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Journal Of Linguistics


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 intensifies spread from wh-constructions to these constructions and, finally, to degree intensifier constructions. These two uses of taboo terms as intensifies 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.


This work is freely available courtesy of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain and Cambridge University Press.

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