Of all the euphemism I’ve heard for language that is likely to offend uptight folks, “Adult Language” is probably my favorite one. The rest tend to be divided among a few categories: the religious, the judgmental, and the silly. The religious ones include such things as “cursing,” “swearing,” and “profanity;” the judgmental ones offer a disparaging evaluation of the type of language, i.e. “low,” “crude,” “crass,” “foul,” “base,” and “vulgar;” and as for the silly ones, I’m most amused by “naughty,” “dirty,” and “blue.” But then again, I’m generally amused when I hear grown up people using the term “naughty.”
“Adult Language” isn’t necessarily a precise term, either. I can personally attest to the fact that I’ve heard people under the age of majority use some of these terms. But then again accuracy isn’t the point. I’m not sure there’s any empirical data to support the commonly held belief that sailors and truckers and long-shoremen swear more frequently than people in other lines of work. But I digress.
I want to talk about a particular bit of “adult language” that’s been in the news recently. So if that type of thing bothers you, stop reading now. If you’re okay with language, follow me after the jump.
I’ve been a bit bothered by the recent tendency to euphemistically refer to the word “fuck” as a weapon, i.e. the “F Bomb.” I can’t recall ever hearing of anyone ever being maimed or killed when this bomb was dropped. Perhaps some religious conservative father somewhere had a heart-attack at Thanksgiving dinner when his sophomore daughter, back from some damn hippie liberal arts college somewhere finally got up the nerve to drop this word into conversation after using it frequently for the past six years out of his earshot… but still. Like most words, this particular one doesn’t actually have the power to instantaneously kill dozens (or millions) of people at a time as real bombs do. So what’s the deal? Why such fear of this simple, flexible, ordinary word?
I turn again to my trusty Oxford American Dictionary…
The usage note provided at the end of the entry really amuses me. “Despite the wideness and proliferation of its use in many sections of society, the word fuck remains (and has been for centuries) one of the most taboo words in English. Until relatively recently, it rarely appeared in print; even today, there are a number of euphemistic ways of referring to it in speech and writing, e.g., the F-word, f***, or f—k.” [original emphasis retained]
One of the most taboo words in English. Is it because of the act it refers to? Is that what bothers people? Definition: “to have sexual intercourse with.” Oooh. We can say fornicate, copulate, screw, mate, or even “make love” and those things are fine. Or, if not fine, then at least more acceptable. Certainly not superlative in terms English usage.
Part of it must be the sound of the word. A monosyllabic utterance consisting of a voiceless labio-dental fricative followed by a short vowel followed by a lingua-velar stop. It’s a pretty special combination. You can really wind up on that fricative [f], stretch that vowel for as long as your air lasts, and then slam hard into that hard k sound at the end. That’s really what it must be: the hard k sound. James Lipton, the guy who does those Inside the Actors Studio interviews where he asks people their favorite “curse word,” has said that the second most popular one—after, of course, “fuck”—is the compound word “cock-sucker.” (Any fans of the HBO series Deadwood can attest to the power of that word.) Three hard k sounds there. “Prick, dick, and cock” are also lovely exemplars of the power of the lingua-velar stop. Interestingly, the slang term associated with the female reproductive anatomy—the single word that bothers many women more than any other—is an inversion of this pattern. The hard k sound is at the beginning there, followed by a vowel, then a lingua-alveolar stop.
Even when it’s bastardized (and there’s a troublesome word for you), people still try to capture some of the phonetic flavor of the word; words like “frickin’” or “friggin’” or my favorite Battlestar Galactica term “frak” are examples of this. But they’re not quite the same, are they? We don’t all freak out when we hear other words with this pattern. Words like “freak,” for instance. Or truck, duck, luck, etc. So, yeah, I’m guessing it must be the subject matter. Eww, body parts and the sorts of actions consenting adults generally do in the privacy of their own homes, hotel rooms, cars, highway rest-stops, or back rooms in certain bars.
But, of course, if that were the case, people would only be upset with its usage in that context. Right? If we’re upset by the specific reference to people gettin’ it on, we shouldn’t take umbrage when the same word is used to signify something other than that durned sexual intercourse business. See, “fuck” is a very flexible word. Its verb form not only suggests sexual intercourse, but also, according to the secondary definition from my dear old Oxford American, it can be a transitive verb meaning “to ruin or damage (something).”
(I have a feeling that many of the people who are upset about the first definition secretly believe that the second definition is really the spiritual equivalent of the first, but that’s another topic altogether.)
You can also create loads of additional meanings by joining this word with any number of prepositional phrases. Examples, again from the OxAmDic include: to f. up, to f. around, to f. over, to f. off, or to f. with. All of these mean different things. How cool is that?
And it’s a noun, too. As in “the Dean of Faculty is a dumb f.” or “I don’t give a f. about his opinion.”
And adding an “-ing” makes it a gerund to describe an act, AND it turns it into an intensifying adjective., as in “He’s a f.ing moron” or “That’s f.ing stupid.”
Beyond these uses, as the OxAmDic points out, the word can be used alone or in various phrases “to express anger, annoyance, contempt, impatience, or surprise, or simply for emphasis.” An all-purpose word if ever there was one.
This has been on my mind recently because I’ve stumbled across a number of news stories lately where this lovely word has getting attention. A number of higher education related publications and websites have been talking about the recent case at Hinds Community College where a 30 year old student was threatened a fine and with detention (!) because he was overheard complaining to another student after class about how a bad grade he received was “going to fuck up my entire G.P.A.” Check that story out at the Inside Higher Ed website.
And a little while ago certain tea-baggie types were shocked—shocked, I tell you—when V.P. Joe Biden was picked up by a live mic telling President Obama that the passage of the health care bill was “a big fucking deal.” Liberal, elitist, “gotcha” media were quick to remind people that former V.P. Dick Cheney told Sen. Patrick Leahy to “go fuck [him]self” on the floor of the U.S. Senate. But that, of course, was different. That wasn’t offensive to his supporters because, you know, they’re his supporters.
Fox News did a poll asking respondents whether they felt VP Biden’s use of the term was offensive. Responses were classified by party affiliation (Democrat, Republican, Independent), and I don’t suspect the breakdown will surprise anyone. The average, however was 37% said yes it was offensive, but 57% said it wasn’t. Interesting, huh? (FYI: I learned about this poll from a blog that seems to skew left in terms of ideology, so I was suspect at first. Then I downloaded the PDF with the poll results and saw for myself. You can, too. There’s a link to the file on the aforementioned blog.)
I’m an over-educated Obama voter, so my opinions on this should be viewed as highly suspect. As a liberal arts student I developed the habit of questioning pretty much everything. So, I question myself about this, too. What am I actually complaining about here? I seem to be upset that people get offended by words that are widely considered offensive. Is that it? Yeah, I think that’s it. Partly because it seems social expectations appear to privilege one set of beliefs over another in an area where no explicit harm is done to anyone. If I say a word that offends someone—a word like “fuck,” for example—I’m often scolded. If I get offended by a word like “faggot” or “nigger,” however, I’m sometimes accused of being “all politically correct.” As one of them damn liberal, progressive, socialist, Marxist, communists Glenn Beck is often railing against, I care about what things mean. More importantly, however, I care about what things DO. Sometimes words change minds and changed minds sometimes lead to harmful behavior. If derogatory terms are used to a certain group of people, perhaps that leads some to see those people as less deserving of humane, civil treatment. And that’s not a good thing. If, however, I use phrase like “that poor student’s GPA got fucked up because of that bad grade,” there’s no human target and no potential negative consequence stemming from my use of that word in that context. I suppose, to be fair, if I continually referred to that teacher, or to the Dean of Faculty, as a “stupid fuck,” that might be a bad thing. That might lead someone to devalue them and inspire uncivil treatment. But really, it’s the “stupid” in that sentence that’s the real attack. I’m suggesting that it’s their stupidity that’s at issue, and perhaps that’s emotionally harmful. But stupidity is open to change, and I don’t think being gay or black is. I haven’t heard many stories of people being beaten to death or lynched because they’re stupid fucks. And that’s the difference.
If I’m told I need to censor my language, I get offended. But for some reason my being offended about that is trumped by their being offended by the language I use. And I don’t get that. Friends and colleagues of mine have suggested that the bible is to blame for this unequal treatment of things people find offensive. Enthusiastically born-again evangelical Christians I’ve spoken with tend—in my unscientific polling—to get more upset by “naughty” words than any Unitarians or Atheists I’ve met. But I’ve yet to meet a religious person who can tell me where in the bible it says not to use the word “fuck.” There’s that whole thing about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and there’s the bit about honoring thy mother and father, and even something about treating people as you’d like to be treated, but I’ve never found the part that talks about why I shouldn’t be able to use the entire range of verbal expression that our magnificent language has to offer. If you can cite me chapter and verse, please let me know so I can amend my comments. Or if you can think of another reason why swearing is actually, objectively, empirically “bad” somehow, let me know that, too.
And if you see Dick Cheney, tell him to go fuck himself. I’m sure he’d approve of the expression if not the sentiment.