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Why The F (Word)

Catcher in the Rye used it five times. If you find an old copy in a second-hand book store, chances are some 12 year old (now 80-ish) underlined every instance. Back then, the f-word was outrageous; shocking; and hidden. And then, more often than not, it had to do directly with the sex act. But that curious 12 year old would have had his mouth washed out with soap–at the very least–had he uttered the word in public. “Ya kiss ya mutha with that mouth?!”

Hidden, because after rare and typically cryptic use in the sixteenth century, it was banned from english dictionaries from 1795 to 1965. I find it interesting that there was a word, even outside protestant and Puritan influence, that was deemed unbecoming to anyone who would use a dictionary and keep civil company. That was then. This is (f-ing) now.

So where did the word come from in the first place? That sleuthing is made more difficult because of the reluctance across the history of written language to write it out and to record its use by upstanding members of literate society. There are inaccurate stories that it originally came from a royal decree to repopulate after the plague: “Fornicate Under Command of the King.” Good story. Fake news. But maybe good advice for the survivors of Covid19. Eat. Drink. And make babies.

The best etymological roots seem to trace it to Scottish/Scandinavian roots, variously including fukka, focka and fock (penis.) Apart from the sexual use, it came to imply violence (hitting, punching, thrusting.) The combined “thrust” of the term to profane the act of procreation and, at the same time, imply ill-intentioned aggression, making it a perfect word for our moral-psycho-socially dysfunctional times, don’t you think?

There was a time not long ago when it was veiled and substituted as fork, pork, fug or eff/effing/effed. But the gloves are off now and it is released full-monty into the wild. Perhaps the high-density winner is the movie Wolf of Wallstreet where it was used every other breathe: a total of 506 times in a three hour movie. The script must have been tres-easy for the actors to remember. And if you forget a line, toss in some f’s as subjects, objects and epithets.

The word has morphed in the media and common vernacular of the past decades to be a much more versatile word by far than the original verb. Few words have so many different uses, often within the same sentence.

From Opinion: The f-word is everywhere – CNN

Think about it. It can express surprise, outrage, anger, humor, delight or desire. And it can stand in for several parts of speech: noun, verb (in any tense), gerund, participle, imperative, interrogative, interjection, to mention just the most common uses.

It can be quite a variety of speech bits: the verb, of course, as in f you, intended to imply obliterating, humiliating or otherwise damaging the intended subject. Then there are the prepositions: something or someone can be f’d up, f’d over or f’d around with. There is the flying f, from an 1800 ballad of sex on horseback.

It can be an adjective whose meaning is conferred by context, so that f-ing awesome and f-ing terrible both imply the extreme. As a noun, to not give a f means to disregard as trivial.

And perhaps the most unique use of the word is as an “infix” (as opposed to pre-and suff-ix) where the word comes in the middle. Consider for example the emphatic infix of “un-f’ing-believable.

It can be used as an interrogative as in What da f?

But any more, it is a space filler that may or may not be chosen for any of the above purposes, but because it comes to mind. My favorite story is this one:

â–º During a trivia game at her assisted living home, she could not think of the name of Peter, Paul, and Mary's magic dragon, so she blurted: "F--- the Magic Dragon," which now has become the family's official title for the song.

You can find plenty of praise for the word, including being an antidote to the “poison of piety, fastidiousness and erudition” and “a way of defining character.” I just don’t care to watch or listen to such characters for more than a minute.

So I having accepted the fact that I can’t find many things on Netflix or elsewhere that do not accost my brain with extensive overuse of the word, I still don’t quite understand how other words, with long rich histories of use, could not as well express outrage, surprise, indignation or malice.

After the first dozen f-bombs, I will chose to take a walk instead. There is sufficient anger, violence, misogyny and racism in fact without having to have it brought into common language, veiled or overt. I tend to remove my attention and my advertising dollars from those that have no better way to draw and keep my attention.

“Let your yay be yay and your nay be nay” the Bible admonishes. Speak your mind without the theatric embellishments, brethren and sistren. So my guess is, there was an f-word equivalent even back then. Verily, verily I say unto thee, if you don’t have other words than that for me well, just shut the…

By fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

4 replies on “Why The F (Word)”

Lots of fun information Fred. I am afraid I have been known to use the word on not infrequent
Occasions, but I try hard to not overdo it.

I never heard the f word used by anyone in my family who was older than was I. I still, at age 82, refuse to use the f word; but, my daughters were comfortable using it from their late teens – after they left home. It doesn’t get much used around our family these days, though. People are mindful of setting a better example for my 9- and 10-year-old great-grandsons.

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