I shouldn’t have been surprised since the word—once shocking to hear and more outrageous to say aloud-- is bandied about in films, in print, and ubiquitous in some people’s ordinary conversation. But there they were--three book titles at our local bookstore all with a version of an expletive that starts with a hard “f” sound.
Why the word was used so often is unclear as an unease must still surround it. All three book titles disguised it by replacing a letter in the titles. One used a splat to replace the “u,” as if a bird deposited an offering directly on the cover. Another used an asterisk to replace the “u.” Still, another also used an asterisk to replace the “c” in the word.
Interestingly, all three books had the word life in either the title or subtitle. One must marvel at the apparent connection between these two four-letter words.
As a child, I knew never to say certain words, especially in the presence of adults. Somehow this injunction carried over into my adult life, as I think it must have for many in my generation. To hear my mother emit a cuss word, no matter how subtle, in moments of great anger or stress had the power to shock me to my bones. And that’s my point: We no longer have any “bad” words: those utterances so powerful in their being taboo that they controlled our thoughts as well as the word products of those thoughts.
Where did the word that stated with a harsh “f” originate? Accounts differ, but simply put, it is onomatopoetic, imitating the sound any object makes when it enters a vacuum, rather like “suck.” Dictionaries point to a Germanic origin from an Indo-European root meaning “strike” akin to Latin pugnus, meaning “fist.” The word didn’t appear in any English dictionary from 1795 to 1965 even though it has existed since the early 16th century.
The Oxford English Dictionary second edition said the expletive has been used since 1535 in its modern spelling. In England, the word was forbidden in print by the Obscene Publications Act in 1857 and the U.S. in 1873 by the Comstock Act though it continued in common speech, especially during WWI.
In the mid-20th century, the publication of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the U.S. and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in the U.K. resulted in obscenity court cases, which loosened the ban on the use of the word. But James Jones’ novel “From Here to Eternity” in 1950 was the breakthrough work with 50 occurrences of the word (though the original manuscript used it 258 times).
When people are uncomfortable with words and what they stand for, they resort to euphemism, substituting another word for the potentially offending word. The British use effing, and publishers persuaded Norman Mailer to use fug as a substitute when he wrote “The Naked and the Dead.” When the wit Dorothy Parker met Mailer, she said, “So you’re the man who can’t spell … ” Ernest Hemingway used muck in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1940, probably at his publishers’ request. The irony does not escape us that the more scandalous the writing, the more likely people are to purchase the forbidden material.
By the 1670s the word meant “an act of sexual intercourse.” Most sources discount the urban legend that the word is an acronym from “for unlawful carnal knowledge” or “fornication under consent of the King.” Snopes.com points out that acronyms didn’t come into use until the 20th century. It further explains that the word derives from the Indo-European root peuk, meaning “to prick,” also the source of “compunction,” expunge,” “impugn,” “poignant,” “pounce,” “pugilist,” “punctuate,” “puncture,” and other words.
Whatever its origins, the word no longer carries the punch and force of the past; its use and overuse make it just another invective even if it causes us older folks to cringe. Probably if we used the word more frequently, it would roll easily off the tongue. One dictionary of idioms has a list of 30 ways to use it. I notice that in a film that has dialogue replete with the word, I tune it out, or its use decreases as the action progresses.
The word has combinations, too, joining with f---off, f---up, f---over, --all of which have connotations of anger, violence, and tension. Maybe the frequency of use reveals something about the current state of incivility, name-calling, discourtesy and downright rudeness we people engage in.
We live in a state of negativity, and with a new election in the future, we are sure to hear more “bad” language. I sometimes ask my students: “Who determines that a word is ‘bad?’” In the past, mores and social norms directed our use of language, setting standards for the words we used. People who in a fit of anger let slip an expletive would apologize in awareness that the words from their mouth could offend. Today we don’t seem to care. If people’s words bother us, it is our problem evidently.
In 1972 Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a poem that parents in my child-rearing years placed prominently in their child’s room. The poem is divided into negative and positives we teach our children. Each line began, “If children live with” and a negative or positive trait: “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. / If children live with hostility, they learn to fight. / If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty. / If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence. / If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.”
Where do children learn language?