So something that's been capturing my attention and curiosity quite a bit lately is the F word. Fair warning, I am going to actually use the word and others like it in this post - as I say to my students, we need to be able to talk about linguistic data, even when those data involve words that are troubling and uncomfortable. Of course, we also need to do that with care and tact, one part of which is this content warning.
So, fuck. It's an interesting word. (Please note: this is not an acronym meaning For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or any other such thing. It's a nice solid word whose root dates back to Indo-European.) Among other things, it clearly meets what I tend to think of as the phonological trifecta for a good curse word: it begins with a fricative (voiceless is great, because it lets the speaker get a lovely good long hiss going), then a vowel (of course, every syllable has to have a vowel, so this isn't really a special feature or anything), and ends with a voiceless stop (for extra punch). Go ahead and say it out loud (even if you're uncomfortable, it's worth giving this one a shot in the privacy of your own home), and you'll see what I mean. The hissing start, the firm end - they make for great curse words. Shit also fits this bill quite nicely. (As does another very offensive curse word - another warning incoming here - cunt.) Words like "damn" aren't quite as satisfying, because they reverse the abrupt and lingering (not technical terms) sounds: it starts with what we call a stop (because the air is stopped in the mouth before being released), and ends with a nasal, which can be drawn out. So damn is better for times when one wishes to express shock or awe: daaaaaammmmmmmn, dude.
Another interesting thing about fuck, to me, is that it seems to be much more common than I remember it being when I was younger. Now, this could be because I wasn't privy to adult conversations in which fuck was being used (in the same way that I wouldn't use it now in front of a small person). But over the last decade or so, the range of contexts in which fuck is used seems to have expanded. Places which I might have thought of as "damn" places are now, sometimes, spots where fuck shows up. Often without an intervening shit stage. It seems less illicit somehow. I'd love to hear from readers who were born before me (I'm 1971) - was this word being used in adult conversations regularly in your experience? In casual conversations? Workplace conversations?
So, I'd say that now it wouldn't shock me to hear it in a hallway conversation at work (all right, in the interests of full honesty, it wouldn't shock me to find myself sometimes using it in hallway conversation, under the right contexts). But it would take an awful lot for me to use it in a faculty meeting (although I have colleagues who certainly would, and I don't find myself being offended or shocked). And I can't imagine myself using it in, say, an Academic Senate meeting, or in a meeting with my Dean or senior administrators. (Again, that's not a hard and fast rule; I have heard others using it in some of those contexts.)
My daughters roll their eyes at the advice I give them about appropriate contexts of use. They understand why I'm telling them that, and I know they're careful, but I also know that they think of it as an "old person thing", in much the same way that they think about my advice about choosing easily concealed places for an eventual tattoo. Yeah, yeah, we get it - some old fuddy-duddy might be upset by it; they know they need to heed that fact, but they think of it as on the way out. So that in itself says something about the shifting naughtiness value of fuck.
What also interests me about it is the range of contexts where I hear it used on television. In particular, it always strikes me as funny and anachronistic when I see shows filmed now but set in, say, the 70s, where everyone's dropping f-bombs left and right. I'm thinking here of The Americans and Mindhunters, as just two examples. It brings me back to my earlier question - were adults using fuck all over the place in the 70s, just not in front of me? But then again, even now I don't hear people using it as frequently in real-world adult-only workplace conversations as I see on those shows. I'm not sure what it's meant to convey or what purpose it serves.
As I write this, though, I find myself wondering if it's to get those shows to appeal to a younger audience - an audience of people for whom fuck feels more on the scale of dammit. In other words, by using the conversational style of the desired audience, even if its anachronistic, they hope to make the show feel relevant to them, or like something they can relate to? I don't know, but it is an interesting trend to note. And it's pretty recent. I often watch older shows (not even that much older, actually) like Castle or In Plain Sight (why yes, I do like police procedurals, why do you ask?) - and nary an f-bomb in sight! Maybe it's a network/cable distinction? That's an interesting thought, too. But it still implies that audiences want/relate to/find relevant the use of fuck, such that producers will use it when allowed. (Writing this, I'm realizing that explicit sex scenes fall under this explanation, too, although that's a post for another day, but can I just say that I don't give a - you guessed it - fuck if the characters are having sex? I'm not interested in seeing it!!)
What do you think? Have you noticed the rise of the f word in the real world? In your preferred fictional worlds? And has it always been there and I missed it?