Originally published by The Chronotype.
It’s just four letters long, one syllable, and everybody knows it, knows what it means, and knows that it’s impolite to say it in public. It’s crude, it’s rude, it’s almost always unnecessary. And yet, we’re hearing it all the time these days:
I have some standards on this blog, so I use symbols to represent the four letters. (The exclamation point is legit, since the, expression of the word, especially in print, is often followed by it.) But this word, which is a slang term for…well, an interaction between humans that should remain private but increasingly is not, is now a part of our everyday conversational lexicon, it seems. Over time, the definition of “profanity” seems to have shifted. It used to be that words like “hell” and “damn” were seldom seen in print, much less heard on the radio, on television or in movie theaters.
That was then. These days, the aforementioned four-letter word that I shall not print here is heard and seen everywhere: not just from TV and movie screens, but in song lyrics, on the pages of books, and in casual conversation between friends and even among family members.
Happy @#$%ing New Year!
This past New Year’s Eve, Sue and I attended a dinner theater comedy show in the small town of Rice Lake, where we both work. The two comics were funny, but if we’d gotten a dollar back for every F-bomb they dropped, we could’ve paid for our tickets and gone home with extra cash. After awhile, it became tedious. Were we the only ones in the packed house who wondered if they could’ve been just as funny without that famous four-letter word? I suspect we were not. Without those words, the performers would’ve been cleaner, if perhaps not as “hip.” I don’t know if anybody walked out, but I thought of it. I still wish I would’ve. Like everything else these days, people will push envelopes until other people signal that they’ve had enough.
The movies didn’t have anything approaching a dirty word until Gone with the Wind and its famous scene where Rhett Butler tells Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” After more than a little hand-wringing, the studio decided to keep the line. The result? No moviegoers were reported to have fainted at hearing it. Nobody boycotted theaters. Indeed, today the film is regarded as one of the best of all time. It’s worth noting, though, that of the thousands of words of dialogue in the script, there’s only one that audiences at the time would’ve considered to be profane.
Today, more than 80 years after its release, Gone with the Wind is still considered a classic, although sensitive folks these days seem a lot more concerned with its depiction of black people, as slaves or servants, than they are about that last word of dialogue uttered by Rhett. One suspects that these same folks would be just fine with the movie if every tenth word was an F-bomb, as long as it didn’t offend their social-justice sensibilities.
But it does beg the question that many modern moviegoers might ask: how could they make a successful movie with only one mildly-offensive word in it?
Well, Tom Cruise pretty much did it with Top Gun: Maverick last year. The top-grossing film of 2022 has just one F-bomb, according to imdb.com. The year’s biggest Oscar winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once (7 awards) has 12 F-bombs. (Not to mention, according to my brother, an almost incomprehensible plot.) The most popular series on TV, Yellowstone, features “constant use of @#$%,” according to the Parents’ Guide on imdb.com. So, while the lack of profanities in Maverick was probably not even noticed by audiences–although, perhaps, appreciated in a subliminal way–other productions that have considerably more naughty words don’t seem to be driving people away.
Back in the mid-1970s, comedian George Carlin released an album, Class Clown, that included his famous bit, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Today, of course, all them are, a lot. My parents were shocked when I brought home the album and played it on the living-room stereo. (It was a big hit at my high school, though.) Carlin had @#$% on the list, of course–it was number 3, as I recall, although they weren’t listed in any particular order. In fact, Carlin’s bit was the subject of a legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The comic had been arrested in Milwaukee for performing the routine on stage, but a judge threw out the case. When a New York radio station aired it on an afternoon in October 1973, the FCC took action, threatening to deny the station’s license when it came up for renewal if it ever again crossed that line. Refusing to be intimidated, the station’s ownership went to court. Did the radio station have the right to air content containing those words? In 1978, the nation’s highest court said no, sort of, in a 5-4 decision, ruling that the government, in an effort to protect children, could restrict “obscene” content from the public airwaves at certain times of day.
Where the @#$% did it come from, anyway?
The word itself goes back to at least the 15th century, according to Wikipedia, and is probably Germanic in origin. There are urban legends associated with the word, most of them having to do with adulterous behavior that resulted in the offenders being placed in stocks for public shaming, and the word printed above them as an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or even “Fornication Under Consent of the King.”
Full disclosure: I’ve used the word occasionally in my own books. In my latest novel, The Man in the Arena, I used it (and some of its relatives) more than usual, in an effort to make the bad guys’ dialogue more realistic. I tried never to cross the line from “reasonable authenticity” to “gratuitous,” and my readers have told me that they understand the context. Even with that, I never went nearly as far as what I heard on stage New Year’s Eve, or what I often hear in casual conversation between people (usually those young enough to be my own kids, or even grandkids). But I wasn’t really comfortable writing those words, or uttering them myself as I recorded the audio version.
I was brought up in a household where that kind of language wasn’t tolerated. Of course we kids used those words–sparingly–in the schoolyard, but those were different times, when kids were still fearful of their parents and teachers if they were caught breaking the rules…and using profanity was definitely against the rules. I remember a basketball game when I was a freshman in high school, and an opposing player used “@#$%” at exactly the wrong moment and the referee didn’t hesitate in calling a technical foul on him.
Times, unfortunately, have changed.
Nowadays, though, when teachers sometimes help kids defy their parents, and many parents don’t care what comes out of their kids’ mouths because hey, they’re only expressing themselves, pretty much anything seems to go. A sign of the times, perhaps, times that are definitely ruder and cruder than they used to be.
Theodore Roosevelt, who used naughty words so rarely that historians can practically count them, said, “Profanity is the parlance of the fool. Why curse when there is such a magnificent language in which to discourse?” Some presidents weren’t so fussy; remember Nixon’s tapes? But others could command respect and exert authority without resorting to dirty language. Eisenhower’s cold stare was enough to reduce battle-hardened military men to putty. Reagan and Obama, two of our most eloquent presidents, never had to use blue language to get their points across.
When my son was in high school, I was driving him to school one winter morning when the car slid back down the driveway and banged into a tree. The damage was minor; my language, unfortunately, was not. It didn’t take long for Jim to tell his older sister about it. They still laugh about it today, and I chuckle, too. But the episode was instructive. Language that many others use in everyday conversation was so rare in our house that it was an historic event when it was uttered. But that’s okay. I’d rather have them take note of that than say, “Hey, remember when Dad used a full sentence without dropping an F-bomb?”
Good thoughts, Dave. I was also raised in a home where that kind of language was not tolerated. Although my Dad was occasionally colorful with the s-bomb while away from the house, I never heard the f-word from him. When I hear it, no matter what context, it feels like a punch in the gut. How can modern society have conniptions over the n-word and have no clue about what damage their f-bombs do?
A talented novelist can write amazing action stories without the use of profanity…see: Joel C. Rosenberg.