Saturday, December 01, 2007

My Friend "Fuck": A Tribute

[NOTE: I’m not gonna lay responsibility for this post on anyone, although some flippant conversations in various comment threads over at Flumadiddle had a lot to do with it.]

OK, let’s start with a kinesthetic exercise. Pull your lower lip up and over your lower teeth. Almost simultaneously, bite down as hard as you can stand it with your top front teeth, trying to get them to crunch against their toothy siblings hiding under that labial covering. Propel your entire skull forward quickly as if you were beginning a head-butt against the world, and at the same time snap your top teeth upward, opening your mouth wide to scream silently; if you hear a slight explosive sound, you’re doing it correctly. As you do this, pretend that you’ve been punched by the entire cosmos hard in the gut, and react with a pained “uhhhhhhhhhh.” After a while, bring the back of your tongue up to the place where your hard palate meets your soft palate, and then force the tongue and the roof of your mouth apart by propelling a compressed, but noisy and disgusted, loogie of air forward.

Isn’t that fun? Try putting it all together, and doing it faster. Short of putting your fist through a wall, can you think of a better way to express anger, or annoyance, or exasperation, or extreme disappointment? It made you laugh, too, didn’t it?

Congratulations. You’ve just said “fuck,” a word allegedly frowned on by polite society. If you like saying it, you can turn it into an adjective: “fucking” or the Noo-Yawky “fucken.” You can follow it with a preposition to express an action: “fuck up” or “fuck off.” You can merge it with other words to make composites: “fuckface” or “fuckwad.” You can use it to emphasize a simple yes-or-no answer: “fuck, no” or “fuck, yeah.” You can throw a pronoun after it to make a complete sentence: “Fuck it!” or “Fuck you!” You can play with it by adding any syllables that sound good to you and/or by repeating it a few times: “fucka-fucka-fucka” or “fuckety-fuck-fuck.” Or you can just bang it out as many times in a row as it takes you to calm down: “fuck fuck fuck fUck fUCK FUCK.”

Technically, of course, the word means “to have sexual intercourse with.” If you look up “fuck” on Wikipedia — and I’ll bet some of you have already done that just for fucking fun, haven’t you? — you’ll find all sorts of bogus derivations, none of which makes a fuck’s worth of difference in the context I’m discussing here.

Some fuckwit blogger who pretends to understand sociology, psychology, culture, and linguistics wrote this:

Americans prefer to think of themselves as a classless society, but in fact there are some pretty clear distinctions along linguistic lines. If you take the number of "fucks" spoken by a person in their daily conversation and divide it by the total number of words they speak, you will come up with a stable fraction that could be called that person's "fuck quotient." Statistically, a high fuck quotient corresponds to low education, economic opportunity and social standing. In some inner-city neighborhoods, "fuck" may be one of the most-used words; in posh suburbs, it is hardly ever heard. Occasionally, people of high social standing will use "fuck" to indicate theatrically that they are street-wise, but a high fuck quotient usually signifies frustration and powerlessness. You wouldn't have to use it if you were respected and getting what you wanted.
Now, I don’t know what “posh suburbs” this jerk has been hanging around in, but I’ve heard “fuck” everywhere. In fact, I’d guess that the use of the word is not class-rooted, but rather, education-based. (By “education,” I ‘m not referring only to classroom stuff; I mean the mental activity we call “learning.”) People with the lowest levels of education use it a lot because of its “magical” properties; “fuck” and its variants help them get their mojo on. People with the highest levels of education use it a lot because it’s so much fucking fun to say; they realize that words, in and of themselves, have no dark, mystical powers; and they have big enough vocabularies and sufficient linguistic awareness to know that English lacks a suitably forceful synonym to express their strongest emotions.

Steven Pinker addresses some of his ideas about “swearing” in his new book, The Stuff of Thought. Usually, my lack of knowledge about a subject doesn’t keep me from spouting off about it, but I have so much respect for Pinker that, since I haven’t read his book yet, I won’t comment on it. I did find a quote from an article (now, alas unavailable for a link) Pinker wrote for “The New Republic.” He said:
When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."
(You can also listen to this short excerpt re this subject from a Guardian Unlimited interview with Pinker.)

The problem I have with Pinker’s take on “fuck,” at least from what I’ve seen and heard so far as representative of his position, is that he lumps that delicious nugget of language in with other so-called “swear-words.” He does say: "Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain, it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language." But he doesn’t seem to focus on how terrific you feel, physically, when you drop, specifically, the f-bomb. But saying “fuck” is different, somehow, from intoning “shit,” or “hell,” or “goddammit.” Those latter words are all expletives derived from unpleasant associations. But let’s face it: most of us enjoy the act of fucking. It’s not unpleasant at all, unless you’re doing it wrong. Even then, it’s probably better than lots of things you’re doing right. Religions may frown on fucking in many contexts, but that doesn’t keep humans —even devout ones — from taking indescribable glee in jumping on one another’s intelligently designed bones whenever and wherever they can. Yet, none of the other synonyms for “fuck” has been classified in quite the way that “fuck” has. Sure, you might say, “Screw you!” or “Go bugger yourself,” but they’re not the same, are they?

So why this long testimonial to “fuck”? Because I’ve noticed — and you’ve probably picked up on this, as well — that it appears a lot in comments throughout the Atheosphere. We freethinkers really like to say it. What’s more important, though, is that we’re not afraid of saying it, we’re not restrained by a need to make a hypocritical nod to convention, we don’t feel that we’ve demeaned our ideas by seasoning them with some verbal salt and pepper. Not only do we not believe in any gods, we also don’t believe in ridiculous “standards” of speech and behavior that have no moral basis whatsoever.

So we use “fuck” for emphasis, humorous value, expressing irritation, and just plain for the fuck of it. And the simple usage of that word is sometimes sufficient to enliven a piece of writing. You can’t just read “fuck” with your eyes. In order for it to have any effect, you have to hear it in your head, or, better yet, say it out loud. Inserted into a text at the right point, “fuck” adds an intimacy and conversational quality to even the driest argument. At that very moment, the writer is speaking directly to the reader; he or she asks you to listen to that “fuck,” and maybe even sing along.

So should you use “fuck” all the time? No, please don’t. It gets boring after a while, like too many episodes of Seinfeld back-to-back; it starts losing its flavor, like the sixth glass of fancy wine during dinner.

But by all means, use it when it feels right, when your emotions need that kind of bang for their buck (or fang for their fuck). The Atheosphere is about freedom from religion, but it’s also about freedom of speech. Nobody’s gonna call “foul language” on you for saying whatever you want. In fact, I’d guess that many of you, as I do, enjoy reading “fuck,” writing “fuck,” hearing “fuck,” and saying “fuck.” As I noted at the beginning of this post: it’s fun. In fact, it’s the funnest English word there is.

This episode of No More Hornets was brought to you by the word “fuck.”

36 comments:

the chaplain said...

Too funny. I'll refrain from saying anything more. I've already said far too much elsewhere.

Lynet said...

I'm laughing, I'm curious, and you're making me reflect.

I used the word 'shit' as a swear word for the first time just a few weeks back. I believe it was as part of the phrase "don't give a shit". It wasn't a big thing. I used it communicationally, knowing that there was no point in coming up with a less offensive synonym, under the circumstances, so I might as well use it. As a matter of fact, what I should be saying is that that was the first time I used the word 'shit' aloud as a swear word; the first time I used 'shit' as a swear word was on Daylight Atheism here. I know, I know, funny choice of start point -- a blog, whose owner I deeply respect, on which swearing is partially prohibited.

The first time I swore at all (at least in a way that I considered swearing) in writing was in a poem I wrote in July while stuck in Heathrow airport. You would like that poem, I think, though I worry that the last stanza is too offensive (but not because of the swearing). I wasn't at all contrite about it. In a poem, you use whatever words work best, and fuck the consequences.

That is, by the way, the second time I've used the word 'fuck' in a way that wasn't in real or metaphorical quotation marks, so to speak. And the first time was in my airport poem. I don't know when I'll use it aloud. Probably not any time soon. Perhaps I'll use it, not as a swear word per se, but it its literal capacity to refer to sex, as a way of conveying the idea that I'm not simply working within the traditionally-approved framework that still partially surrounds the idea of sex when referred to any other way. I'd like that.

Oh, and in the interest of accuracy I should point out that the real first time I swore was when I was three and had just learned about swearing, and went dancing around in circles saying "shit, shit, shit, shit, shit...". My mother's wry disapproval followed by disinterest got rid of that one quite quickly, though.

Lynet said...

Oh! And I've already said a lot, but I have to mention this, too. Even in quotation marks, there's one usage of the word 'fuck' that still counts as significant for me. Philip Larkin's 'This Be The Verse':

They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do...

tina said...

Very good post on fuck. :) I was reading your post and my television was messing up, I said, FUCKING T.V. Okay, you had to be there...

ordinary girl said...

Fuck it!

(OK, I'm a little drunk and I hardly ever drink so I couldn't think of anything more clever.)

PhillyChief said...

Wtf? You fuckwad! If anyone should be fucking writing a piece on fuck then it should be fucking me for fuck's sake, you fucker! FUCK! I fucking hate you for beating me to this. I easily have the highest "fuck quotient" or whatever the fuck it's called (I'm too fucking lazy to go back and find that little fucknugget in your piece).

Ah, after having to keep my cool with that fuck on JP's blog, I just had let those out. My fuck quotient was all out of whack. Between this and watching the game later, I should be back on track. ;)

I've learned some things about cursing this past month. When I wrote asking for help to substitute non-christian curses for christian curses I realized rather than being somehow enslaved by such dominance of the cursing vocabulary by the christians, each utterance of a christian based curse was more of a big fuck you to that whole thing. Now I can revel in my "god damn"s and my "Jesus Christ"s, especially the "Jesus Fucking Christ"s. I get emotional release, emphasis, and the added thrill of possibly upsetting someone's delicate christian sensibilities who happens to be within earshot. Well maybe that last bit isn't nice, but too fucking bad. What do you expect from a godless, high fuck quotient fuck like me? Jesus Christ!

Sarge said...

Well, maybe I'm showing my fogeyism, but the "F Bomb" seems to have become, well, kind of blah. My wife and I were out to eat the other night and a twenty-something young man experienced some kind of melt down which seemed to require that he shout at the top of his lungs, and "Fuck" seemed to be the word of choice. He capered about like he'd been bitten by a rabid chimp or something (rabid chimp would probably have shown more self control, decorum, and consideration, true) and he stopped at our table and brayed, "What are YOU looking at!!??" and my wife said, very sadly, "A very uncreative person. Cantcha do something more than just 'fuck'? Putting 'mother' in front of it doesn't count." He looked very angry, so I shifted my cane so that I could acquaint him with the end that has the six ounces of lead I've installed if he looked like touching her, and he ran out the door still shouting the "Big F" as my father used to call it. A party of eight at another table actually kind of salvaged an awkward interval; they held up napkins which they had numbered to critique the performance. The highest number was a 3.3. The whole place busted out laughing. They said the points were for sincerity and dffort put into the performance, but originality and disciplined flow were wanting.

Still, invective, if properly used, can be a spice. My oldest son, not long after he lrarned to talk, decided that the word "shit" was a most satisfying and worthwhile word to use and lost no oppertunity to do so. When my wife was very ill when he was 2 1/2 I had to send him to her parents for a couple of months. While he was there they were visited by their preacher who asked if his father talked about Jesus. He told the preacher that I talked about Jesus Christ all the time when I was fixing the car and working with the horse. My in laws were, well, chagrined, and somewhat at a loss because the preacher almost fell off the chair laughing.

I wrote about in in Philly Chief's blog, but one of the most powerful uses of invective included just four words. I had a C123 taking off and one of the auxilliary jet engines exploded and caused a lot of damage at this critical phase of flight. Right over the air came words which were resigned and disgusted: "Well, shit, We're fucked." No passion, anger, fear or desparation, just a simple declarative statement of fact.

The Exterminator said...

chaplain, Lynet, tina, OG:
I don't know what it proves -- or even if it proves anything -- but I was fascinated to discover that the first four commenters to this post were among the most linguistically polite readers I have. And all women.

Since you're all women, I'd like to mention another aspect of "fuck" I considered addressing in my post -- and decided not to because I couldn't add anything from my own personal experiences. Saying or writing "fuck," in certain circumstances, makes a short, sweet political statement. Its mere presence in spoken or written discourse can show where a person stands on a certain issue. I think the earliest feminists understood that: By saying "fuck," they were able to announce, succinctly, that they were no longer slaves to a sexual role imposed on them by men.

What do you think?

Philly:
I knew that you'd be fucking jealous.

Sarge:
Another linguistically polite commenter! In all the interesting comments of yours I've read throughout the Atheosphere -- and there are plenty of them (for which we thank you) -- I don't think I've ever seen a stray "fuck."

OK, everyone, what's going on here? With the sole exception of Philly, why are the least likely people to use the word the first ones to comment on it?

Babs said...

I have to say that this is a most excellent post. As everyone who reads my blog knows, I love the word "fuck". I do try to limit myself to using only when I feel that it's the exact word that needs to be used. I might even have a post or two in which I never used the word "fuck". Because I agree that overusing it tends to put too much emphasis on it, and whatever point I was trying to make loses it's value. (Like I ever really try to make a point.)

However, I think this applies to any word that is overused. Whether it be a "curse" word or not.

But, what the fuck do I know?

the chaplain said...

I know I promised to "refrain from saying anything more," but I can't resist the temptation. Besides, Ext. said I could.

I think it's liberating to realize that there are few good reasons to regard a select set of words as taboo. (My mother would die if she saw the "fuck" comment that I wrote on Bab's blog. I'd be attending my exorcism now instead of writing to you fine folks.) We should feel free to use the entire palette of colorful linguistic tools available in appropriate circumstances.

As you pointed out in your post, sometimes cuss words are just funny and fun. I hope my "fuck" comment at Babs' place is an example of this (although it may be just a really pathetic attempt at humor).

Generally, I think overuse of terms weakens their effects. If we want certain words to express outrage, we should reserve them for such occasions. I don't really have anything against cussing, but I do feel that there are many occasions, in both written and oral communications, when more precise, expressive words can and should be used. Sometimes, though, nothing can subsist for a grand old nasty cuss word.

The Exterminator said...

Babs:
You said, As everyone who reads my blog knows, I love the word "fuck".
I'm gonna have to go back and reread your stuff because I never noticed that. (Maybe that's just my lame excuse for rereading your hilarious stuff.)

chappy:
I agree completely with everything you say.

Your comment at Babs's place cracked me up -- but mostly because it came from you, who has turned out, in more ways than one, not to be the "shrinking violet" I originally thought you were. You're a take-over-the-fucking-garden violet, which is my favorite kind.

Lifeguard said...

I love this post almost as much as I love the fact that the whole time I read it all I could think of was how Philly was going to blow a fucking gasket in the comments section.

I would also like to say that I have come to admire how Babs peppers her posts with the most judiciously placed "fucks" I have ever seen. She's just so fucking eloquent, you know? Truly, she and Philly are the Samuel L. Jacksons of the blogosphere.

While I agree that curse words can lose their effectiveness if overused, I think they add so much flavor to conversation when well used and I think they can be equally effective in writing.

If you're reading this thinking that this whole post is just some crude joke and our comments fill you with disgust, then I would simply suggest you get some fresh air, go outside, and play hide and go fuck yourself.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

OK, everyone, what's going on here? With the sole exception of Philly, why are the least likely people to use the word the first ones to comment on it?

They got here first?

Hey, it's Sunday. I didn't even get to look at my computer until my "honey do" list was taken care of. Rake the fuckin' leaves, paint the fuckin' bedroom, put the fuckin' lawn furniture away.

Then I got to write something for my blog before it sluiced through the colander I call a brain.

I thought Sunday was supposed to be a fuckin' day of rest?

John Evo said...

Lifeguard said:

I love this post almost as much as I love the fact that the whole time I read it all I could think of was how Philly was going to blow a fucking gasket in the comments section.

I agree whole-heartedly. And I expected Philly to be about 3 of the first 6 comments. Very
funny post.

PhillyChief said...

I probably should have just made a sunshiny comment with rainbows and bunnies and flowers and puppies an- ah, who the fuck am I kidding. Call me Mr. Fucking Predictable.

Babs said...

Ex - Why do I get this feeling you're now tallying the "fucks" on my blog?

Yay! I'm Samuel L. Fucking Jackson.

Larro said...

Excellent post. I'm guilty of the liberal use of this magical word.

Who else is I wonder?

The Exterminator said...

Larro:
You said, I'm guilty of the liberal use of this magical word.

I'd threaten to tell your mother, but I have it in writing that she uses it, too.

sacred slut said...

Fucking brilliant and funny.

Lynet said...

I don't know what it proves -- or even if it proves anything -- but I was fascinated to discover that the first four commenters to this post were among the most linguistically polite readers I have. And all women.

The less you use the word fuck, the more it means to you. To those who use it all the time, your post might be funny, but it's not making quite such an interesting point. For you, 'fuck' is a strong emphasis word. For me, it's explosive. It's being so angry you don't care -- or it's making a sudden declaration that you don't need to be angry not to care!

I think the earliest feminists understood that: By saying "fuck," they were able to announce, succinctly, that they were no longer slaves to a sexual role imposed on them by men.

What do you think?


I don't know for sure. It strikes me as somewhat plausible; not least because women weren't supposed to swear at all. I suspect it would depend which feminist you asked, though.

Larro said...

She didn't get it from me, LOL

The Exterminator said...

Well, fuck you all very much for your comments.

tina said...

Okay, I'm late returning to this post. Larro, I think I did get it from you! Think about it. I didn't say it much till I figured out I was atheist. Not saying you converted me or anything but you gave me the slight push to question religion and not be worried about burning in a lake of fire. :)

Ute said...

We freethinkers really like to say it. What’s more important, though, is that we’re not afraid of saying it, we’re not restrained by a need to make a hypocritical nod to convention, we don’t feel that we’ve demeaned our ideas by seasoning them with some verbal salt and pepper.

Speak for yourself, Ex. I wrote it over on Evo's blog and I'll say it here too:

The word fuck as a cussing word never made any sense to me. In Germany you don't use it to cuss. Well, some Germans have adopted it, I guess. But only as in the one word sentence "Fuck!!!"

I was raised not to cuss. I don't even say shit or damn.

As mentioned before, fuck doesn't make any sense to me.

"You fucking idiot." Huh??? Idiot maybe, but fucking? Not!
"It's so fucking hot in here." I see how it's hot... but fucking? I just don't get it. And I don't think I ever will.

I try to avoid movies that overuse the word fuck too. It's just no good to me to listen to actors say that word 150 times throughout a movie, when it's just not necessary.

I may be americanized... but not that much I guess. :)
~~~~~~~~~~

But hey, I might do it just for you. So fucking thank you for this fucking post. :) Yikes... that's so not me.

PhillyChief said...

Typical German, so practical and efficient. Yes, on it's surface it doesn't make sense when looking at the definition of the word and yes, use of it seems superfluous but there's also the accepted, unwritten definition in Americanese which equates to something like "mega ultimate really really seriously" and also the shock value. Of course frequency affects both of those, you're right.

I also remember a story about the history of "the finger". In the US, the gesture is synonymous with "fuck you". When that came to be, I don't know but the story about "the finger" I think goes back to war between England and France. I think the French would cut off the middle finger of English longbowman they captured. Apparently without that finger it's next to impossible to shoot correctly. So English archers in a sign of defiance would wave "the finger" at the French. Your comment Ute made me think of this as perhaps the whole "fuck" thing is embedded in us in ancient ways which it's not in German culture.

Ute said...

That's possible I assume. Also, the word fuck would not make any sense as a noun in German. fuck is ficken... And saying "Was zum ficken" would sound in English as if you said "What the fucking".
And since the word really only has the literal meaning "to have intercourse with someone", when you say "Hey, you fucking idiot"... "Hey, Du fickender Idiot" it would mean just that... "Hey you "having intercourse with someone" idiot."

Hmmm... the story about "the finger" is funny. I wonder if it's really true.

Ute said...

So I speak about fuck as a noun and then show examples with the word as a verb. Lovely!

The Exterminator said...

tina:
Well, shame on you, a mother learning bad words -- and bad thoughts -- from her wayward son.

Ute:
One of the points I was trying to make is that "fuck" is most often used without its allegedly "real" denotation of "have intercourse." That's why, in English, it can be turned into any part of speech -- it's meaningless no matter where in a sentence it falls.

Philly:
I'd also heard that story about the English longbowmen. In the version I read, "giving the finger" was particularly associated with the Battle of Crecy.

But a quick check of Wikipedia -- (not the most reliable of sources, granted, but verifiable by someone who really cares enough to bother) -- reveals that "the finger" may go as far back as Ancient Greek Comedy.

The story of the English archers, is, alas, aprocryphuckal.

Ute said...

Exterminator, I got that. It's just that with my German brain it's hard to forget about the literal meaning, when in my language there is no different way of using it. That's all. :)

Ric (Grumpy Lion) said...

Say it, shmay it! Let's get practical - where do I get some?

PhillyChief said...

There's always craigslist ric, or check your local paper or yellow pages for asian massage, wink wink, nudge nudge.

The Exterminator said...

Ute
My knowledge of German is near zero, but here's a pidgin variant you might be able to use as an adjective: ge-fuckte.

Ric:
Nice to know you're feeling better.

Philly:
You forgot to tell him that if he just wants to feel as if he's being fucked, all he has to do is watch one of the presidential primary debates.

EnoNomi said...

To quote from that great movie Team America...Fuck yeah!

Guy Who's Posting Again said...

You and that Monty Python video make awesome entertainment for the evening. You know, the one about the universal use of the word ' Fuck'.

And the word could be in really good use if it ever comes out on Jeopardy. ' I'm a fucking vegetarian!' for instance.

Indian Pharmacy said...

Actually, Northamericans are completely racist there's no doubt about it.

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