Honk if you need an expletive

Running past me in an episode from the third season of Eureka (a show I’m absurdly fond of): the lead character, the town of Eureka’s Sheriff Jack Carter (played by Colin Ferguson), gasping in wonderment at the size of something or other: “that’s a honking big” whatever.

Meanwhile, out in space, Stargate SG-1‘s lead character, Col. Jack O’Neill (played by Richard Dean Anderson), is given to marvelling at “big honkin’ ” stuff, like a space gun.

This is honkin(g) the evaluative modifier, functioning either as a degree adverbial (an intensifier, specifically) or, apparently, as an adjective, and so covering some of the territory of the evaluative modifier fuckin(g), but without the taboo-word problem.

But there’s more. The verb-particle combination honk off also fills in for the taboo piss off, and the verb honk fills in for the (possibly) rude non-sexual suck, as in “Man, the way they treated you really honks big time.”

At the moment, that seems to be as far as it goes, but maybe we should look forward to things like “Kim took a huge honk right there on the living room floor — totally gross!” or “Kim doesn’t give/care a honk what other people think”.

The evaluative modifier honkin(g) has gotten most of the attention, and commenters have tried to connect it directly to the noise-making verb honk or to the related colloquial noun honker ‘nose, esp. big nose’. There may well be a historical connection, or a connection that some people have made, eggcorn-fashion, whatever the history might have been.

But the other uses suggest that something more is going on, at least some of the time — that honk has become available as a stand-in for a range of problematic monosyllables, even when (as with piss) there is no phonological relationship, not even a distant one.

Honk off can occur as honked off, an adjectival use of the PSP form, either predicatively or pre-nominally  —


One honked off Patriots fan responds to SB42 loss. (link)

or it can be used as a straightforward verb-particle combination in finite forms, including those with the verb and particle separated by a direct object —

The part that really honks me off about this is take a look at these partners in crime… (link)

(There are some occurrences of honk out with a similar sense. I’m not sure what the model here might have been — perhaps bum out or freak/creep out — but we need to look for some other historical models, since it’s hard to get from noise-making honk to either honk off or honk out semantically.)

Plain honk in finite forms works like evaluative suck, and sometimes occurs in discourse contexts with it. So, reactions to a tale about flooding in Washington State include both “that sucks!!!” and “that really honks”.

Now to honkin(g), for which the most extensive scholarly treatment seems to be in Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary (it’s in OED2, but only in the noise-making sense). The entry (from 2005) starts with some cites that could go either way, so that for this usage you can see a path from the literal sense to the purely evaluative (but by 1983 we’re clearly in evaluative territory):

adj. very large; whopping; as an intensifier or in an adverbial role, very. Colloquial

Citations1973 Road Test (Mar.) “Changing Modes” p. 115 @ Charger Muscle Portfolio 1966-1974 (1995) R.M. Clarke: The engines which powered these cars were big honking monsters with names like the 426 hemi. [1974 Don Haines Frederick Post (Md.) (July 18) “Spotlight on Speed” p. C3: Along with the big honking ’Vettes and Camaros and other mundane racers were the pale blue Matra-Simcas being massaged by crews.] 1983 Usenet: net.politics (July 27) “Re: war in the americas”: Walk softly, Henry, but carry big honkin’ cluster bombs. 1986 Peter McWilliams Chicago Tribune (Jan. 26) “Will This Little Printer Make Big Time?” p. 2: Do you take a big honking printer that weighs more than your computer, and possibly more than your wife? 1999 Sandra Byrd Petal Power (Mar. 16) p. 70: That’s going to be one honking, large happy card for ten dollars. 1999 Adam Rapp Copper Elephant (Dec.) p. 166: The color would be so honking ugly that it wouldn’t have a name. 2003 Debbie Moose News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (June 22) “That primordial desire for burgers” p. D10: Honking big burgers take too long to cook all the way through, which gives the exterior an opportunity to burn. 2005 T.R. Pearson Glad News of the Natural World (Apr. 18) p. 280: Mrs.Phillip J. King decided she’d take the candlestick off the mantel, the big ugly honking thing I’d already given to Deputy Dale. 2005 Mike Strobel Toronto Sun (Can.) (Oct. 7) “All that’s fit to print”: “This is what did it for me,” she says, and pulls out a honking big back massager. Aficionados call it The Cadillac.

Honkin(g) has a special affinity for the adjective big, both as the head it modifies (in honkin(g) big ‘very big’) and as an adjective coordinate to it (in big honkin(g) ‘big fuckin(g)’). Walloping (another modifier that seems to have strayed pretty far from its original body-contact sense) doesn’t work quite the same way — big walloping often seems to have an emphatically redundant combination of modifiers, like big gigantic — but the syntactic and semantic details need further study.

A possible nose connection came up in a 10/14/05 comment from Ben Zimmer:

I always assumed there was a connection to honker meaning ‘very large nose’. I see enough Googlehits for “big honkin(g) nose” to suggest that others have made the same connection.

but Grant Barrett countered:

I acknowledge the fact that people make the connection to honker, but so far there’s no evidence that “honking” was first used to describe noses.

Instead, honkin(g) as (often) an expletive substitute looks like a pretty good idea.

3 Responses to “Honk if you need an expletive”

  1. Rick S Says:

    I have a vague memory of some movie where sustained traffic jam honking was used to cover a fairly long tirade in the dialog, as a joke (and probably to qualify for a G or PG rating). It was well done, and humorous enough to be memorable. If it became a cultural meme, the subsitution of the word “honking” would have been a natural way of expressing it in language. The other uses might then have developed from it.

    The movie might have been one of the National Lampoon movies, with Chevy Chase. Or not, I really don’t remember.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Rick S: This might be too neat a story; certainly, we can’t expect such a story in most cases.

    But evaluative senses of adjectives often do develop from more objectively descriptive senses, through a bleaching of specific, objective content in favor of more subjective, diffuse evaluation. (There are many well-known cases in English: awesome, fabulous, fantastic, terrible, etc.; some are positive, some negative.) So it’s possible that honking could have gone from a generalized sense of ‘noisy’ to a mere expression of great extent, without there having been some specific crystallizing event.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    A footnote: honking isn’t in Sheidlower’s The F Word (3rd ed.), probably because it’s not clear that it functions as a substitute for fucking (Sheidlower lists a number of substitutes, most of them much closer phonologically to fucking than honking is).

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