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The F Word and a Pious Proposal

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

I’ve never read a word I didn’t like. Educated beyond my competence, I’ve amassed a huge vocabulary. I’ve taught myself to pronounce each and every word, including “pejorative” (there are at least three ways). I can enunciate its letters in succession to form “pejorative” as a whole. Listening to recordings of British actors like Gielgud, Richardson, and Olivier decades ago taught me how, and in the process I eradicated my Bostonian accent.

I’ve done my best to pass on my love of words to my three children. When they were young and impressionable, without my wife’s knowledge or consent, I called them together for a family conference. No, it wasn’t going to be on the birds and the bees, about which I knew comparatively little; it was on something far more important, about which I knew a lot: the F word.

When I finished, they had this blank look on their faces. I might as well have explained sex.

What I wanted for them was that the F word and other similar words should become part of their active vocabulary, even if they never had an inclination to use them. Nor did I want them to be intimidated when they heard these words, classified by non-lexicographers as “dirty” words, sprung on them by their peers. Reason? There’s no such thing as a bad word; admittedly, some words acquire bad meanings, but that’s another issue entirely.

I knew also, from spending my professional life dealing with words of all sorts, many of them in book form as an acquiring editor at Macmillan and Harcourt, that words are merry messengers – Marx Brothers, Katzenjammer Kids, Sacha Baron Cohen – sometimes bouncing and behaving, sometimes rascally and misbehaving, always difficult to control. Among them, the F word.

And of course I knew from John the Evangelist that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was God, and that the Word of words has come down to us in spoken and written form in a cascade of words. How odd of God, but that, too, is another issue entirely.

History of the F word

The F word is found in the works of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence among others, but it hasn’t been found in the OED, SOD, EDD, and MWCD until recent years.

It must be said that the eccentric British lexicographer, Eric Partridge, happily remembered for A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Language (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American (1949), and Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958), splendid volumes all, has always included the F word.

Modern locus classicus of the F word as spoken may be found in the works of comedian George Carlin, who was more scatologist than eschatologist. A frequent guest on television talk shows in the 1960s and 1970s, he compiled a list of the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”; the F word was among them. Carlin later expanded the list to 200.

Eventually, the FCC got involved, the U.S. Supreme Court was consulted, and the seven unspeakables are now included in the annals of the Supreme Court (FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 1974).

Since that time the FCC has kept the F word off prime time network television with some success. And yet, today, through the magic of the zoom lens, we see (even if we don’t hear) the F word being shouted with utter abandon by the coaches of our finer collegiate and professional teams. Furthermore, we continually see it being bleeped from television shows and movies. How do we know? One doesn’t have to be Miss Marple or Marlee Matlin to read actors’ lips.

Slips in the spoken language continue. A couple of years ago at an awards ceremony Bono of U2 was caught by an open mike saying the F word in its adverbial form (“f—ing marvelous”). At the beginning of 2006, Howard Stern, the foul-mouth Frank of radio and television, swore off the F word on the ground that it was no longer funny. And so the parade continues.

All this having been said, I must affirm and support people who form groups to bar the F word or its sisters and brothers from current use on public media, even though I may not agree with them. And I admire their persistence in pursuing the FCC.

Ironically, allowing the free use of the F word is the only sure way to ensure its demise, which brings me now to my pious, two-part, proposal:

The FCC should allow the full and audible use of the F word. In return, the FCC should banish the blasphemous use of the J word, Jesus.

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Join us here next Friday afternoon, March 11, for the second half of this discussion about the high calling of language use.

Photo by Waves of Perception. used by permission, via Flickr. Post by William Griffin.

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