The F-word goes to the Supreme Court

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At least one thing besides the election is scheduled to happen tomorrow: The Supreme Court will hear FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, as yesterday's New York TimesWeek in Review section pointed out. The crux of the case is whether ... I can write the word here, "fuck" falls afoul of indecency regulations because it necessarily refers to "sexual or excretory activities or organs."

I'd agree that "fuck" is indecent - but that's not why. The usages that the Supreme Court will be learnedly considering include Bono's remark in 2003 that winning a Golden Globe award was "really really fucking brilliant" and Nicole Richie's assertion that getting "cow shit out of a Prada purse" is "not so fucking simple." What's sexual about either of those? "Nudge nudge wink wink" is a lot more prurient than either of them. So are certain kinds of eyebrow-raising. So are many, many ways of expressing oneself.

In the instances in question and many others (say, 99 percent of the 10 zillion times "fuck" turned up in the conversation of Tony Soprano and his guys), the word is just an "intensifier," meant to establish the speaker as aggressive and contemptuous of ordinary social norms. Part of its purpose is to offend to decent folk, should they happen to be reading or listening.

So of course we shouldn't welcome such a word into everyday conversation. (If we did, it would lose its impact, and aggressive, contemptuous people would need to find a new word.)

Peter Chernin, the president of News Corporation, which owns Fox, has complained that forbidding people from swearing on network TV puts the networks at "an inexplicable competitive disadvantage." I don't see that. As things stand, viewers know the networks won't assault them with language that's offensive on purpose. This could just as easily be a competitive advantage, if the networks treat it as one.

To sum up: I'm not eager to hear "fuck" on network TV. What's usually objectionable with the word, though, isn't that it's sexual but that it's crude.

UPDATE: Forgot to note previously that The Atlantic published Steven Pinker's take on this subject in the November issue. 

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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