Disarming the F-Bomb

March 28, 2015

When I was a kid, my dad cursed a lot.  A LOT.  His mastery of profanity was so exhaustive and such a part of the fabric of my childhood that for a time, I actually believed that the complete name of the deity many believe to be divine was “Jesus Goddamned Christ.”  My dad freely swore like a stevedore, even in the presence of his children, and it is from his example that I learned most of the vocabulary that informs my language when I am experiencing heightened levels of stress or frustration.

My mother didn’t curse (at least, I never heard her), and because she didn’t like foul language we kids would get our mouths washed out with soap if we did.  My mother’s example notwithstanding, however, I grew up believing that cursing was one of those things that was verboten to kids but somehow became permissible once you got older (like eating brownies for dinner or choosing not to make your bed), and I looked forward to the day that I, too, could let rip certain words with impunity.  I imagined that there were age milestones at which you could no longer get in trouble if you said a particular curse word.  In my own 8-year-old brain, the hierarchy of bad words went something like this:  crap (acceptable at age 10), bitch (age 12), bastard (also age 12), goddammit and Jesus Christ (both age 14), asshole (15), shit (16), sucks (17, and mostly because my mother really hated that word), and then the granddaddy of all bad words, F*** (you had to be 18 at least, 21 if you wanted to be absolutely sure you wouldn’t be gagging on a bar of Irish Spring).  Back then, the F word was bad with a capital B.  That was the kind of word that got your grounded for a week, with no dessert or trips to the library.  It was such a bad word that even my dad didn’t say it—much, anyway; no one did.

Things have changed a lot since I was eight, and nowadays, people say the F word about as freely as they eat a hamburger or get their oil changed.  I routinely hear the F bomb being dropped in the workplace, and mind you, I don’t work on a loading dock or an oil rig (and my apologies to those who do but still manage to keep their language G rated).  I work in a law office, perhaps one of the last places you’d expect the casual (and frequent) invocation of a word which, if uttered by a presidential candidate, would probably be enough to prevent him or her from getting elected.

I hear people use the F word waiting on line at the grocery store, trying on jeans at Old Navy, and over soup and broth bowls at Panera.  You’re not allowed to say it on network television or terrestrial radio (though it’s pretty obvious when an NFL coach throws down the F bomb whilst fighting with a referee), but if you have cable television or Sirius, all bets are off.  If you did a shot every time you heard the F word in the typical R-rated movie, you’d be drunk inside of twenty minutes and dead by the end of the first act:  Consider the “F-Count” for the following movies:  “The Wolf of Wall Street” – 569; “Casino” – 422; “Goodfellas” – 300; even “Good Will Hunting” used the F word 154 times – that’s a F*** every 1.22 minutes.  And don’t even get me started on comedians or rappers, who use the word so prodigiously it’s almost as though it’s a verbal tic.

So it’s out there, and everyone says it, so much so that it’s become kind of acceptable (or, at the very least, no longer all that shocking) to pepper your speech with the F word in all its various forms.  I’ve been known to use the word – a lot.  I’ve used it in front of my kids—when they were younger and I lost my temper, and even now that they’re older, because sometimes, they use it, too.  I mostly use it when I’m angry or frustrated, or to add extra emphasis to the point I’m trying to make.  I’ve never used it in a professional context, and I generally only use it with people I’ve known long enough to be assured that they won’t be offended if I do.  But it is a word I use, in spite of myself, and I won’t even try to justify my usage of it, because when it comes right down to it, it’s offensive, unnecessary, and lazy.

Let’s start with the obvious – that it’s a word that, despite its ubiquity, many still find distasteful and vulgar, even people who aren’t in their seventies.  On its own, that’s probably not a good enough reason not to say something.  Given the fact that the F word has historically been considered pretty much one of the worst words you can say, however, there should be at least some fleeting recognition, before the word flows off one’s tongue, of the potential to cause offense, followed immediately by the exercise of some impulse control if the level of offense is likely to be considerable.

I also believe that in a civilized society, some effort should be made to behave in something resembling a civilized fashion, and to my mind, that means that it’s not necessary to use the F bomb in 98% of one’s communications.  You don’t need to say it when you’re describing an interaction with a co-worker (even if the co-worker is a jerk), you don’t need to say it when you’re talking about your boyfriend (even if he’s a lying sack of horse manure), and you don’t need to say it when relating your most recent trip to the laundromat (although the only pleasant experience I’ve ever had in a laundromat occurred in Florence, Italy with my husband, and mostly because it had been preceded and was followed by the consumption of large quantities of pasta).  Most of what you need to tell anyone at any given time can be conveyed perfectly well and coherently (even more so, I’d wager) without the use of the F word.

But we say it because we’ve gotten used to saying it, and because we’ve gotten used to saying it, some of the shock value has eroded.  Then, too, the F word is only shocking because someone decided a long time ago that it was, indeed, shocking (probably because it was a crude reference to the sex act, which you weren’t allowed to talk about back then, whenever “back then” was).  So, there are a lot of people who are no longer offended by the F word, or who think that no one should be offended by any word, because, after all, it’s just a word.  I think most people would agree, however, that the F word is still at least a sort of “bad word,” as evidenced by the fact that you’d be shocked if you heard that word coming out of the mouth of a nightly news anchor, a third-grader, or your grandmother.

Since the F word is sort of a “bad word,” shouldn’t we, at the very least, be judicious in our use of it? In part so as to avoid offending others for no good reason, in part because if you use a shocking word all the time, it sort of ceases to be shocking.  The reason I most wish people would say it less—myself included—however, is because it’s lazy.  When you’re angry or have a high degree of emotion about something, it’s easy to say, “he’s a f***ing idiot!” or “she totally f***ed everything up!” or “I can’t stand that motherf***er!”

What’s harder is making an effort to express yourself without relying on the nuclear option, such as “he’s as dumb as a bowl of chocolate pudding,” or “she so thoroughly failed to properly discharge her duties, one could make a strong case that she is well-suited to no purpose other than to expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” or “I dislike that man more than anyone else who has ever drawn breath, with the exception of Adolph Hitler and the 2013 – 2014 Seattle Seahawks.”  I think we would all agree that those examples are a lot more creative, and much more interesting for the listener.

I wish I used the F word less frequently, and it’s something over which I am constantly kicking myself; every time the word comes out of my mouth, it feels like a small failure, and I mentally remind myself that it’s not a word I want to be in the habit of using, even if my mother-in-law isn’t in the room.  I’m not proud of myself when I use the word, even if I’m justifiably angry to such an extent that finding a more articulate way to express myself isn’t a priority.  There are times when I hear myself, or someone else, use the F word, and I want to say, “Aren’t we better than that?” And by that, I don’t mean, more educated, or more privileged, or smarter, or more sophisticated.  I just mean, can’t we do better than a four-letter word someone coined a long time ago to describe the process of inserting certain body parts into certain other body parts?  I think we can.  I really f***ing do.  So, I’m going to try, starting today, to rid my vocabulary of the F word.  Because even if 21 is old enough to say it, maybe 51 is old enough to stop.

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