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Academic Paper


Title: Just for the hell of it: A comparison of two taboo-term constructions
Author: Jack Hoeksema
Institution: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Institution: Swarthmore College
Linguistic Field: Historical Linguistics; Semantics; Sociolinguistics
Subject Language: English
Abstract: The two English constructions exemplified in 'Let's get the hell out of here' (type G) and 'They beat the hell out of him' (type B) differ both syntactically and semantically, but in both the taboo expression has the force of an intensifier. History (through a corpus investigation) reveals that the B-construction started as a literal exorcism (beat the devil out of someone), where the hell substituted for the devil, and semantic bleaching ultimately made the literal sense give way to simple emphasis, with any taboo term jumping in. The G-construction may have developed simultaneously, always as an intensifier – or, perhaps, later, on analogy with B. Our analysis suggests that the use of taboo terms as intensifiers spread from wh-constructions to these constructions and, finally, to degree intensifier constructions. These two uses of taboo terms as intensifiers are best characterized in terms of constructions and thus offer evidence against theories lacking any notion of constructions as basic building blocks. Further, they give us information about language change: a pragmatically unified but semantically disparate class of expressions (namely, taboo terms) can extend its distribution in parallel.

CUP at LINGUIST

This article appears in Journal of Linguistics Vol. 44, Issue 2, which you can read on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .



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