I vividly remember the first time I encountered the f word. I was six, newly proficient on a two-wheeler, taking an independent spin around the block when there it was, chalked right on the asphalt. I had never heard or seen this word before, but it must mean something important, I thought, to be written there in such big letters.
So I rode home and asked my father, who was sitting on our front steps, what “fuck” meant. And the next thing I knew, my father walloped me across the face.
Dad didn’t hit: That’s part of the reason his slap still stings nearly half a century later. In fact, Dad rarely even got mad. And my parents, New Yorkers who’d grown up in rough neighborhoods, freely used “bad words” — shit, goddamn, bitch, and bastard — all the time.
But fuck was different, even apart from that slap in the face. It wasn’t spoken, it wasn’t written, you didn’t hear it on TV or in the lyrics of songs. It wasn’t used as a curse, not even by adults who had been drinking when they didn’t think the kids were listening, and it wasn’t used to describe the sexual act either.
In fact, the f word was for decades literally outlawed in both the U.S. and Britain, and was omitted from standard dictionaries and encyclopedias. A typically wonderful history of the word can be found in The Online Etymological Dictionary, and Wikipedia and Youtube also include educational information on the use and misuse of the f word over time.
But when did everyone from the mom next door to the guy you’re doing a business deal with start saying “fucking” and “I’m fucked” and “fucked-up” as routinely as people once said “darn” or “screw”? When did teenage kids and their parents start saying it to each other without so much as a blink, never mind a slap?
Maybe around the time Tony Soprano appeared on HBO or Four Weddings and a Funeral hit the movie theatres or Notorious B.I.G. started singing on the radio. Yes, I’m blaming the media, not for creating the trend, but for letting us all know it was okay to use that particular word now and again. And again.
Does that mean that, in the interest of not acting old, you should use the f word more liberally? I find it quite expressive, myself. Though I can never say it without flinching, just a little bit.