Notes on the F-Word.2

In the previous portion of Run It By Fred’s brief history of the F-word, we covered 1) the obscenity’s use in everyday speech, 2) the fact that to many ears the word as taboo as as ever, and 3) the situational nature of its use today. In any event, fuck is hardly its old self. A stark illustration of the word’s modern-day ubiquity is found in Google Ngram, which tracks how often a word or phrase appeared in books published from 1800 (or even 1500) to 2008. The Ngram graph shows the F-word flatlining until around 1960, then shooting up so fast it flies off the charts by the turn of the twenty-first century.

Then again, what is considered taboo has always changed over time. For centuries, blasphemy (taking God’s name in vain in any way) was the worst form of cursing – the reason we have so many God-based euphemistic exclamations,* from golly! and gosh! to my goodness! and egad! In Victorian times, certain terms for body parts were shunned, and they weren’t confined to genitalia: Men and women who moved in the starchiest of circles replaced the word leg with limb.

Forms and Euphemisms

Perhaps the remoteness of the F-word from blasphemy let it fly free – so free that the verb became a noun, adjective, interjection, imperative, and the key word in certain phrasings. Among the truckload of F-terms, from oldest to most recent, are fuck you!; fuck about (fuck around in the U. S.); fuck a duck; flying fuck (introduced in the novel From Here to Eternity); and you [adjective of choice] fuck! In the late twentieth century, fucking came to be wedged between the syllables of longish words to add emphasis – hence the likes of  fan-fucking-tastic!un-fucking-believable!, and halle-fucking-lujah!

If any word can match god as a euphemism engine, it is fuck. Current-day adjectives such as effing, frigging, and freaking were preceded by myriad others, including the archaic footering and  footling. In Norman Mailer’s novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), the author had to bow to the publisher’s wishes and respell the four-letter word as fug. (Bonus tidbit: His choice inspired a group of anti-establishment New York rock musicians to name their band The Fugs.)


Who are the greatest wielders of the the F-word and its four-letter kin? Surprisingly, far more cussers belong to the upper or lower classes than to the middle class – a. k. a. the bourgeoisie, the rank and file, the silent majority (in this case, silent when it comes to foul language). From Old English’s earliest days, middle class folk swore off swearing, and more than fifteen centuries later they remain the segment of society most likely to object to obscenity, blasphemy, and other forms of cursing.

What gives the upper crust their penchant for potty-mouthing is an open question. In An Encyclopedia of Swearing, author Geoffrey Hughes sees the tradition “partly as [a display] of aristocratic insouciance,” especially on the part of seventeenth century poets. Today, could it be that many of those who “have it all” tend to flout convention and have fewer inhibitions? An exception to the upper-class nonchalance toward cursing is the ethnic or racial slur, which those at the top of the ladder are least likely to sling – and such slurs are now considered much more taboo than the F-word.

Screenwriters for film and TV, especially those who target teenage boys, have a particular fondness for fuck in its many forms, and few filmmakers shy away from using language as it was spoken by soldiers or longshoremen or the denizens of the rough-and-ready Old West – or, for that matter, the youth of today, be they privileged or dispossessed. Question is, how long will it be before the F-word appears in 24-pt. type on magazine covers and nobody blinks any eye?

September 2013 update. The distinguished Grey Lady of journalism, The New York Times. sneaked the spelled-out word into its pages for the first time on Sunday, August 25, 2013, and so discreetly you could spend the better part of a day searching it out. It appears on page 86 of the newspaper’s T magazine (an occasional Sunday supplement), in a piece on author Jonathan Lethem’s novel Dissident Gardens, the story of a family of radicals. The Grey Lady screwed up her courage, gritted her teeth, and quoted the novel’s opening sentence: “Quit fucking black cops or you’ll be thrown out of the Communist Party.”

*Equivalents for the New Testament’s son of God include gee!, jeez!, and sheesh! for Jesus; crikey! and cripes! for Christ; and Jiminy Cricket! for Jesus Christ.

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