When I was a kid, saying the F-word was sure to result in punishment. My parents could swear with the best of them, but I don’t think I ever remember either one using the F-word. (OK, maybe its Italian equivalent.) Teachers in those days were also on guard for sending to the principal’s office a student who was loose lipped. The music we listened to and the TV shows we watched, on three networks whose content was regulated by the FCC, rarely included the F-word. So when we did hear the word, whether in a film or on the street, its impact was felt.
Since I’m recovering from surgery, I’ve been streaming lots of shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. And one things stands out: the ubiquitousness of the F-word. It’s used to express anger, hurt, remorse, despair, in some cases, happiness, even euphoria. It’s used as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. It’s the all purpose, any occasion, go-to word. And, I’ve found, after hearing it again and again, it loses its power to shock.
When my own children were teenagers, in the 80s and 90s, their music became rougher. Often a CD they wanted to buy included a caution that the songs contained explicit content. And it wasn’t too soon before the parents I knew expressed concern about the F-word being thrown around so casually. One mother thought that young people might lose interest in the word if they learned that once upon a time the English king was so upset that the plague had decimated the country’s population that he ordered his subjects to procreate – Fornicate Under the Command of the King – giving birth to the F-word. Except it wasn’t true. (And, of course, teens can sniff out a lie when they hear it.) While the origin of the F-word remains elusive, the most accepted explanation is that is that it came from the Germanic languages.
Whatever its origin, the F-word has now entered our lexicon. In 2012, it was listed, for the first time in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, giving the word acceptance and, perhaps, respectability. But being admitted to a club of accepted words has the potential to backfire. The word has lost its edge, its outrageousness, its ability to get our attention. Because of its overuse, our senses are dulled. When a character in a film or streaming TV show bursts out the word, we don’t even blink.
As a writer what strikes me is that those churning out all those scripts for films and streaming shows are becoming lazy. Rather than explore a character’s emotions with either spoken dialogue or facial expressions, we get the F-word. And oftentimes more than one F-word in a sentence. Song lyrics go the same way, too. But what songs, what lyrics truly last? Are there any F-words in the Great American Songbook? In Beatles songs? Billy Joel? I don’t think so. And those are the words that reach our heart, that last, that provide a soundtrack for certain times in our lives.
I don’t expect the F-word will go away. But perhaps we can all find better ways to express our feelings than relying on a four-letter word whose sell-by date is fast approaching.
Top photo: Bigstock