THE EVOLUTION OF THE F-WORD IN
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CULTURE
By H.C. Nash
The etymological roots of the f-word in English are found in Germanic languages.
Its original meaning in the Middle Ages was “strike” and/or “move back and forth.”
According to author Melissa Mohr, its first use in writing has been attributed to “an anonymous monk” who, in the margins of a copy of Cicero’s de Officiis, angrily wrote in the margin “f----- [“g” dropped] abbot” in 1528.
Use of the six- or seven-letter adjectival “intensifier” -- an intensifier being a word used to add additional emphasis on a particular phrase -- evolved over time. Rudimentary codes were often used to cloak the term.
However, In June of 2004 Vice President Dick Cheney, engaged in a heated exchange with Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy in the Senate, resorted to the “GFY bomb”: “Go f--- yourself!”
And later, in 2009, Vice President Joe Biden created a mini-scandal during a signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act by whispering to his boss at an open mic, “This is a big f------ deal, Mr. President.”
In January of 2014 Roy Peter Clark published on CNN’s website an article titled “The f-word is everywhere.”
He noted that the band Jefferson Airplane used a highly politicized variant of the term in a song performed on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969. In 1971 the Supreme Court found in Cohen v. California such language cannot be criminalized.
Clark noted that comedian George Carlin—“that hero of foul-mouthery”—first used it in a monologue on censorship in 1978, saying that “The big one, the word f---, that’s the one that hangs them up the most.”
Wikipedia notes that the f-word and its variants are typically used “as an exclamation, indicating surprise, pain, fear, disgust, disappointment, anger, or a sense of extraordinary elation.”
The plasticity of the term is suggested by the fact that it can be employed as a verb, adjective, adverb, command, conjunction, noun, and pronoun.
“Its common usage in popular culture today,” wrote Clark, “has transformed it into one of the most versatile words in American English. It might qualify as the word of the new century (italics added).
“But is that a good thing?”
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, has developed a 270-word lexicon of “The F-word.”
A book titled Go the F**k to Sleep was an Amazon bestseller in 2011.
Sarah Knight is the author of a book titled The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a
F*ck, a parody targeting Marie Kondo’s bestselling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
A great many adjectival “intensifiers” in the American vernacular express either amazement or anger, but none is used in an aggressive context more reflexively, more consistently, and more crudely than the f-word as a grammatically progressive form.
Black nationalism and the rap music that served as its most influential cultural expression roiled the Seventies. In the broader popular culture, “freaking,” a euphemism for “adventuresome sex,” served (and serves) as a stand-in. So do the slang terms “friggin’,” “flippin’,” and “flamin’,” among others.
As to the f-word per se, Clark notes that “for most people, it’s hardly noticeable anymore.”
“WTF” (What the f---!) shirts are popular with countless teenagers. Many adults are similarly expressive.
It’s obvious that “the sexual revolution” of the past half century has played a major role in undermining traditional norms of speech and morality.
The entertainment industry—with Hollywood in the lead—has played its cynical and hugely lucrative role in “normalizing” taboo speech generally. By and large its implicit credo for decades has been “Push the envelope.”
Prior to 2011 the Motion Picture Association of America permitted no more than one “f-bomb” in its films rated PG-13. That ceiling has now been breached.
The casual use of the f-word in Broadway and HBO productions is notorious.
J. Lee Grady has published an article online in Charisma (a magazine for charismatic and Pentecostal Christians) titled “Why I Don’t Use the F-word.” He provides three justifications for his stance: 1) such language “defiles” all parties to discourse; 2) such language reflects negatively on the speaker’s “inner character”; and 3) “Rough language is a sign of an unsurrendered will.”
One needn’t be a linguist or psychologist to recognize that the most common context for the use of the f-word and its variants by the American people is that of personalized or free-floating anger.
Males, of course, are much more often likely than females to resort to such outbursts, although, to state the obvious, females of the “millennial generation” are far more likely to do so than their mothers and grandmothers (although new studies reveal women may now be using the word more than men).
To what degree are the profanity, vulgarity, and vicious incivility so widespread in public discourse in recent decades a correlative of our loss of respect for language in general? To what degree has the increasingly intense “tabloidization” of the news since the O.J. Simpson case of the Nineties promoted such abrasiveness? To what degree have social media abetted this “race to the bottom”?
To what degree does such incivility—in and out of politics—suggest a numbing loss of self-respect?
The scourge of the f-word in our language and culture reminds me of a remark by an author whose name escapes me. To paraphrase:
“The United States is the only nation in history that evolved from a relatively primitive state to a decadent one without an interim period of genuine maturation and self-knowledge.”
The people who elected Donald J. Trump last November, and in a shocking number of cases still dismiss his generalized brutishness in word and deed, are by no means the only ones who need to ponder this assertion.
“While still not fit for polite society,” Roy Peter Clark wrote for CNN, the f-word “no longer carries the depth of taboo attributed to it” in the 1970s.
Does such a cultural decline disturb your readers?
H.C. Nash of Williamsport, Pa., is author of the two-volume study of U.S. history Patsy of the Ages: Lee Harvey Oswald and His Nation Half a Century Later.