Opinion Why the scary, funny, profane ‘FAFO’ was 2022’s word of the year

(Washington Post Staff illustration; iStock images)

Last week, the American Dialect Society announced the results of its vote for 2022’s Word of the Year. This time, the society went slang-esoteric — 2020’s “covid” and 2021’s all-too-necessary “insurrection” were succeeded by the suffix “-ussy,” which I have never heard in the wild and, uh, shall decline to explain in a family newspaper.

But with all due respect to the society’s distinguished crew of linguists, I’d say it was a college writing center from Sioux Falls, S.D., that nailed the word of the year with its choice: FAFO. In case you don’t already know, FAFO is an acronym for “eff around and find out.” It’s a cheeky way to tell people that if they play with fire, they might get burned — or to announce they already have been. The Sioux Falls gang put a positive spin on FAFO, citing it as representing the “gumption” of their fellow students “when encountering a novel challenge” and noting that the Urban Dictionary calls the phrase an “exclamation of confidence.” It is that — but it’s also a whole lot more.

2022 was the year that FAFO, on the rise since 2020, hit the pop culture zeitgeist. Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and editor of the book “The F-Word,” told me he has traced the phrase as far back as 2007, originating in African American slang, but that he only really became aware of it a couple of years ago. On Google Trends, you can see FAFO gradually pick up steam and then soar this past December. That was the moment that Kanye West got booted off Twitter for tweeting an unflattering photo of the platform’s memelord-turned-overlord, Elon Musk. How did Musk explain his executive decision? In a four-letter tweet that forced the actual adults following this squabble to look up what FAFO meant. Sorry, everybody.

In its brevity, FAFO recalls YOLO (“you only live once”), a similar acronym that burst from obscurity to ubiquity after a Drake song put it on the map in 2011. But if YOLO is largely a sunny, big-hearted term, FAFO has a harsher effect. It is confident, sure. But it is also a warning, and an expression of glee at someone getting their comeuppance — a 2022 vibe indeed, both cathartic and queasy-making.

On the bright side: 2022 was a year when maybe, just maybe, people who did dumb or awful things (coups, tax scams, attacking smaller countries, making overinflated weed-meme offers for social media sites) would finally face some consequences. “Can you do that?” many asked during the Trump era. Could you just lie, cheat, swindle, funnel taxpayer dollars to your businesses, grab people’s genitalia with impunity? Well, 2022 suggested that you couldn’t, or at least not entirely. “Eff around, find out” was a bratty, satisfying way to reclaim the high ground.

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Yet it was also a year of scary warnings that whatever we were doing might constitute effing around, in someone’s eyes — and that it wasn’t going to end well. FAFO, funny and disturbing, was the double-edged taunt that covered both scenarios: a weapon for us, a weapon for them. It’s no coincidence that to counter Drake’s YOLO song, “The Motto,” I can find at least three different songs called FAFO, all involving menacing choruses where young men of various demographics (a comedian, a “MAGA rapper” — yes, indeed — and a Southern-fried White rap-rock dude) chant the phrase at their enemies, and at you. I listened to these songs and thought about not writing about FAFO at all.

Still, the angry young guys, and I suppose even Musk, are onto something: FAFO is undeniably fun to say. There’s that alliteration, the seeming imperative that is actually a taunt (like “come and get it”), and the built-in sense of righteous vengeance. Or, righteous when it’s your cause, less so when it’s not.

You can see its broad appeal in how it’s been deployed across the political spectrum: by far-left Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) talking about Donald Trump; as a pro-Democrat 2020 meme, sometimes paired with wild-eyed Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty; as an anti-antifa, pro-violence slogan by Proud Boys. You can even watch a professorial guy plot the phrase as two variables on a graph, in a TikTok that went viral for its absurdity. Say what you will about FAFO, but it definitely has the range.

When I asked Sheidlower why he thinks FAFO is so popular, he acknowledged that it’s a “punchy phrase” suited for these extremely online times. The FAFO shortening, which he dates to at least 2012, is “easier to type on a phone,” he wrote in an email. “It's not obscene so you can use it in more contexts.”

As 2023 dawns, I see no sign that the hard-knock, funny, tribal, punitive spirit of FAFO is going out of style. But I’m trying to embrace the best qualities of the phrase — namely, that effing around can be done in the spirit of creativity, and that finding out can be not just a pratfall but a revelation. I’m wishing you that more wholesome kind of FAFO this year — as a blessing, not a curse.