The worst word

By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

Indeed, attitudes gradually began to soften on both shores during the tumultuous '60s. Kenneth Tynan, director of England's National Theatre, said fuck early and often during an interview with BBC television in 1965. "It was a brave thing to do," reports Montagu in The Anatomy of Swearing. Brits were shocked, but Tynan emerged from the experience with his reputation intact. In fact, remarked Montagu, writing three years later, "As becomes a great pioneer, his stock has considerably risen in the word."

Philip Larkin probably meant to shock, too, when he wrote his irony-soaked poem "This Be the Verse" in 1971. It begins "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do." It's not your parents' fault, though, Larkin told the Beatles generation; after all, "they were fucked up in their turn/By fools in old-style hats and coats&ldots;"

At about the same time, Hollywood discovered graphic language. As the American public grew accustomed to seeing the horrors of war and urban strife shown on the nightly news in the '60s, our cinema took on a new level of realism. Movies began to sound more true to life. Timothy Jay, author of Cursing in America, says the earliest utterance of fuck in a mainstream American film occurred in a documentary, 1970's Woodstock, when Country Joe and the Fish led audiences in the infamous "Fish Cheer" ("Give me an F&ldots;").

Jay, who teaches psychology at North Adams State College, studies the use of swears in culture, including film. His surveys of contemporary cinema show what a staple the F-word has become. In GoodFellas, for instance, Robert DeNiro and his co-thugs used it more than 200 times.

But even though the TV news helped inure America to graphic imagery, broadcast media still more or less try to pretend that fuck, along with other common curses, doesn't exist.

That hardly means Bono's indiscretion was an aberration, although TV historians are hard-pressed to say who uttered the dread word first. One notorious instance came in 1981, on Saturday Night Live. At the culmination of a running skit based on the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode on Dallas, SNL troupe member Charles Rocket--who was supposed to have been gunned down by an unknown assailant--blurted out, "I'd like to know who the fuck did it."

According to the book Saturday Night, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, Rocket's expletive led to the firing of SNL's then-producer Jean Doumanian (it certainly did little for Rocket's career). As a footnote to the story, Hill and Wingrad add that Rocket wasn't the first SNLer to let the F-word slip; of all the mercurial personalities who've appeared on the show, it was mild-mannered bandleader and sometimes-actor Paul Shaffer (now with David Letterman's Late Show) who mumbled a "fuckin'" in a skit several years earlier.

Local sports fans may recall the 1984 Boston College-versus-Miami football game for more than just Doug Flutie's famed "Hail Mary" pass. Late in the contest, a camera captured Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar on the sideline snapping, "Let's just ram the ball down their fucking throats."

But such transgressions are more or less limited to sporting events (especially boxing matches) and other real-time broadcasts, which are rare these days, since many "live" shows (like Saturday Night Live) are broadcast with a seven-second delay.

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Related: Plain talk, Year in Books: Word plays, You say what?!, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , James Joyce, Dictionaries and Lexicography, Bono (Musician),  More more >
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