Friday, March 21, 2008

The "F" Word

An essay I recently wrote. Thanks to my sister, Jan, for her encouragement.

Fuck. There, I got that out of the way. The title of this essay is actually Fuck and you won't catch me referring to it as anything else within these paragraphs. I believe I have good reason for the more polite title. I thought it wise to avoid putting people—especially young people—into an awkward situation. Imagine a teen sitting at the table and his mother walks in and asks, “What are you reading?” “I'm reading 'Fuck', Mom.” Picture the shocked look on Mom's face and watch the inquisition begin. "Where did you...?" "Who gave this...?" "I can't believe..." "Did your teacher...?" "Give me that!" Of course, it's presumptuous of me to think anyone would read Fuck, but I thought it best to think ahead—just in case.

You see, children know all about fuck. One day I was channel surfing while my 12-year-old daughter sat beside me. I stopped on a movie channel and didn't recognize the movie. A character played by Steve Martin was startled by another man and said, "Fuck, man, you scared the shit out of me." So I changed the channel. My daughter smiled and piped up in a mischievous sing-song voice, "I can tell Mom I learned a new word today." It was a great laugh for both of us.

Many years ago as a 12-year-old in Abilene, Texas, I heard fuck was in the dictionary located in the school library. This I had to see for myself. Even though looking at the dictionary is a fairly innocuous activity, I felt very apprehensive. I felt guilty. I was looking up fuck and anyone looking over my shoulder would clearly see that. The dictionary sat on its own table in front of the card catalog and in clear view of the librarian's desk. To be safe I assumed she was able to recognize when a guilt-ridden face was reading about fuck. I scouted out possible escape routes, thought up excuses in case I was challenged, and tried not to act like I was up to something—to look at a dictionary! I approached it with my best innocent air, put my finger on the indented "F" page, opened that huge book and flipped through pages until—heart racing and my breath catching—there it was! Fuck. Even though I knew all of the definitions, I read them again and again glancing around furtively as if each one was a new pornographic adventure. It was exhilirating.

Fuck is the most versatile and powerful word in the English language. I'm not sure any other language has a word equivalent to fuck. There is no limit to what fuck can convey. We can communicate dread—You're fucked. Sarcasm—That's a fucking shame. Anger—You fuck! You fucking fuck! And the especially angry—You fucking, fucked up fuck! Okay, I made that one up. There is the simple, yet multipurpose insult we are all familiar with—Fuck you. We can agree with others—Fuckin'-A. Is it possible to diagram that sentence? That's how powerful fuck is. It can make an incomplete sentence whole. We can express empathy—Oh, that's fucked up. And when something is fucked up, it's in pretty bad shape. Even the military uses fuck. The acronym FUBAR—fucked up beyond all repair—describes how fucked up something is. And what generals refer to as the fog of war is known as a cluster fuck to the troops in the middle of it.

Fuck has practically no limit as a modifier. You can throw fuck in front of any word and it feels right at home. It's fucking awesome. Bono created quite a stir at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards when he accepted his band's award and said it was "really, really fucking brilliant." (Which, by the way, radiates brilliance exponentially more than really, really brilliant.) The power of fuck as a modifier can also be affected by it's placement. Compare, "That's fucking unbelieveable," to, "That's un-fucking-believable." One version conveys a greater sense of skepticism and dubiousness and leaves no doubt as to how un-fucking-believeable something is.

As a testament to the power of fuck, compare the reaction you get using fuck with what happens when you use a simple profanity. The best test scenario for a teen requires siblings and at least one parent to be present. The siblings guarantee that someone else will hear of this incident and puts the parent in a position where she must take action. Point at something and say, "Holy shit, look how much that costs!" Quite likely you'll get the we-don't-use-that-kind-of-language lecture. You might even get grounded for a short time. Your siblings will hold you in high esteem for your daring behavior. After your punishment has been completed and the opportunity presents itself again, point at something and say, "That's fucking expensive." There's no sterner lecture that the one you get for saying fuck. Expect a more severe punishment to go along with the lecture. Your siblings will have the highest fucking esteem for you. And when it's all over and you're asked if you've learned your lesson, just answer, "Fuckin'-A." You have just sealed your doom. Or I should say, you're fucked. Your siblings may even tell you so.

Even if you substitute another word for fuck, it still has power. Dad is driving the family home and he sees someone run a stop sign. "That frickin' idiot is gonna kill someone!" he says and everybody in the car immediately and reflexively substitutes fuckin' for frickin'. It's intuitive. Even if you've never heard fuck before, you know that frickin' isn't the right word. It sounds like it's replaced something that's probably phonetically similar and yet communicates so much more. The knowing child has fuckin', fuckin', fuckin' echoing in her mind. The unknowing child's suspicions are confirmed when Mom makes a show of concern over Dad's language. "Honey, the kids!" she stage whispers. And all the while fuckin', fuckin', fuckin' is bouncing around in her head too.

While riding the bus to work one morning some stupid fuck on a bicycle darted out in front of us. As everyone was pressed hard against the seatbacks in front of them and the cyclist loomed large in the windshield, an outburst came from the back of the bus. "Motherfuck! Stupid motherfucker!" The lucky cyclist escaped and a deathly quiet descended over us. Nearly everyone turned and looked back at the stupid fuck who erupted over the cyclist. "My bad," came a sullen apology. Was it ever. Although most of the people on the bus wouldn't have recognized it as such, he committed quite the faux pas. The sharp, biting edge of fuck was absent. When you add mother to fuck you're merely uttering a profanity, wouldn't you agree? Fuckin'-A.

Around the same time period I was doing my prurient dictionary sneak peeks, my dad and his friend Norm took me and my younger brothers, Bob and Sam, fishing. It turned into a sweltering day and the fish weren't biting. We roasted in the sun and grew tired of staring at the tips of our poles. Suddenly, Bob's pole U-shaped and he excitedly started reeling in what certainly appeared to be a big one. Right when he got the fish to the boat it slipped off the hook. His frustration combined with the misery of the day. He stood up, threw his pole down in the boat and screamed, "Fuck!" Sam and I froze. Bob cast his eyes downward as he realized what he had just done. Although our dad swore any time he was awake, we had never heard him say fuck. And as a strict disciplinarian he was not to be trifled with. With an ice-cold stare, Dad said, "What did you say?" Norm tried to provide an outlet for the tension. "I think he said something about his truck." Sam and I did not laugh. While we now had the highest esteem for Bob, we also both knew he was going to meet his end right then and there. What we couldn't say in words we said with our eyes. "Bob, you're fucked." To our dismay, and to Bob's great relief, Dad gave him a very stern lecture about "that word." He wouldn't even say it himself. Here was a man we'd never seen show any fear, who threw out swear words like "goddamn", "shit", "cocksucker" and "asshole" as if they were Mardi Gras beads and he couldn't say fuck.

When I had the channel surfing incident with my daughter, I told her that I knew she knew all the swear words and that she knew better than to use them. During our conversation I never said fuck. So "that word" remains an open yet unspoken secret between us which might make you think that at one time I had learned a lesson of my own. Fuckin-A.

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