NOTE: This is what happens when I ask Facebook peeps for writing prompts. It is not necessarily reflective of the sorts of people who read my blog. Sigh.
Dr. Oscar Patterson, former chair of the University of North Florida’s communications department, shared this story with me on Facebook:
When I came home after way, way too many months with a combat unit in Vietnam, I went to my mother-in-law’s house for Christmas dinner. During the meal, I looked at her and said, “Pass the fucking butter.” For almost 2 years that had been acceptable speech. It obviously wasn’t on this occasion.
PASS THE FUCKING BUTTER, PEOPLE! IT’S CHRISTMAS! Holy Milk Cow, I love that story. It’s demonstrative of the fact that “fuck” is just a word, and its meaning depends entirely on the circumstances under which it’s being used. Okay, duh. What I’m saying is that its level of repulsion can vary. When the Diva once dropped an iron barstool on my feet and broke my two big toes, I yelled, “FUCK! FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!” about a hundred times, interspersed with, “Mom’s okay, don’t worry, I’m fine.” But mostly I yelled, “FUCK.” On a different occasion, I was uber-mad at Hot Firefighter Husband and said to him, “Fuck you.” Guess which instance gave me more pangs of guilt?
The word itself is of Germanic origin, but difficult to pin down. Etymologists believe it may be a hybrid of the Swedish word focka and the Dutch word fokkelen, meaning to strike, or to move back and forth. Move back and forth. Get it? Its earliest written use appears in the 1503 poem Brash of Wowing: Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit: / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane. Whatever the fuck that means.
In later centuries, it became know as a vulgar term, though not always referring to sex. In 1790, a poet named George Tucker wrote a verse about a father chastising his son and saying, I’d not give a fuck for all you’ve read, and so was born the the first incarnation of the excellent modern phrase, “I don’t give a fuck.” Thank you, Mr. Tucker.
But here’s what’s really interesting: one of the ways the word began to accumulate power during the 18th century is its use as a crass term toward people who didn’t know its meaning. So really, it was the intent that was offensive rather than the word itself, but the word became a symbol of the user’s intention. Instead of saying, “Aye, ye fucking young hussy,” a man could have said, “Aye, ye blocking young hussy,” and the hussy still would have gotten the point. It rose to prominence as a secret term of sorts, a way of upsetting people who didn’t really understand how they were being insulted, but knew they should feel offended. That’s why, in recent years, it has lost much of its power – its omnipresence in pop culture has made it almost commonplace. Nikki Minaj? Lil Wayne? Are you listening? I’m talking to you.
So you see? The word “fuck” only contains as much or as little vulgarity and insolence as you assign to it. And yet we love it precisely because of how vulgar and unseemly we have made it out to be. It’s like having sex in an elevator, or flirting with the bartender. Or skinny-dipping. Or sex while skinny-dipping. Sorry, all this fucking talk is leading my thoughts astray.
Now. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily polite to use the word. But it’s not the end of the world if you do, and that’s what you need to teach your kids. The Diva, for example, has been telling me about boys in her grade who’ve become big cursers. She complains that they use the “f” word “like, all the time, Mom.” In every sentence. It drives her crazy.
I tried to advise her. “You should say: You sound so fucking stupid when you talk that way,” I said. She declined that approach because she’s much more elegant than me, although I would have been proud of her either way. I fucking love that girl.