Jun. 29, 2010
By ancient tradition it was a voodoo word, the most vulgar of
vulgarities, the nuclear weapon among expletives, an Effing Scandal,
the Obscene Supreme. It evolved into the most versatile of all
English words, as noun, verb, adjective, adverb or gerund. People
have used it to expostulate, to magnify, to intensify, to celebrate
-- and sometimes just for fun. There are those who can't get through
a sentence without the gerund, which (according to education) they
will end with either "ing" or "in'. "
Today it has lost much of its force. The kind of people who once were
affronted by hearing it now sometimes speak it. But for generations
it regularly set off explosions of indignation.
Consider its celebrated first BBC appearance on Nov. 13, 1965.
Kenneth Tynan, a drama critic and dedicated provocateur, spoke it
with feigned nonchalance during a panel discussion. He claimed that
few rational people would be upset by the mere use of ... and then he used it.
Because Tynan affected an upper-class stammer, his pronunciation
began "f-f-f-f," causing Private Eye magazine to claim that he made a
four-letter word last 13 syllables. Still, it was all too clear. It
made Tynan briefly the most infamous Englishman alive. The BBC
apologized to the nation. There were four separate motions of censure
In February 1971, it made a furtive debut in the Canadian Parliament.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau silently mouthed a derisive comment
across the aisle to the Conservative benches. Lincoln Alexander, then
a Tory MP, said: "He mouthed two words, the first word of which
started with F, and the second with O. Disgraceful." Trudeau claimed
he had said "fuddle-duddle." The Tories said, "No, he did not, he
spoke the unspeakable." Trudeau: "Well, what are they, lip readers or
In the U.S. the last two vice-presidents have both been caught using
it when they did not know they were being recorded. Dick Cheney used
it in anger, Joe Biden in triumph, demonstrating its uniquely protean
quality. It means almost anything, but also means the opposite.
Many find it mysterious and disquieting that a word describing the
most exquisite pleasure will also express anger and hatred. Steven
Pinker, the psychologist, finds this conjunction of meanings
understandable. While sex can be a source of mutual pleasure, it can
also involve exploitation, disease, incest, jealousy, abuse and rape.
"These hazards have left their mark on our customs and our emotions.
Thoughts about sex are likely to be fraught, and not entertained
lightly." While humans have more sex than in the past, a taboo still
clings to the subject.
For decades it was called "the most common of Anglo-Saxon words,"
though there's no evidence that it existed in the era of Anglo-Saxon
English. It's a cousin of words with similar meanings in Dutch,
Norwegian and Swedish. Amateur linguists have suggested that it was
born as an acronym. In the 15th century, it seems, a king demanded
that coitus take place only with his permission, so sex was licensed
as Fornication Under Consent of the King. In America during Puritan
days adulterers were condemned to the stocks and their crime was
announced above their heads with an acronym that meant For Unlawful
Carnal Knowledge. Alas, these theories emerged much too late in
history to be credible.
Language students can trace the word's slow, determined rise from the
obscurity of private conversation to the bright lights of fame.
For much of the 20th century, public appearances were limited to
books of the sort that were often banned. James Joyce, in Ulysses,
used it as a curse. His friend Samuel Beckett did the same in Molloy.
In Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer we learned that someone didn't
give a one of it. In William Burroughs' Naked Lunch we read that
nobody gave a one of it about a certain character.
In 1948, Norman Mailer's publishers decided that American soldiers in
The Naked and the Dead should spare the delicate feelings of readers
by peppering their conversation with previously unknown words, "fug"
and "fuggin'." In the 1960s, as a tribute to Mailer, Ed Sanders and
Tuli Kupferberg called their rock band The Fugs.
Movie studios banned it for generations. In a delightful Julie
Andrews-James Garner comedy, The Americanization of Emily (1964), an
enraged British officer berates two American sailors by calling them,
again and again, "feather-headed." In the 1970s, the real thing began
showing up in film scripts. About 20 years ago its triumph was so
complete that producers appeared to consider its use mandatory. In
the 1990s, it appeared more than 250 times per film in Goodfellas,
Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski.
In television it created a bizarre class system. Those who could
afford pay-cable service heard it several dozen times a week on The
Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire. Two detectives on The Wire, coming
upon a particularly puzzling murder, used just this one word through
a whole scene, turning a syllable into a complete vocabulary, varying
tone and emphasis as they conveyed discovery, bafflement, dismay and
rage. Meanwhile, old networks tried to maintain old standards, so
viewers of free TV heard it much less often.
Newspapers continue to resist. Most use it only when one or two
letters are replaced by asterisks. In a previous century, while
writing a Globe and Mail column, I quoted Northrop Frye's complaint,
in his posthumously published journal, that his monumental work, The
Great Code, was progressing slowly. He described its state with an
unimprovable adjective, fuckedandfarfromhome. The managing editor
ruled this permissible, since it was Frye. He was so eminent that the
word was automatically cleansed when it fell in his shadow.
Last week produced another milestone. The New Republic, of all
places, carried an essay on anger by Buzz Bissinger, a
Pulitzer-winning reporter. Bissinger doesn't like to be criticized.
He explained that he takes four kinds of drugs and undergoes therapy
to manage his anger. He also uses Twitter as a rage outlet. He
deploys the f-bomb, as he calls it, and typically replies as follows
to someone whose comments annoy him: "You, kind sir, go fuckly fuck
yourself, you fuck of a fuckhead."
All of which proves that if you live long enough you get to see even
the most outlandish and unimaginable events happen.