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Just a Four Letter Word      

By David Chorlton
March 16, 2004
We English speakers should consider ourselves fortunate in having a word with the versatility to be a noun, a verb or, with little modification, an adjective as well as being able to relieve tension free of charge. The word “fuck” has no peer in other languages. I have tried, for instance, to curse in German, only to be forced to rely on blasphemies like “Heilige Maria und Josef!” It doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as pressing my teeth against my bottom lip in preparation for that wonderful syllable ending with the hard sound of the “k” catching in my throat.

I grew up with the word. We used it at school as soon as our teachers were out of earshot. It was the outlaw word that could shoot without inflicting physical wounds. We used it at soccer games, when only an irrational outburst was an articulation of our feelings when one of our players missed an easy goal chance. We used it long before we ever experienced the act the word was birthed to describe. It wasn’t that we were exceptionally bad people, but we seemed to be addicted to the fucking word. As addictions go, it had no adverse impact on our health, and was always readily available.

“Fuck” in the United States leads a double life. It is heard on television from time to time, even if only on certain channels. We can go to the cinema and hear it, but the Federal Communications Commission includes it on a list of banned words as if there were a communal need to deny the existence of a word we all know about and most of us often use. Watching baseball games on television has revealed that even such an upstanding social figure as a star Arizona Diamondback pitcher says the unspeakable after giving up a home run. The close up on screen is a giveaway, and I am too perceptive to miss the moment in which a sporting giant reveals his mortality.

Saying “fuck” in private is still legal among consenting adults. Jail time is an unlikely price to pay in the event of a public slip of the tongue, but let’s not become complacent. Surely a word that is damaging to community morale when broadcast over the radio is in danger of closer scrutiny by the authorities, especially in this age of increasing security. “Fuck” is verbal terror, no two ways about it. Why else would it attract the attention it does?

In the company I once kept back in England, saying the word to a person reassured him (or her) that we were friends. “Where the fuck have you been all this time?” we said after a long separation, knowing that such an intimacy of speech was reserved for those we trust. Perhaps there is a “fuck” police force forming, taking note who says it and who does not. A public “fuck” would certainly be enough to end a run for public office. America could have been spared a lot of grief had Richard Nixon’s private language been made public before he ever ran for the presidency. Saying it could be as damaging as inhaling.

Indecency doesn’t end with provocative language. It doesn’t even begin with it. A nuclear bomb can be designed, built, and exploded with a perfect record of clean speech. A political bribe can be paid and favors returned with a veneer of good conduct, but everybody knows what is going on. Saying “fuck” when occupying a foreign country serves little purpose because the citizens of that country wouldn’t understand it. The public face of true indecency remains clean shaven and invariably smiles a friendly, if betraying, smile.

Meanwhile, we cling to our word as a vestige of freedom. It makes us feel better, if only for a moment. But that moment is often enough for us to catch our breath and saves us from taking more drastic action. Seen this way, “fuck” is a peace-making word, the steam released from the pressure cooker. Long may it flourish in the underworld of our desperate vocabulary.


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