My innocent world picture dissipated one winter afternoon in 1948 when I heard and read the four-letter Anglo-Saxon word that people shouldn’t use in polite company. It was in fact a multiple-sensory education, as I also saw, for the first time, crude drawings depicting the word in question.
In a recent Work of Art, I had originally broached the f-word with just the first letter, followed by three blanks. Before the paper went to press, editor Jesse Gallegos remarked, correctly, that even that kind of sugar-coating of a profane word was not like me. We agreed on something like #!#@.
Because no word considered obscene will appear today in this column, readers ought to be able to infer the word on the basis of its first syllable and length.
Entering the Santa Ana Casino recently for a press association banquet, my wife Bonnie and I were taken aback at the language one employee used as she exited. The 20-ish woman wanted to know why the f— her f——- boss was f—— there. And besides, he should f— himself. She remained unfazed even though hundreds may have heard her.
Even for the mid-Victorian, for people who don’t use such coarse language, that was quite a linguistic/grammatical treasure trove. The discontented worker used the f-word as four different parts of speech, respectively a noun, a participle, an adverb and a verb. Now wouldn’t that innovative use of the language have made my grammar teacher proud!
Aside from the fact that the f-word can serve multiple grammatical functions, the word itself is offensive. Some people have become so accustomed to its use that it simply comes “trippingly off the tongue,” as Shakespeare would say. But rather than turn this into a grammar lesson, let’s discuss why the word, which through the millennia continues to offend.
The f-word remains the only word of its kind which instantly rings clear. “F-word” stands for no other word. Other terms, such as the s-word or the p-word, are ambiguous except in the context of the f-word.
One Highlands professor, insisting that the f-word appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, used that as justification to invoke the word with its accompanying shock value. It DOES NOT appear in Chaucer. Its origin is really fairly murky. Some suggest it’s an acronym related to carnal knowledge. But regardless, my contention is that the word simply sounds ugly. It’s a fricative followed by a personality-less vowel, then a plosive. Not a euphonious combination.
When I was about 9, I got a visual, aural and printed introduction to the f-word. On an early-dismissal school day, I met my older brother Severino, who asked me to join him and his friend Carlos on an excursion.
We went to a part of town I’d never seen, the Independence Street bridge, where we cut up sheets of ice that exposed myriad crawdads. Directly under the bridge we came across some primitive drawings that elucidated the f-word. As an extremely naive pre-pubescent boy, I needed to ask the older boys the meaning of the drawings as well as the pronunciation of the word, sprinkled throughout the bottom of the bridge.
Aside from some revulsion I was nevertheless impressed that people who scrawl obscene, profane and scatological text NEVER misspell any words. If only pupils learned to spell other words with such accuracy. . . .
Since then I’ve been amazed at the word’s continued ability to shock. Sure, we are familiar with the semantics of the word: words don’t hurt, sticks and stones do. However, what the f-word represents is what causes wars. A person asking someone, “What the f— you looking at?” isn’t planning to invite the other for crumpets and tea.
Other aspects to the word are that people, such as the disgruntled casino employee, have simply become immune to the word and have no idea it rankles others.
Another observation is that the f-word becomes a filler. People who sprinkle it into their conversation simply can’t conjure up the proper word. Playing around with a vocabulary of perhaps 500 words, the f-word users know it can fit anywhere in a sentence.
The recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that the f-word is not obscene and may therefore be used over the airwaves no doubt will invite more its frequent use. The live-TV use of the word during a recent awards ceremony has paved the way for use of the f-word without consequences.
Even during family hour, we notice the frequent use of son-of-a-b—-, which was taboo only a couple of years ago.
It was around 1948, when at age 9, I participated in a group gasp in a crowded Serf Theater when Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Leaving the Serf that evening, I knew, as did everyone else, that Clark Gable’s blatant use of such profanity in “Gone With the Wind,” would be the topic at dinner tables all over Las Vegas, though no one I can recall used the word “damn”; instead, most simply spelled it out or said it rhymes with ham.
Such is the evolution of the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. I’m sure they would be f—— displeased.