August 17, 2013

Eff That Noise

One of the more interesting words in English language is this one. This article will not use that word simply because I have an aversion to using it in general, but especially in a public forum. Instead, I will use the word Frack. It loses some of the strength of the invective, but if you do the translation, you'll get the general idea of where I'm going. Do the translation everywhere you see the word Frack.

This article is not so much about the word, because the Wikipedia article to which I pointed you already has a very fascinating write-up. This article is more about a grammatical nuance that profanity seems to bring to English. I noticed it while I was trying to think of a motto for myself. (Hey, I was out walking and was bored out of my mind. What else was I supposed to be thinking about?) Anyway, the motto I decided I liked best was Frack the Obstacles. (But transposed inappropriately, as mentioned.)  I was going to ask a friend of mine to translate this into Latin for me. But as I thought it through, I realized that the translation was very important and had to convey the rancor of the vituperation. I wondered first if there was the vulgar equivalent in Latin, then I wondered how he would conjugate it.

To explain why that is important, I need to back up a little further to the reason why the motto appeals to me. It starts with myself and a different friend pulling into a parking space. A small tree overhung the space and my truck was really too large to fit there. However, heedless, I pulled forward all the way into the spot. The limbs of the tree screeched against the side of my truck. A mass of leaves pressed against the windshield. My friend laughed and said, “Frack that tree.”

That's how I felt as I was walking and thinking about mottoes. Frack that tree. Frack whatever is trying to stop me. I'm going where I'm going to go, and nothing is going to stop me.

Back to conjugation. There is concept in English that allows for a sentence fragment if the subject is understood. For example, if I say, “Go to hell,” the subject You is understood. If I were to translate that into another language, I would use the conjugation that implies You. For example, ¡Vas al diablo!

Unfortunately Frack is not so easy to translate. Frack that tree does not carry the same meaning as You frack that tree. The sentence Frack you! does not seem to be as effective as You frack you! (Although it is quite effective when transposed to Go frack yourself! It just seems to have a subtly different meaning.) There is one famous line in history that has a similar meaning and phrasing. Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead! I think the understood subject Everybody would work just as well. Everybody damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead! But again, that doesn't translate with frack that tree. I also wondered if the subject is understood to be self referencing. That is, I frack that tree. While closer, I am pretty sure it simply isn't true. That's not what I would mean if I said it.

The truth is that the tree is irrelevant or worse. By saying, frack that tree, I'm saying that the value of the tree is of no consequence to me. I'm saying that the tree's wishes are of no consequence to me. In fact, I hold the tree in such high contempt that I will make a conscious effort to frustrate that tree's efforts to inhibit me – even if going around or making a small adjustment would be easier for me. It holds more malice than the statement, I don't give a frack about that tree.

This leads me to the conclusion that there is a sentence structure that is allowable in English even though it has no subject. The subject is not understood. The subject is non-existent. Furthermore, it may be that the only time that this is true is when we use the verb form of Frack.

That said, there are two types of feedback I would like from the thousands of people who don't read this blog. The first would be from grammar wonks. What do you think of my conclusion? Does this warrant another exception in the English language? The second from students of Latin. Is there a translation that carries the full connotation behind phrases like Damn the torpedoes and Frack the Obstacles?

It turns out that the linked Wikipedia article shows that this is a misquotation of the quote on record. Read it for yourself and see. The original quote could have the understood subject of you as it is a direct order from the admiral.


  1. I think we're talking about the Imperative Mood here. It is an interesting grammar case (and I'm really poor at grammar). The only reason I really know about it is from my time in Latin and German, which has a bit of a richer Imperative Mood than in English. In English, the 'Frack you' construct has the implied subject and the command voice which makes it more offensive as less than a request and more of a directive (or imperative). The imperative mood drops the polite structure of a request. In German or Latin, and probably others where the verb conjugation also embeds the subject of the verb, the imperative can be even more direct - distinguishing the subject while still having the short command voice structure. The 'damn the torpedoes' example is understood by context to mean 'all of us as a group', while in German or Latin, you could use the form of 'damn' to imply the large collection of people as a subject.

    Language cases are interesting, and they make my head spin. The sense of time (past, present, future tense) would seem to be universal, but not all languages distinguish those time-based tenses. For example, Japanese has no proper future tense. They have essentially a past and non-past tense, with a verb ending similar to the English -ing to denote ongoing activity. (-te if my brief Japanese study is still correct). They also lack plural forms of nouns. For a pronoun example 'ware (wah-rey)' is a formal version of 'I', but it is doubled as 'ware ware' to denote a person speaking for a group (many of I).

    It seems obvious that a language structure gives you an insight into the way a culture thinks. But when you study another language, the truth of that is really impressive.

  2. If I understand you correctly, it seems as though Latin and German are actually better suited for conveying the sentiment behind the phrase. Your German example seems to imply that they have a culture that allows for a zeitgeist implication. "I demand that the whole world act as if that tree is not even there." (Not surprising considering this funny video you sent me.) This is great news! It means that the Latin motto will be better than an english version. Now I will hound you incessantly for the translation. To which you will probably say, "Frack your motto!" (See New Jersey's motto.)

    I look forward to your Latin translation. :-)

  3. How does it differ from being the negative of bless you? Or bless that tree. Bless that dude?
    Blessed are the poor in spirit...
    Very interesting article...
    What exactly are we looking make an exception for?
    I think your friend was simply cursing the tree. Lol.
    In which case frack, is a curse word.
    But, what do I know, I am neither of the two types you requested feedback from.

    1. See my response (manuscript) below. Also, since you found the article interesting, would you mind voting for “Interesting”?

  4. »What exactly are we looking make an exception for?
    There is a rule in grammar that says that every complete sentence must have a subject and a verb. In cases where they don't, the subject or verb is implied. The example, “Go to Hell” is allowed because the subject You is implied. The sentence, “I?” is allowed because the verb do is implied. If either the subject or verb is missing, the sentence is considered a fragment and is generally not acceptable in writing. (The state of current literary affairs, however, seems to be that anything goes and nobody cares. I rebel somewhat against that, and strive to meet the rules. Have I attained? By no means.)
    In the article above, I contend that there may be some sentences that have no subject at all and that they should not be considered fragments because the subject is enigmatic. That is the exception I seek.

    »I think your friend was simply cursing the tree. Lol. In which case
    frack, is a curse word.

    In my opinion, frack is always a curse word. It is a wonderfully nuanced and flexible curse word. If you read the Wiki article I referenced in my first link, you will see how wonderfully flexible it is. It is one of the few words (and perhaps the only curse word) which can comprise an entire sentence. The article gives the example, “Fracking fracker's fracked!” So, this article is not so much about the word, but about the sentence structure in which it was placed by my friend. To wit: “Frack that tree!”

    »How does it differ from being the negative of bless you? Or bless that tree. Bless that dude? Blessed are the poor in spirit...
    Embodied in those few lines, you have solved the entire problem. But, because I'm long-winded, I'm going to walk you through the solution as I discovered it.

    My first reaction was that there is no difference. They are, in fact, opposite kinds of phrases. Then, I decided, that there was an implied subject God. That is, the phrases could be rewritten as: “God bless that tree.” or “God bless that dude.” I was prepared to hedge against those who would claim that they have a different god or that they don't mean any god at all, when I realized that “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” is the key. Subject of that sentence is the poor in spirit. The verb is a conjugation of to be. It is simply reversed in structure. The poor in spirit are blessed, is a perfectly legitimate sentence.
    Applying this line of thinking back to your first two sentences allows me to rephrase them as “That dude/tree is blessed.” or “Dude/Tree be blessed.” When phrased that way, clearly the subject is the tree. The verb is to be.

    So, pulling back one more layer gives me the sentence, “That tree is fracked.” or “Tree, be fracked!” AKA (as you may have indicated in your comment) “Curse that tree!” I'm not so sure that an exception is needed anymore. The sentence is a statement of identity, associating the tree with frackedness. In Old English lingo, one might have said, “Fracked be that tree!” and this article would never have happened.

    Thanks Ben for clearing this up. I think the self-effacing remark in your comment is inaccurate. You know quite a bit, and are perhaps more of a grammar wonk than you suspect or care to admit.

    Venimus, Vidimus, Deus vicit

  5. Oh, and for the record, Google translate says: Pedicabo impedimenta!

    I'm not to keen on trusting Google Translate though.

  6. Some thoughts...
    pertinax, tenax, et protenus
    persistent, tenacious, and onward

    omni obstantia anathema sunt
    all obstacles are anathema


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