the f-word

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Jun 27 19:25:20 UTC 2004

some reflections on "fuck" occasioned by our vice-president's
deployment of the word in public...

i understand that our attitudes about "indecent" vocabulary don't make
a lot of sense.  it's widely held that a small number of words are
intrinsically harmful to children; people seem to think that this
either so self-evidently true as not to need defense or demonstration,
or else too passionately held to allow for challenge (if you maintain
that children know these words and aren't particularly affected by
them, you risk being labeled as immoral, indecent, perverted yourself).
  so the treatment of l'affaire cheney in the media is hilariously
constrained as reporters try to convey what was said without clearly
alluding to the f-word, even by "the f-word" or "f**k" or some
euphemism; instead, we are merely told that cheney used an obscenity or
that he told leahy to do something that leahy wasn't able to do.

not very long ago, the FCC had an almost rational position on "fuck".
the first time around, bono was not censured for using the adverbial
epithet "fuckin'".  though no one laid the reasoning out (that would
have required using the word and discussing its meanings), this
position could be defended on the grounds that there are two different
words "fuck": the coital verb (and related noun), which is censurable
on two grounds, its meaning and its register, and the mere expletive
(noun, verb, or adverb in "-in'"), which is only registrally
restricted.  it might make some sense to restrict the first but not the
second (in the appropriate context).

something like this seems to have been done for "piss".  non-excretory
"piss", as in the american idiom "piss off" 'anger' (or the british
idiom "piss off" 'depart' or several other uses), appears with some
frequency on television shows, without warnings about "strong
language", even in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  excretory
"piss" definitely counts as a word needing a "strong language" warning,
if it can be aired at all.

but non-excretory "piss" seems to be a small exception, and a fairly
recent one.  there's an implicit hierarchy of indecency for obscenities
(no one really defends or explains this; it's just something everyone's
supposed to know), and "piss" is towards the lower end, maybe a bit
above expletive or figurative "balls" and "ass" (as in "get your ass
over here" and "dumb-ass(ed) idea"), definitely below "shit", which
even in its purely expletive uses ("oh, shit! the damn thing broke!")
is problematic, and way below "asshole" and "fuck".

in any case, in the second round the FCC reversed itself and went for
the position that "fuck" is bad, no matter what; the word itself is
indecent, and the government can levy stiff fines on you for using it
in public.  note the implicit assumption that there is a *single word*
"fuck" here (contrary to what i said above).

unfortunately, censors can appeal to the dictionaries on this point.
as i have complained in other contexts, dictionaries have entries that
are etymologically organized, with almost complete disregard for the
consequences of linguistic change, even linguistic change that happened
hundreds of years ago.  the preposition "to" and the infinitive marker
"to" are in a single entry; they are "the same word".  ditto
exclamatory "boy" and "boy" 'male child'.  ditto coital "fuck" and
expletive "fuck".  from a synchronic point of view, none of these
should be treated as a single lexical item.

(as a quick look at jesse sheidlower's The F-Word will confirm, there
are many different expletives here: the bare-noun exclamation "fuck!",
the negative-polarity noun "fuck" of "give a fuck", the wh-extender
noun "fuck" of "what the fuck?", the deprecatory nouns
"(mother)fucker", the verb of exclamatory "fuck it!", the adverb
"fuckin'".  these have different syntax, different semantics and
pragmatics, and even different euphemistic substitutes: for many
speakers, "fudge" is available only for the bare-noun exclamation,
"freak" only in adverb "freakin'" for "fuckin''", "frig" for
verbal/adverbial "fuck", including the coital verb, etc.  it's also
true that there are occurrences of "fuck" that are not easily
classifiable as expletive or coital -- in particular, "fuck you!" and
the veepish "(go) fuck yourself!".)

so now the u.s. censors are going on an entirely superficial criterion
for indecency: an utterance of /f^k/, a glimpse of a nipple.  i'd laugh
if it weren't so serious.  when KRON-TV broadcast the Bay to Breakers
race back in may, and when it broadcasts Gay Pride today (i'm watching
it as i type, having missed my chance to march with mabel teng's
contingent), the station has to avoid transmitting images of naughty
bits, in a way it never had to before.  not only are female breasts
off-limits, but apparently buttocks (of any sex or gender) are out too,
and the reporters on the street have to go through elaborate
precautions to prevent the cameras from catching anything that could
subject them to a heavy fine.  "no, no, don't pan to the left!" they
cry, worrying about what might be shown on bay area tv.  san francisco
is a tolerant city, and at these public events even full frontal
nudity, even in front of children, is ok (there's apparently a special
dispensation for spectacles) -- so long as it doesn't get shown on tv.

but now for something a little bit different...

i've been wondering what would happen if, say, sir paul mccartney was
caught on tape in a moment of astonishment, dismay, or pain, saying
"fook!", that is /fUk/.  now, for american speakers, this is "a
differerent word" from "fuck", as different as "book" from "buck" or
"look" from "luck".  so is this ok, not actionable?  (help me here,
bethany.)  or does sir paul's *intention* to say "the same word as"
american english "fuck" rule here?

if intention is the key thing, then we're in trouble with all those
instances of ostentatious avoidance: the spelling <f**k>, "the f-word",
"fudge/freak/frig/etc.", "Muck Fichigan" and "Buck Fush", where the
intention is absolutely clear.

my guess is that sir paul would (now) be in trouble on the american
airwaves.  i know for sure that "Muck Fichigan" didn't get you in
trouble in ohio, in a time when "Fuck Michigan" would have landed you
in court.  how are these two cases distinguished?

arnold (zwicky at

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