“You can make nearly any object into a good insult if you put ‘you absolute’ in front of it,” says a popular Tumblr post, which has bloomed into a thread about a specific linguistic phenomenon.
Photo: Justus Blümer
The absolute sedans of Tumblr discovered that utter can also turn words into an insult, and more:
- Absolutely Xed: Drunk
- Utterly Xed: Shocked
- Completely Xed: Exhausted/overwhelmed
In the thread, the blog lyrics and language offers this explanation:
This neat feature is called collocative substitution, and it occurs when certain words are strongly linked to certain context and/or phrases. when you read/hear a pair of words that usually wouldn’t go together, your brain fills in the context with what would normally be inferred, given the originally phrased pairing.
Collocative substitution isn’t exactly a common linguistic term – Metafilter commenter Wobbuffet suggests the psychological term “paradigmatic substitution” – but the phrase scans. A collocation is a short phrase that you might not even think of as a phrase: Make the bed, feel free, close a deal. A bit of wordplay might involve changing one of those words, like a vampire who “makes the coffin” each morning. That’s collocative substitution.
So in the phrases above, the implied word is the one that most often gets collocated with the adjective. It helps that a few of the common synonyms for drunk sound like household objects: Absolutely wasted, absolutely plastered.
Over email, linguist John McWhorter tells Lifehacker about two other insulting collocations: You little X and X-arse. “The use of arse as in lame-arse, lonely-arse etc. likely started with the rather literal big-arse, with the -arse now adding a flavoring of contempt or peculiarity.”
There’s a flip side to absolute, which has enjoyed some popularity on Twitter in the sarcastic British compliment the absolute madman and this tweet praising an absolute unit:
in awe at the size of this lad. absolute unit pic.twitter.com/tbetPbQ1ew
— euro truck socialism (@mrreptoid) December 13, 2017
It feels as though absolute here is all the more powerful as a compliment because it’s more usual to see it in an insult. Context matters! And you can only stretch your substitution so far before it breaks. So as you come up with your absolute insults, make sure you haven’t accidentally complimented someone as an absolute jet fighter.
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