Dropping the F-Bomb

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 25, 2006

The most versatile word in our language can do almost anything, other than be printed in a family newspaper. It can be a noun, a verb, a gerund, an adjective or just an expletive. It can be literal or figurative. Although it has an explicit sexual meaning, it's usually used figuratively these days, as an all-purpose intensifier.

The F-word remains taboo. But just barely. We may be entering an era in which this fabled vulgarity is on its way to becoming just another word -- its transgressive energy steadily sapped by overuse.

From hip-hop artists to bloggers to the vice president of the United States, everyone's dropping the F-bomb. Young people in particular may not grasp how special this word has been in the past. They may not realize how, like an old sourdough starter, the word has been lovingly preserved over the centuries and passed from generation to generation. For the good of human communication we must come together, as a people, to protect this word, and ensure that, years from now, it remains obscene.

Our leaders aren't helping. Before he was elected president, George W. Bush used the word repeatedly during an interview with Tucker Carlson. Dick Cheney on the Senate floor told a Democratic senator to eff himself. Presidential candidate John F. Kerry said of Bush and the war, "Did I expect George Bush to [mess] it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did." No one is shocked that these people use such language, but as statesmanship it's not exactly Lincolnesque.

More generally, the word is imperiled by the profusion of communications technologies. Everyone's talking, e-mailing, blogging and commenting on everyone else's comments. Combine that with partisan rancor and a general desperation to get one's message across, and naturally the word gets overtaxed. In Blogworld there are no idiots anymore, only [blithering] idiots. The most opportunistic move in the corporate realm may have been the decision by a retailer to call itself French Connection United Kingdom, which allowed it to put the company's initials on T-shirts everywhere. Jeepers, that's clever!

I don't want to make a federal case out of all of this -- but that's what the government is doing. The Federal Communications Commission in recent years has cracked down on "indecency" in general and this word specifically. The FCC's fines for indecency have risen steadily: a mere $4,000 in 1995, then $48,000 in 2000, then $440,000 in 2003 and finally a whopping $7.9 million in 2004. President Bush signed a bill last week increasing by tenfold the maximum fine for indecency on radio or TV, to $325,000. Broadcasters have sued to overturn recent FCC rulings, arguing that broadcasters shouldn't have to abide by laws that don't affect cable and satellite providers (which is why HBO's "Deadwood" can clock, by one Web site's calculation, 1.48 F-words per minute). The inability to be indecent is, for broadcasters, a competitive disadvantage.

In any case, government fines for indecency are something of a rearguard action, unlikely to stem the tide. It's like trying to fight rising sea levels one sandbag at a time.

A landmark case revolves around the word used by Bono, the rock star, at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards. He blurted out that winning an award was "[bleepin'] brilliant." The FCC first ruled that his comment wasn't indecent, because it didn't describe a sexual act. But in 2004, after the Janet Jackson breast exposure during the Super Bowl halftime show, the commission reversed the Bono ruling, saying the singer's comment was indeed profane and indecent.

The FCC's logic, however, was a stretch. It argued that any use of the word "inherently has a sexual connotation." But that's just not true. In fact, the reason it is used so often is because it has escaped the bonds of its sexual origin. It's now used as a generic intensifier. It makes plain language more colorful and emphatic.

The reason it must be suppressed in polite society is not because it's a bad word, but because, in certain circumstances, it is a very good word. It is a solidly built word of just four letters, bracketed by rock-hard consonants. It is not a mushy word, but one with sharp edges. Consider how clunky the term "the F-word" is. The authentic article, by contrast, explodes into space from a gate formed by the upper incisors and the lower lip. Then it slams to a dramatic glottal cough.

I'd even argue that it has therapeutic properties. Ponder, if you will, how critically important this word can be when you stub a toe. It serves as an instant palliative. It's like verbal morphine. You can't hop around the dining room, holding your foot, shouting "Drat!" or "Dagnabbit!" or "Heavens to Betsy!" Those words don't work.

"It's a sexual word in origin but it's not used that way very often," says Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and editor of the 1995 book "The F-Word," a 224-page dictionary in which some of the permutations of the word are absofreakin'lutely ridiculous.

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