually only one instance on the entire web of “fucking stochastic” in which “fucking” modified “stochastic”:

The times, they are achanging, but whither and how, that is beginning to look fucking stochastic.

I imagine similar things are true of other “fucking” items on the list, but I'll stop now.

I realize that I'm partly nitpicking the comic's phrasing; does it really matter whether “fucking” is modifying an adjective or just appears in the same phrase with the adjective? The numbers are interesting either way.

But I'm also disagreeing with the comic's methodology, because the word “fucking” appears on so many web pages that I think the noise will drown out the signal for a lot of the less common adjectives, resulting in the numbers not really giving useful information about how real people use language.

Then again, the whole idea of using Google results numbers to calculate linguistic answers is a little dubious. (For example, notice how the number went from 24 to 16 when I went from page 1 to page 2; and notice that nearly half of the results were effectively duplicates.)

(I posted a slightly different version of this entry as a comment in the xkcd forum, then realized it would make a good entry here.)

Added later: a comment about adverbs from a friend made me realize that this would be a simpler way of saying much of what I said above:

Munroe is assuming that, in all instances of “fucking stochastic” on the web, “fucking” is an adverb. But in fact, there's only one instance where it's actually an adverb; in all the other instances, it's either an adjective or part of a random collection of words.

6 Comments

I believe I may have to write a story entitled "Fucking Stochastic Frontier Models with Spatial Component". Or article. Or fake auction on ebay. Or something.

"I'm...disagreeing with the comic's methodology"

Without knowing the cartoonist's objective, that's surely rather difficult.

After all, if the objective was to inspire language and/or statistics bloggers to open themselves to potential public ridicule by criticising the methodology, data, and conclusions of a chart that appeared in a satirical cartoon, it could be argued that it was spot on.

Ben: I, for one, want to see that story.

(My guess about how that phrase happened: some kind of a porn-related bot was searching for phrases containing the word “models,” without realizing that there are other uses for that word.)

Mike: Hey, nice insult you've got there; so nice that it took me several readings to even figure out that it was meant to be insulting/ridiculing.

But now I get it.

I probably ought to just ignore or delete it, and I probably will do so for future such snark. But because I had already started responding before I figured out what you were saying, here's my rebuttal.

Randall Munroe writes a comic strip. It's sometimes satirical, but more often not. It often presents interesting (and sometimes also entertaining) data in graphical form. Presumably, some of those presentations are at least partly tongue-in-cheek, and intended to entertain. Nonetheless, I take it as given that when he presents mathematical data in the strip, he has actually done the research he claims to have done, and has obtained the results he's claimed to have obtained; that's part of the charm of the strip.

Therefore, regardless of whether he had any meta-intent along the lines you suggest (which I find really unlikely anyway), he used a particular system/algorithm to obtain certain results, which he then published. The title of his graph is “Frequency with which various adjectives are intensified with obscenities (based on Google hits).”

My claim is that the system he used did not produce the results that he claimed they produced. Which is to say, his methodology is flawed.

Now back to your comment: it kind of looks to me like you may be unfamiliar with my blog here. If you read more of it, you'll find that I address a very wide range of language-related topics, a great many of which are silly, insubstantial, and/or frivolous.

When I see something online about language that interests me, I often post about it. Often at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

Munroe's graph piqued my interest. So I followed up, tried an experiment myself, and posted about it.

You appear to be falling victim to the same kind of mistake you're accusing me of making: taking something too seriously that wasn't intended to be a Deadly Serious Important Topic.

Of course, it's possible that you're a well-known Joke Commenter, and that you go around posting tongue-in-cheek insults on people's blogs, and that I'm taking your comment too seriously. In which case I apologize.

I don't know much about grammar, so I know just enough to be perplexed by the idea that in Fucking stochastic life-support system the word fucking is not an intensifier of stochastic.

Is your idea that fucking is intended to modify life-support system directly? That is, this is closer to big red wagon than to bright red wagon? Where the wagon is independently a big wagon and a red wagon, the life support system is independently a fucking life-support system and a stochastic life-support system?

The writer is talking about the chanciness of the weather—I think that his complaint is that the life-support system is not just stochastic but totally fucking stochastic, I mean really in-fucking-credibly stochastic, utterly stochastic as shit, that it is, in point of fact, stochastic up the ass. Are you in disagreement?

Two points here: (1) this is actually kind of a serious question, (B) I'm just fucking with the ghits, and (iii) it is coming down cats and freaking dogs here, dammit.

Thanks,
-V.

Huh—I think you may be right.

I read the original phrase as a complaint about a life-support system being bad—yeah, like big red wagon. Like “This life-support system sucks, and also it's stochastic.”

But I wasn't quite sure what about the life-support system sucked, and I didn't give it any thought.

So your reading, in which weather is a life-support system that is not only random but extremely random, makes more sense.

One interesting thing about this to me is that I think if we'd heard the phrase spoken, the intonation might have disambiguated; I think one reading gives more stress to life and the other to as. But I'm not sure of that.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying the phrase!

And though your comment means having to admit I was wrong about that phrase, it lets me take comfort in the thought that it adds further evidence to my belief that Munroe's methodology was flawed. Because it suggests that even smart human readers may not always accurately determine whether a given use is the sort of use he's looking for, so relying on a Google count is even less useful in general than I was saying.

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This page contains a single entry by Jed published on September 27, 2010 10:45 AM.

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