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What’s in a (Bad) Word

In my new novel, The Woman in White Marble, the main protagonist and one incidental character use the word fuck. The book is novella length and in 50,000 words the word fuck or fucking is used 37 times (five of the 37 are used by the incidental character in one small scene in the first chapter). The word is not used violently or sexually. It’s used for emphasis, as has become rather common in western culture, which, depending upon who you are, is either bad news, good news, or of no real importance.

In my previous short novel, Alien Love or Thank you Alpha Centauri, I didn’t use fuck or any derivative of the word. Instead I substituted it with the word “bush.” Early in the book I wrote:

Interestingly, etymologists agree it was also at this time that the proper name “Bush” began being used as an obscenity in the English language. In an unprecedented and amazingly short fifteen years the word “bush” found itself alongside the word “fuck” as one of the most offensive and often used obscenities in the world. Many etymologists believe that the intimate association of the two words is due to the fact that most people in the West, and apparently everyone throughout the rest of the world, thought the 43rd President of the United States had, to put it bluntly, fucked the planet and everyone on it, and not just those he had tortured. In effect, he “bushed” the world.

The obscenity “bush” is used as a verb, both transitive (George bushed  the World) and intransitive (George and the World bushed). It can be an active verb (George bushed the World) or a passive verb (the World was bushed by George). Or an adverb (George is a bushing bastard) and a noun (George is a terrific bush). It can be used as an adjective (George is bushing horrible). The following obscenities are now in common usage: bush, bush you, bush me, I’ve been bushed, bushing hell, for bush sake, holy bush, like bush, what the bush, get bushed, mind bushed, go bush yourself, bush you, bush-all, bushass, bushed, bushed off, bushed over, bushed up, busher, bushing, bushing-A, bush job and bushwit.

There are numerous substitutions and derivatives for the word fuck. To name just a very few:

ef, eff, effing, fark, f-bomb, feck, fecker, fecking, ferk, fizuk, flip, fook, foose, fork, frak, frap, freaking, fricka fracka, frell, frick, fricking, figging, frig fug, and futz.

The television series Battlestar Galactica, used the word frack and fracking so often even the most pure among us couldn’t miss the reference. Even Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory says “What the frack” from time to time. My use of the substitute “bush” in Alien Love was not semantic or phonological but obviously political.

Interestingly, given the context we all know what “frack” means, what “What the frack” is saying. The word frack points directly and unambiguously to the word fuck and embraces the full meaning of that word. And yet, we will never here Howard Wolowitz say “What the fuck” on The Big Bang Theory. The writers use frack to say fuck without offending anyone. It’s almost as if it is the actually hearing of the word fuck spoken or seeing the word on paper or screen that is offensive. Of course, by using frack, even though everyone knows what is really being said, the impact of the word fuck is eliminated, as is also true in my use of the substitute “bush” for fuck in Alien Love. Even though I explicitly say “bush” is “fuck” the use of the word bush offends no one (well, perhaps some Republicans but I suspect no one else). So why did I use fuck instead of frack in The Woman in White Marble? For the impact, of course.

Jesse Sheidlower edited a book entitled The F-Word: The Complete History of the Word in All Its Robust and Various Uses. The book runs to 228 pages, plus a 35 page introduction.[1] It seems to me less a history and more a dictionary of the derivations and usages of fuck – and there are a lot of them! The short introduction is a history of the usage of the word and not an exploration of the cultural meanings and impact. Sheidlower does point out that a word's “badness” changes through time. For example he writes:

In more recent times, words for body parts and explicitly sexual vocabulary have been the most shocking: in nineteenth-century America even the word leg was considered indecent; the proper substitute was limb.[2]

The history of fuck is unclear though it seems to be of Germanic origin. It is also unclear whether or not the word was always consider vulgar “and if not, when it first came to be used to describe (often in an extremely angry, hostile or belligerent manner) unpleasant circumstances or people in an intentionally offensive way...” However, given the easy and numerous usage of the word fuck today, in everything from James Joyce’s Ulysses to the Star Report, in newspapers, television and film, it’s interesting to note that the first openly printed use of fuck occurred in the U.S. in 1926 “when it appeared once, and seemingly without generating any Howard Vincent O’Brien’s anonymously published Wine, Women and War, his diary of the years 1917-19.”[3]

It’s obvious that the word fuck has lost much of its shock value, though it is still considered a “bad” word and deemed inappropriate, if not offensive, by many (thus you can see the word fuck used in an editorial in a leading newspaper but not used on a television show like The Big Bang Theory). At times I am one of those people: when it is used in anger; when it is used in hatred; when it is used sexually. So why use it at all.

The first and perhaps obvious reason is, that while it may no longer shock, it is still a “bad” word. People curse for a reason. There are always other words we can use. If fuck weren’t a “bad” word it wouldn’t have the impact the speaker/write is going for. If a fiction writer puts the word fuck in the mouth of his/her characters he/she is doing so to communicate something about the character’ personality. It isn’t happening by accident. The usage could indicate the character is crude, violent or insensitive. Or it could indicate something very different.

The British comedian (I guess I should say the Scottish comedian given recent events!) Billy Connolly is known for the use of fuck in his live performances, and the question arise: would he be as funny without using it? (At the end of one of his shows he warned the audience that when they left the auditorium they might find themselves telling the taxi drive to fuck-off, for example, but not to worry about it because it was his fault.) I suspect even those who find the word offensive can’t stop laughing.

I had my main character in The Woman in White Marble use fuck and fucking primarily for comic value, though I’m no where as funny as Billy Connolly! One reader wrote of the main character, who also narrates the story: “The narrator is the main selling point. He swaggers and swears, hiding the sensitive soul within.” While I’m not sure I would use the words “sensitive soul within,” his use of the word fuck is bluster and an attempt to indicate his “street-wiseness.” While sometimes humours, the use of the vulgarity also points to some level of insecurity in the character that, I hope, is likeable.

So for me, in this book, the use of the word fuck and its derivatives is a comic device and an indicator of the characters personality. I offer these thoughts not as an apology or an excuse, but as an explanation. However, a heads-up: if you don’t like my book because of 37 fucks you definitely do not want to watch Billy Connolly, you better skip Ulysses, and for heaven's sake do not watch the film The Big Lebowski, in which the word fuck is spoken 271 times or once every 26 seconds.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] Sheidlower, Jesse, editor. The F-Word: The Complete History of the Word in All Its Robust and Various Uses. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.
[2] Ibid., p. xi.
[3] Ibid., p. xii-xiii.

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