Thursday, September 5, 2019

Day 56: Eff that!

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?


Wanderingcatstudio said...

I was born in '79 and I definitely think it's MUCH more prevalent now than it was then. And I grew up with my dad's blue collar factory worker friends so that's saying something. They never held their tongue just because a woman or a child was around.

That said, when I was a teenager, it was still rare to hear fuck in public. With a few exceptions, even those rough blue collar guys were careful when they were in public, and not hanging around my kitchen table playing cribbage. Even us teenagers were careful with it, keeping our voices down when using it on the bus or in the mall. There doesn't seem to be that.... courtesy... now.

As for television... when I was a kid, that never happened unless Mom let us stay up past 11 to watch a movie. Before that time, any bad words were bleeped out. And they certainly didn't say it in a television show... only movies.

As a child, most of our friend's parents were very careful not to swear around the children. Nowadays, my peers with children are frequently swearing in front of their own children, their friends, whoever.

The only place I can think of in my life that doesn't have much swearing is the office. There are a few people who will drop the odd swear word, but it's usually in a more casual context, not a a professional one (talking about their weekend vs in a presentation or when talking about a project). I should note that I work in marketing with a lot of "creatives"... we're not exactly the conservative type.

Work, and in front of Dave's grandmother are probably the only two places I personally curb my tongue. In public I will still swear, though I usually check my volume to limit my offense.

Laurie said...

I’m the old person you’re looking for. 😂 I was born in 1957 to a family of champion swearers. My uncle could stretch the phrase “God damn,” into about 23 syllables. But no f-bombs were ever dropped. No one said THAT word.

I first heard the word when I was in second grade. This would be 1965-66. We came in from recess one day, and there was some big drama going on. One of my friends was sitting in the corner crying. Pretty soon, the principal came and took her out of class. I asked another friend what happened was was told she told one of the boys in class to fuck off. I had never heard the word before, but I was extremely impressed at the power it had to create utter chaos in my classroom. And I wondered what effect it would have in my home, where things were pretty free-wheeling.

So..that afternoon, when I got home from school, I was surprised by my grandma visiting. I took off my coat, tossed it over a chair and ran to hug Grandma. My mother told me to hang up my coat. I said I would in a minute. She said to do it NOW, and I looked right at her and said, “fuck off, Mom”. I swear all the oxygen left the room. Grandma went into one of her “ heart spells”. Mom said “what did you say?” and I came back with “what does it mean?” I explained what had happened at school and again asked what it means. She wouldn’t tell me. She just said it was the worst word you could possibly ever say and I was not to say it ever again..and apologize to my gasping grandmother.

I never said it again..until I had left home in the late 70s and taken up with wild hippies in the big city. Then I said it all the time and, before long, my parents were saying it, too. My mother was of the belief that if I was aware enough of something to ask about it I was old enough to know. So, I knew the whole truth about “where babies come from” a year before I told her to fuck off, yet she never said it was a euphemism for sex. I went through elementary school listening to all my friends guessing what “that word” meant and never joined in. I think I was 13 when I demanded she tell me, “what the damn word means”. Notice a 13-year old saying “damn” got no reaction. I remember thinking it was very silly and wondered why she didn’t just say so in the first place.

Like the poster above, I remember words like “hell” and “damn” being bleeped out on TV. I thought it was funny, considering what I heard at home. I know when I started dropping f-bombs in my early 20s, it was still pretty outrageous, but by the end of the 80s, it felt like everyone was saying it..and I was working hard to cut down.

I still swear a good bit at home, but I try to refrain in public. I’ve worked and volunteered with populations where that word or any cuss word could be triggering in some way.