AN OPEN LETTER TO THE F-WORD
You are the most vile term in the English language. We are supposed to be shocked and offended when we hear you. Careers can be trashed when a microphone catches a leader uttering your hideous four letters. In 2011, Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, was sacked after saying you in public; this past April, political commentator Bob Beckel blurted you out on camera and was put into pundit purgatory because of it.
Jesse Sheidlower, an editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, wrote a book about you (the word, not the deed). He suggests you came into the English language in the 1500s as “fuccant”, the Dutch derivation of a Latin word. At the time, you were regarded as so dirty that your letters only could be printed in code.
But few people know of Sheidlower’s research. Most people believe that you, dear F-word, began in England as a legal acronym. One acronym commonly offered is: Fornication Under Consent of the King. Noted linguists, Van Halen, titled an album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, playing up another acronym that supposedly speaks to your origin. Apparently, these acronym-based theories lodged in the collective consciousness after a 1970 Playboy article on the subject. Shocker: Heff wasn’t on the level when discussing the F-word.
Whatever your origin, outrage over the F-word is now soooo 20th you are spoken. Yet the super-structure for F-word outrage still lingers in FCC fines, workplace anti-profanity rules, and finger wags from a host of decorum cops. Two generations after George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television” we still giggle like school kids every time the F-word slips from the tongue of a celebrity or politician. And we tsk, tsk Hollywood when an f-bomb sneaks into a PG movie.
We’ve developed a dozen pseudonyms for the F-word (hump, screw, etc.) that we speak with little hesitation. But this leads us into an intellectual cul de sac: If a naughty word is naughty because it describes something naughty, then a pseudonym for the naughty term must be equally naughty. We learned this in third grade math (if 1 + 2 equals 3, then 2 + 1 must also equal 3).
There are plenty of words that we use today that were once taboo. “Hysteria” derives from a Greek word about women’s reproductive organs. It was once quite naughty. “Avocado” derives from a Central American Indian word for testicles; it was a great insult. We vest words with meaning and we assign taboo to a few of them. As meanings evolve and some words lose taboo status, others gain it.
Gratuitous use of the F-word is offensive. It is offensive because it is the manifestation of boorish behavior by a speaker or writer seeking to bludgeon or shock his/her listeners. However, limited use of the f-word, whether to accurately describe a particular sexual act (Look at those two bunnies fuck like there’s no tomorrow.) or to convey exclamation (Dude, this is the dumbest fucking blog ever.) is only as offensive as a particular listener or reader deems it.
No word is intrinsically offensive. We decide when are offended.
Post Script: This past January, Modern Family, became the first pre-taped network television program to use the f-word without a bleep. There were protests (but less than might have been expected). The sun rose the next day. The episode re-aired recently. The sun rose again.