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The Year of the F-word

Cheney, Kerry and others bring the ultimate "4-letter word" to the fore


One of the basic tenets of journalism is to grab the reader's attention. So without further ado: Fuck. See how easy that is? Punching in those four keys certainly didn't take any creativity or research on my part, yet chances are it got your attention just as effectively as a concise, artful paragraph with a dramatic teaser at the end. Such is the power of the almighty F-word.

Although just a simple one-syllable expression -- three consonants and a vowel -- there's something about the "f" and "ck" sounds that give it a harsh and forceful resonance, one that's guaranteed to elicit a reaction. For instance, telling someone to "shut-up" certainly gets your point across, but punctuate that same phrase with "fuck" -- as in "shut the fuck up" -- and suddenly you've got, shall we say, a more adamant expression of your sentiment, and one that's akin to a verbal slap across the face.

And it's so versatile -- Exclamatory: (Fucking-A! I won the lottery!) Conversational: (Whatcha doing? Nothing, just fucking around). Insulting: (Hey, fuck you!) Descriptive: (That kid's a real fuck-up). It also expresses shock or surprise: (What the fuck?!), general remorse or disappointment ("Ah fuck, the movie is sold out"), and can even be nearly every word in a sentence: "Fuck those fucking fuckers!" (translation: "disregard the very displeasing people"). And of course, there's the always popular sexual definition.

The F-word is with us always, and has been for quite some time. Lately, though, it's gotten a lot of extra attention. A couple of months ago, Vice President Dick Cheney famously told Sen. Patrick Leahy to go fuck himself after Leahy reportedly "challenged his integrity." Cheney's bon mot came on the heels of an interview with Rolling Stone in which John Kerry combined the F-word with "up" to describe the Bush administration's postwar Iraq policy. And most recently, Charlotte Congressman Mel Watt reportedly used the F-word during a heated argument with Ralph Nader.

What's going on here? It's not that it's suddenly OK to scream "Fuck!" in public (or is it?), but given Americans' looser tongues these days, it's time to examine, dissect, and even pay homage to the old F-bomb. After all, there's no other word that's equally maligned and venerated or that can so effectively launch a scandal. The word's origins are steeped in myth and legend, not to mention that it's one of the most studied words in the field of linguistics. We realize that this article may run the risk of offending some people, but in the words of that great philosopher Tom Cruise, sometimes you just have to say what the fuck.

F*** Is The Word

In the lexicon of curse words, fuck is the king, the ultimate four-letter word. It's the Muhammad Ali of curse words. It's the undisputed top dog in George Carlin's list of Seven Dirty Words, (except, perhaps, for the one that precedes fuck with "mother" -- always guaranteed to inflame the senses). In fact, just about all other obscenities are limp wannabes that pale in comparison to the F-bomb. For example, while the kids on Comedy Central's South Park regularly say goddamn, and in one episode uttered "shit" a record 162 times, fuck is still considered off limits.

When U2 vocalist Bono said it last year at the Golden Globes, the FCC called it "abhorrent" and stated "The "F-word' is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language."

In the movie Barbershop, when Cedric the Entertainer's character Eddie said "Fuck Jesse Jackson!," it set off an avalanche of controversy, including Jackson himself calling on others to boycott the movie. It's doubtful there would have been such a strong reaction if the Eddie character had said "To hell with Jesse Jackson," or even "Screw Jesse Jackson." But "Fuck Jesse Jackson?!" That was just going too far.

In the holiday classic A Christmas Story, little Ralphie Parker discovered the ramifications of uttering the F-bomb after he spilled a hubcap full of lug nuts while helping his father change a flat tire.

"Oooh fuuudge!"

"Only I didn't say Fudge," recalls the now grown Ralphie. "I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the "F-dash-dash-dash" word!

Later that night, poor little Ralphie was forced to dine on a bar of soap, compliments of his horror-stricken mother. Indeed, fuck is still the one word that most of us would never dare utter in front of our parents, regardless of if we're in high school or getting ready to retire.

No doubt about it, fuck remains one of the strongest, most controversial yet prolific vulgarisms in the English language. "There are perhaps one or two words that might be more obscene, but none of them are nearly as widespread as fuck," says Jesse Sheidlower, the North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Sheidlower is also the author of The F-Word, a 272-page tome devoted entirely to the celebrated obscenity, and boy is it a hoot to hear him say fuck in his cultured, erudite voice.

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