An occasional series in which an expert considers a matter of general linguistic interest.
# 11 Ad Quaestionem Antiqui Externauit Spinosas Erycina by Synec Doche
What do we mean when, in a final - possibly decisive - rejoinder to an ongoing argument, we tell our interlocutor simply to "f**k off"? [See, for example, Dr Norm Alkurve's response to Professor Para Bola, Right of Re-reply #287b 16 April 2020.]
Though it would appear, on the face of it, to put a firm end-marker to the conversation or, at the very least, suggest an emphatic caesura, is the use of such an expletive a mark of finality, even a triumphant culminating terminus, or a signal of conceptual and intellectual failure? Might it be interpreted as conclusive sententia finis or, simply, a sign of frustration signalling the absence of additional convincing ["clinching"] evidential argument? Further, does such a phrase begin where persuasion and rationality end - witness, as it were, to a point at which there are simply insufficient expressive means available to express a sense of mounting exhaustion, futility and continuing disagreement - or, rather, end at a point where persuasion and rationality might never begin again? Does it, then, signify terminological [or worse, explicative] poverty or hyper-emotive power; subjugation and defeat or climactic hauteur? These are important - nay at a time of locked-down, self-isolating state-enforced trauma - vital questions.
Following Paddington , most would, I think, argue, that telling one's adversary or conversational opponent to f**k off is a weak and - judged in retrospect - unsatisfactory flourish to brandish at the end of a long and one presumes initially cool-tempered encounter during which, far from meeting, minds have instead diverged. Recollected in tranquillity few surely would argue that shouting "f**k off" before exiting stage left [quite possibly into a broom cupboard] or slamming a door [leaving one or more digits behind] represents the apogee of any speaker's persuasive linguistic achievement. Rather - and this is of course far too simplistic - it is often taken to imply that they have "lost it", "blown a fuse", "lost grip", "surrendered the moral high ground" or simply "done one".
However, pace Euston , I am inclined to agree with Waterloo  who, quoting St Pancras  famously said "Qui cum feris convenit ratione pertinax vis eius exibit de contemnenda gloria ejus est pellis magis nasum et labia tua" [roughly "He who meets stubborn logic with brutal force will emerge with scorn on his lips but more skin on his nose". Though an ancient insight - quite possibly Hellenistic in origin via Hypatia - I believe it is one from which we can still learn a great deal today.
Perhaps those who incline towards the diminishment of the value of expletives in any - though particularly in fraught - argument [eg Fenchurch-Street  "Swearing is the blunt force trauma of open persuasion" or Moorgate  "When I tell someone to f**k off they generally head-butt me into next week"] miss an important point which those who favour their use more readily understand: the sheer satisfaction of staring an annoying argumentative little f****r in the face and, spittle well-loaded, simply telling them to "f**k off" with all the power one can muster [eg Kensal-Green [1916, Blackfriars [1886, Charing & Cross ]. To those who doubt the redemptive power of such a moment, I can only say: "try it" though possibly not on one's mother-in-law in the first instance.
It will be clear then that in the case of this spinosa quaestio [thorny question] that despite centuries of debate, nothing much has yet been properly settled - unless, of course, having exhausted one's own patience in the whole matter, one inclines to the phrase - nay even to the terminal resolution - "oh f**k it!" and just leave it at that.
Placed between a rock and a hard place, when push comes to shove, sailing between Scylla and Charybdis and facing the strict disciple of a Procrustean bed, I would incline to the latter [see Finsbury Park  The Art of the Putdown [Unputdownable Books] pp61-73].
What the f**k brought this on? [Ed]