Monday, December 11, 2006

Language - What’s Wrong With "Fuck"?

In the presence of my toddler recently, I let fly the phrase, “That’s fucked up.” And of course it became a new addition to his rapidly expanding toolbox of expression. What was remarkable to me about the episode is that, once confronted with it, I really didn’t care if he spoke that way or not. Another way of putting it, of course, is: I really didn’t give a fuck. And I couldn’t help but wonder if there is something wrong with my attitude.

A friend of mine lowers his voice on the phone when uttering the word as an intensifier, as if he were telling me about some whore he screwed in Utah while his wife’s in the background wiping oatmeal off his kid’s cheeks. It’s such an evil word for a child to be exposed to. Apparently. Yet, aside from the fact that everybody else thinks so, I don’t see why. As I expressed to my child’s mother, if eventually he can distinguish between situations in which it’s acceptable or not, what’s the big deal?

It’s a word, nothing more. A labiodental fricative and a velar plosive, separated by a monophthong. So what? Fff, uh, kk. Three sounds that, in any other combination, are harmless. Twenty years ago I read –in some unremembered source—that what anglophones consider vulgar or not is actually descended from an ancient form of ethnocentricity. For a few centuries after William the Conqueror, the language of the English court was French. So all words deriving from French, such as fornicate, penis, or vagina were considered acceptable. Fuck, cock and cunt, however are Anglo-Saxon, deriving from the Germanic origins of the language and were therefore considered vulgar. Vulgar, by the way, originally meant “common” and only later came to include the definition of “in bad taste”

Its power lies not so much in its presence but in the intention behind it. Once, in high school, a teacher ripped my Sony Walkman out of my hands in the hallway and took it into his classroom. Feeling a sense of injustice had been committed, I followed him into his class and, in front of his remedial reading group, demanded the return of my property. Persuant to my understanding of the regulations, walkmen were prohibited in class, but not in the hallway. When I refused to leave without my device, he wrote me up for detention. Then, very slowly, I tore the detention slip in two and dropped it on his desk, saying, “You can go fuck yourself.”

The strength in the statement lay not in the literal meaning of the phrase, though it would have been amusing to see him try. What rankled him and his administrative overlords more was the absolute destruction of that pedestal of respect that authority depends on. Not only did I refuse to acknowledge the sancity of his quarters, nor give importance to his imposition of d-hall, but with one fell swoop I tore down the barrier of propriety that divides students and teachers and said, essentially, You are not important enough for me to observe the rules of language. For some reason, that was worse than any of my other “offenses,” and it begat a series of parental meetings ultimately resulting in my suspension from school.

I’d like to think that words like “fuck” and “nigger” will eventually become disempowered along with all their cronies, that they will become like a rubber knife that will only be laughed at if used seriously. But given the self-importance of both the puritanical and politically correct, it seems that day is a long way away, even if, due to overusage, the word is far less powerful than when Holden Caufield freely commented on it in 1951. Indeed, the television show Deadwood is fighting the good fight by defusing the word through overusage, as can be measured in The Deadwood Fuck Count. I look forward to the day when politicos speak as freely as the characters on HBO. “That miserable fuckwit thinks he can run this country better than I, and god help every one of you cocksuckers if he wins this fucking election.” I wonder how many more votes Kerry would have won if I had been his speechwriter.

I suppose that –in the spirit of “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not”—I will continue to be amused at the sporadic “fuck” that my baby utters, knowing that it offends sensibilities that I neither share nor approve of. As he goes through life, I’ll do my best to instill an idea of pertinence and moderation, along with respect for individuals. But if, on the odd occasion, he looks up at me and says, “Papa, that Blues Clues is one fucking good show!” I’ll just smile and scratch his head. “That’s my boy.”

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