hoot(er) (was: foutre)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Aug 30 07:13:38 UTC 2000

At 2:11 PM -0400 8/30/00, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>Well, it's only a speculation off the top of my head, and I am not trying
>to sell it too strongly. However ...
>(1) "I don't give ...": In my own experience, the likely choices include "a
>damn" (plus euphemisms "a darn" etc.), "a shit", "two shits", "a f*ck", "a
>rat's ass", "a hoot", "two hoots", etc. All rude, except for "hoot" .... I
>don't hear "a jot", "a tittle", "a peep", "a squeak", etc., in this
>expression. I think there's some tendency to want a rude expression here,
>rather than a diminutive or an animal sound.
>[Incidentally, "not give a damn" is thought by some to derive from "not
>give a dam", a dam being a small unit of currency in India. Is this
>derivation legitimate, or is it an elevated type of 'folk etymology'?]
>(2) I think "fout[re]" is closer to "hoot[er]" than other things such as
>"jot" are. [But perhaps I'm influenced by Japanese, where 'fu' and 'hu' are
>absolutely identical (with bilabial 'f') ... Does bilabial 'f' occur in
>some varieties of French, BTW?]
>(3) "F*ck all" is not analogous word-for-word, but it's another example of
>the popular desire for a rude word in a certain context. "He doesn't know
>..." (intensive) is filled (in my experience) by "shit" ("diddly",
>"doodly", "squat", "beans" euphemisms for this, I think), "f*ck all"
>(occasionally "f*ck" alone), "bugger all", etc. Perhaps "zilch", "zip" are
>exceptions, perhaps partly euphemisms.
>For those sensitive individuals who object not only to rude words but also
>to their transparent euphemisms, 'hoot' might be the only polite way to
>fill "I don't give a ..." -- perhaps because 'foutre' is no longer
>recognizable to the average English-speaker, so that 'hoot' is no longer
>recognized as its alteration or euphemism.
OK, I'm open to persuasion.  But I thought we were talking about how
these expressions evolved rather than which expressions are likely to
be uttered today, so the evidence I was alluding to is germane.  This
discussion is reproduced from my 1989 book, _A Natural History of
Negation_, p. 400:
        Minimizers, those 'partially stereotyped equivalents of any'
(Bolinger 1972: 121; cf. 6.4 above), occur within the scope of a
negation as a way of reinforcing that negation.  As far back as Pott
(1857: 410), linguists have recognized this function of positive
expressions denoting small or negligeable quantities, often
incorporating a sense of scorn or ridicule, which Pott sees as
implicitly evoking the formula  nicht einmal das 'not even...'; cf.
also Schmerling 1971, Horn 1971, Fauconnier 1975a,b, Heim 1984.
Impressive, though hardly exhaustive, inventories of NPI minimizers
specialized for this function are given by Pott (1857: 410-11) and
Wagenaar (1930: 74-5).  Their examples--from Sanskrit, Greek, Latin,
French, Old Spanish, Italian, English, Dutch, German, and
Slavic--include minimal quantities from the culinary domain (= 'not a
cherrystone, a chestnut, a crumb, an egg, a fava, a fig, a garlic, a
grain, a leek, an oyster, a parsnip, a pea,...'), coins of little
value (='not a dinero, sou,...' [cf. not a red cent, plugged nickel,
thin dime]), animals and body parts (='not a cat's tail, a hair, a
mosquito, a lobster[!], a sparrow'), and other objects of little
value and/or salience (='not an accent , an atom, a nail, a pinecone,
a point, a shred, a splinter, a straw').  Indeed, it would appear
that any entity whose extension is small enough to be regarded as
atomic in an accessible set of contexts can be used productively in
this frame as a means of negative reinforcement.
        Nor is this tendency by any means restricted to
Indo-European.  Negative-polarity minimizers occur as negation
strengtheners in Basque (cf. Lafitte 1962), in Japanese (cf. McGloin
1976: 397-419), and in many other languages.
Now the syntactic frame will narrow down the class of possible
fillers, so that "not worth ___" will differ from "not give (a)
_____", which will differ from "not care (a) _____", which will
differ from "not know ___ about", but it should be noted that it's
not only or even primarily obscenities that occur here.  In fact, the
standard French negative markers "PAS", "RIEN", etc. originated in
just this way ('I didn't walk a step', as in Eng. 'I didn't sleep a
wink').  The class of squatitives you mention--(diddly) squat, shit,
fuck-all, zip, zilch--are in some ways the modern English analogues
of Fr. PAS. Incidentally, Dutch is even more creative than English in
its invocation of negative polarity drecatives, allowing for
colloquial sentences translating literally as 'Nobody understood a
{scrotum/ball/hole/testicle/sodomite/devil} of it', as Gertjan Postma
has discussed.

I'm still not convinced about the "foutre" > "hoot(er)" move, though,
especially since the alternation of the initial consonants is less
plausible in English and French than in Japanese.

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