The worst word

By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

The hypocrisy of banning any single word from a TV or radio show has been exaggerated recently by the news media's willingness--make that eagerness--to report on the most heinous and sensational stories of the day. Priests sodomize little boys, wives lop off their husbands' penises, and the dead victims of terrorist attacks are dragged through the streets. And at 7 p.m. the network anchors tell every disgusting detail, with the help of videotape and anatomical diagrams.

Yet you can't say fuck, a word known to virtually every English speaker, much less innocuous words like fart. But, at least in theory, there's hope for fuck.

Consider the wide range of dirty verbiage that you never would have heard on television as a child, words that now seem commonplace. "Dork, sucks, ass, bitch, slut, whore, fag--there's a whole variety of words that are now acceptable on cable TV and to a lesser extent on broadcast TV," says Timothy Jay. "TV today looks like movies of the '50s. We've got a lot of mild cursing."

Sucks might be the most intriguing example of a word that's lost much of its power to offend. If you grew up in the 1960s or '70s, this was a very dirty word--a harsh, guttural put-down uttered only by delinquents or those trying to emulate them.

But a few years ago, sucks's sinister reputation began to soften. TV personalities began saying it here and there to shock audiences--and the censors let them. Cartoon characters like Bart Simpson, Beavis, and Butt-head routinely use it, and only the strictest parents turn off the sets. Saying something sucks isn't likely to get you in a lot of trouble these days.

Kids in the audience still crack up when Butt-head mutters, "This sucks," but it's not altogether clear that the little tots understand what he means, other than knowing it's synonymous with "undesirable." Jay recently spent time observing eight-year-olds to study their use of curses. "These little kids were laughing like Beavis and Butt-head and using 'sucks,'" he reports. "I don't think it's a bad word to them. Saying it is something their parents just don't want them to do."

Those same kids may grow up thinking of sucks as a harmless oath. In fairness, plain-old suck is another matter. After all, you don't hear Butt-head saying, "Hey Beavis--you suck." Censors aren't amused by usages where the sexual connotation is unmistakable.

But shouldn't fuck be held to the same double standard?

Let's face it: fuck doesn't always mean fuck. For instance, in the sentence I'd sure like to fuck Betty Lou, the meaning of the infinitive verb form is unambiguous. But fucking has evolved into a familiar intensifier, as in I'm so fucking hungry I'd eat dog food. In that sense, the F-word root has nothing to do with sex; it's a meaningless linguistic element, the American equivalent of the British "bloody," says Richard A. Spears in Slang and Euphemism. So what's the big deal?

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