Sunday, April 03, 2005

The F Word

Be advised that I'm going to be talking about a word that is generally considered inappropriate for either polite company, children, or for most professional environments. I will be making reference to the word directly and non-euphemistically as well as other "bad words". If you are of a sensitive disposition, too young to go to R-rated movies, reading this in a working environment, or easily offended by such words, I would strongly advise you to skip this particular essay.

Allow me to give you the opportunity to decide.


The word I am going to discuss is, of course, the word fuck. In the event that you are suffering from some post-juvenile giggles, allow me to help you get it out of your system.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

There, that should do.

Websters offers the following dry definition of the word:

intransitive senses
1 COPULATE — sometimes used in the present participle as a meaningless intensive
2 MESS — used with with
transitive senses
1 to engage in coitus with -- sometimes used interjectionally with an object (as a personal or reflexive pronoun) to express anger, contempt, or disgust
2 to deal with unfairly or harshly

One of the most basic indications of a word’s age is its phonetic complexity. Basic words, such as "tree", "dog", "sky" and "love" tend to be simultaneously simple and ancient. As one might expect of the word fuck, it is a very old world, indeed.

Let us start by dispelling some etymological myths. Fuck does not stand for "Fornication Under the Consent of the King" nor "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" (in fact, always be suspicious of supposed acronymic origins), nor does it come from the disfigured archers at Agincourt shouting "pluck yew!" at the French.

What is remarkable is that "fuck" has cognates in both Latin and German. This indicates that the original word may precede the lost point in our history when the Latin class of languages diverged from the Germanic classes although it should be cautioned that most scholars believe that it came into Latin by way of Scandinavian at some point in our more recent history. Unfortunately it is difficult to trace the etymology due to the taboo nature of the word. The word, in fact, has such a taboo association that, in the British Commonwealth, it was forbidden to use it in print until 1961! A distinction that is only shared with the word "cunt". Certainly it is one of the favorite words of the teenaged vocabulary due to its efficiency at delivering shock and offense.

Not all "inappropriate" words are of the same kind. I believe that it is worthwhile to consider why words are considered unacceptable and where the word fuck fits into these categories.

The word "profane" indicates a contrast to the sacred or the divine. In many theologies, the world is divided into the sacred and the profane. In this general usage, baseball, money, jokes and VCRs are all profane; however, the more common sense of a word being a profanity comes from the verb "to profane", meaning to take something that is sacred and then to desecrate it. In the Abrahamic religions, using God’s name in vain is a precise example of a profanity (hence the exclamations "God dammit!" and "Jesus Christ!"). Some do consider sex to be a sacred act and might, therefore, qualify "fuck" as a profanity; however, for most usages of the word, the goal is not to desecrate a sacred idea, therefore fuck would not generally be considered a profanity.

The concept of vulgarity has its origins in the division of classes between commoners and nobility (or between the proletariat and the patrician in the Roman world). Vulgarities are simply words that are used by the commoners while those who are, supposedly, more refined avoid their usage. This division has especially sharp connotations in English stemming from the conquest of Britain by the Norman French. For many generations, Norman was the dialect of the nobility while Anglo-Saxon was the language of the peasantry. An example of such a division is expressed in the language that we use to refer to certain food animals and their byproducts. We raise cows (peasant work) but eat beef (the diet of the nobility). Likewise, we hunt deer but eat venison. It is for this precise reason that it is considered crude to discuss fucking but perfectly acceptable to discuss acts of copulation. Fuck is, definitely, a vulgarity.

Finally, there is the idea of obscenity. In the modern sense of the word, something is obscene if it is repulsive, disgusting or abhorrent. This is the sense that the U.S. Supreme Court uses when distinguishing between that which is merely pornographic and that which is obscene. The origin of the word obscene, however, can be found in its literal meaning of "off scene". In ancient days, just as in modern times, when people would put together theatrical productions certain things were deemed appropriate for the stage whereas other things had to happen offstage. A famous example of this can be found in Oedipus Rex. I am not talking about Oedipus having sex with his mother, Jocasta, although that also happens offstage, but, rather the scene where he impales his eyes upon learning of his relationship with her. When he performs the act, he goes offstage to do it and then comes back onstage clutching his mutilated eyes. One might suppose that this is because theatrical technology wasn’t advanced enough to handle the special effect of him gouging his eyes out in front of an audience. Given the cleverness of the Greeks and their love of theater, I find this doubtful. I suspect that this was a case where it was considered too shocking to have an audience witness the actual act.

Moving out of the realm of theater, an obscenity was generalized to the concept of something that ought not to be witnessed by others and, of course, the words used to describe those things. Shit, for example, is perfect example of such a word since the act of defecation (note, again, the distinction of vulgar and polite words for the same thing) is an obscenity.

Of course, what one culture considers obscene another culture might not. Our own culture has had a very conflicted view about sex that has varied quite a bit throughout history. The historian James Burke notes that one of the biggest changes to our (by which I mean Europeans) perception of sex came from the invention of the fireplace. Before the fireplace allowed for the existence of central heating within a house, people needed to sleep, en mass, within a central room (or hall). When people slept together, one can expect that people also slept together. In all likelihood, being in the immediate proximity of others having sex wasn’t an unusual event, even for the young. Once the fireplace was invented, couples gained the luxury of their own rooms and sex went offstage, as it were.

Even at this point, the majority of the population were peasants who lived on farms. One can not live on a farm without being aware of the realities of the sexual act since livestock lack any sense of prudishness. The only people who could be isolated from the physical reality of sex (i.e., fucking, not to put to fine a point on it) were the nobility. In particular, female nobles were shielded from sex. This wasn’t done out of a sense that women were too delicate to understand sex (although that was certainly the post-factual rationalization) but, rather, in the hopes that preventing them from knowing about sex would help to ensure their virginity. Female nobles were commodities. Noble houses traded them in marriage with one another as a means of cementing alliances. A virgin daughter was an asset that needed preservation, which ultimately led to an elaborate system of cloistering and chaperonage.

It should be noted that the reason that virginity was considered a virtue had less to do with sex than with paternity. Then, as now, men feared being cuckolded with a bastard child. Since there were no reliable paternity tests before the modern era, men (and especially nobles) were obsessed with ensuring the fidelity of their wives. A virgin bride was an ironclad assurance that one wasn’t marrying a woman who was already carrying someone else’s child.

That digression aside, our standards with regards to how far "offstage" sex should be has fluctuated dramatically. The Victorians were loath to so much as hint at sex. They went so far as to make it impolite to refer to the breasts and thighs of a chicken. The Flappers, by contrast, were, for the most part, perfectly at ease discussing sex in frank terms in mixed company (often in the company of mixed drinks). My own America of the early 21st century clearly has conflicted feelings. We enjoy salacious shows like Desperate Housewives and Friends where the characters hop from bed to bed on a regular basis but are shocked and outraged at the brief flash of a nipple during a sporting event.

In general, we don’t mind depictions of sex in cinema although we require that the sex be simulated and that, under no circumstances, should we witness actual penetration (simulated or not). Indeed, we’re reasonably comfortable with breasts and buttocks but we don't feel comfortable seeing genitals. This isn’t to say that there aren't plenty of depictions of genitals and, indeed, actual sex acts with graphic penetration out there to find. Depictions of such do, in fact, constitute a billion dollar industry and account for a hefty fraction of all internet traffic. However, we say that such depictions are pornography and automatically exclude them from legitimate cinema, theater, photography, etc. Curiously, we don't place the same exclusion on literature. A story can still be considered legitimate even if it includes intensely specific descriptions of sexual activity, so long as the depictions aren't the whole of the story (and, sometimes, even then).

One of the things that I find interesting about the word fuck is that it helps to illuminate our mixed feelings about sex. In the English language, it is one of the few words that directly refers to the physical act of coitus. Nearly every other word that we use to describe sex is a euphemism.

The word “sex” is, itself, something of a euphemism. Sex does not, strictly speaking, mean sex. Sex is the word that is used to describe whether a given organism (and that includes people) is male or female. Now, you might be thinking that the word for that is "gender". You would be wrong. Gender is only used to describe whether a word is masculine, feminine or neuter. In the English language, all words are neuter, so the word "gender" is really only useful if you are discussing another language, e.g. German. We have misappropriated the word "gender" to mean sex because the word "sex" has become too closely associated with fucking. When we say that two people are "having sexual intercourse" ("having sex" for short), we are literally saying that they are having an exchange of some kind between the sexes. In a strict sense, this could mean that a man and a woman are talking together. That fact that we mean that they are fucking is only implied.

Many of our euphemisms for sex come with emotional nuance. I am particularly fond of the phrase "making love". It implies, for certain cases, that by fucking, two people are weaving into an existence a beautiful thing that transcends the mere fact that they are fucking. They are creating and enhancing their love for one another. It takes a very cynical person to not find that a charming idea.

Beyond the fact that "fuck" is non-euphemistic, it is also direct. She fucks him. On the other hand, she engages in sexual intercourse with him, she makes love to him, and she copulates with him. All of these (and others) are examples of indirection that illustrate the offstage nature of sex and our discomfort at considering sex directly.

It is worth noting that one of the few cases where people are apt to use the word fuck as a non-obscenity is when they are, in point of fact, fucking. Not everyone does that but sexual studies have shown that when people, including polite people who otherwise avoid naughty language, are engaged in the sex act (there’s that euphemizing again!) , they are much more prone to use to word "fuck" to describe what they are doing with one another. A polite lady who might otherwise blush when saying "damn it!" may well find that she has no inhibition when comes to telling her husband to "fuck [her] harder". It seems that when we find ourselves actually engaged in the real, physical act, euphemisms are harder to maintain.

One of the curious things about the word fuck is that most of the time we use it we aren't actually using it to talk about fucking. More often then not, we use it as a context-free intensifier. When a man says "fuck my boss!" he’s generally not expressing a desire to engage in an intimate physical act with his superior. Instead, he is using the word as a way to intensify his contempt for his boss. Such intensifications aren't invariably negative. Many people will say "fuck yeah!" when they want to express approval or endorsement. When we say “I don't give a fuck” we may be expressing profound disinterest (or, again, we may be expressing contempt — it depends on context).

Unfortunately it is these non-sexual connotations of the word that make it unlikely that fuck will ever be admitted into polite company, even when it is being used to describe the act that it is so uniquely qualified to express sans euphemism. It is a word that is, more often than not, used in anger. It frequently comes with connotations of violence and the aura of threat ("fuck you!"). Because of this, it sounds harsh upon our ears. In most contexts, we can't hear it without feeling some of that sense of threat. It is for this reason we would usually find it discomforting if someone were to tell us that they fucked their lover while we would have a much easier time with a report that someone made love to same. It is only in the most intimate of settings, with those whom we are engaging in an act of supreme trust, that we can — sometimes — let our guards down enough to allow ourselves to use it for what it actually means, without any sense of threat, bluster, or euphemism.

Perhaps that is as it should be.

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