The worst word

By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

Although George Carlin won't have to shorten his list of "Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television" anytime soon, there are signs that TV censors are easing up on fuck. I've heard it on at least one episode of PBS's Frontline program. The crew on Don Imus's syndicated radio program color their gags with an F-word now and then, and only bother to bleep out the "uh" sound, leaving little doubt as to what forbidden word is being edited. I've heard this same pseudo-bleep used on prime-time NBC's Now, in a segment about college-basketball coach Bobby Knight. Every time the trash-talking coach blurted out the bad word, the "f" and "k" sound were clearly audible. It seems as though NBC challenged the censors, and the censors blinked.

Why we need fuck

But let's hope they don't start blinking too often.

After all, we need it to be a bad word--our worst word. And by "we," I'm referring to both those of us who say it and those who abhor the brusque little syllable.

"To have good, standard language, you have to have bad language. There always has to be a worst word," says Jay. "It's a fundamental part of our society: if you're going to have good things, you're going to have bad things. If you have the best things, you have to have the worst. You have to have that dialectic."

In other words, it will be a cold day in, er, Hades before the Bible-thumpers let swear words with the potency of fuck be spoken regularly on the airwaves. Jay explains that once a word gets past the censors, it generally eases its way into accepted speech--and the religious right isn't likely to let that happen with language it considers indecent. "The church just can't give up its control over people's thoughts," he says.

Nor should those of us compelled to curse from time to time want fuck to enter the realm of accepted speech, lest it become just another limp, mildly unpleasant word.

Consider this scenario: you're watching the 11-o'clock news. Dick Albert saunters over to the anchor desk and tells Natalie Jacobson that Boston is about to be hit with 30 inches of snow.

Natalie forces a fake frown and playfully mutters, "Oh, fuck."

After the initial novelty wore off, this wouldn't be funny--it would be tragic. An important means of expressing dire emotions would be gone.

Part of the appeal of a worst word is the sense of danger that comes from speaking it. Knowing that you may insult someone within earshot means most people reserve it for special moments. Sometimes it's the only word that expresses--and helps vent--frustration and anger. For me, if I'm late for an appointment and the subway doors slam in my face, I can't just grumble, "Fiddlesticks!" It would be the emotional equivalent of a dry heave, an absolutely inadequate response.

Sure, there are other perfectly good expletives--graphic ones that describe various body parts and functions. And a reasonable argument could be made that fuck isn't the worst word. Many feel that distinction goes to the C-word--a word so loathsome to some people that I find myself reluctant to spell it out.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Culture and Lifestyle, English Language, Paul Shaffer,  More more >
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