The satire or performance-art element of the piece is that Norris then goes on to use the f-word herself at least 11 times, including to commend New Yorker writer John McPhee this week for breaking "new ground...by using 'fuck'—as verb, noun, adjective, and interjection—fourteen times in a single paragraph." (In comparison, back in the old days—Norris has been at the magazine for more than 30 years—Pauline Kael struggled to get 'shit' past William Shawn.)
Hilarious New Yorker anecdotes notwithstanding, this discourse makes me wonder. Curse words are now so mainstream that we hardly give pause when they're used at all. One recent episode of the show Modern Family involved a child using an expletive and the "trials" her parents faced, which mostly involved a lot of laughing, and maybe some embarrassment. (In the outside world, some protested this plotline, but only the real conservative weirdos.) Because mostly, this is just funny, right? Ha, ha; wink-wink. And maybe swear words are so par for the course it takes a tiny little kid doing it, adorably, for there to be much of an impact at all.
I remember the first time I dropped the f-you-know-what around my parents. It was in college (yes, late bloomer here). I used it casually, because that's what we did in college, just putting it in conversation, a peppery little adjective to punctuate my noun and give it a little more serious adult clout while also adding a frisson of shock value. My parents said nothing. A few years later, I used it again, with verve, after being directed into a hailstorm on a ski hill, but that was more of a shout and I was angry. In any case, the f-bomb has since mostly dropped out of my speech to my parents, while, funnily enough, they've actually adopted it in their own. This goes to show something about the mainstream-ization of the curse word, I think. (Or maybe my parents are just foul-mouthed.) Maybe as a people we're drifting into two groups of curse word users: Either we've stopped saying them much at all because they've lost their power, or we say them all the time because these words are just another word, like the or it or like or whatever. For such users, an f-bomb is remarkably adaptable, ready for any moment, but at the same time, neither the user nor the listener or reader really notices it. It's less a bomb than just an f. In the old days, we were counting up the f-bombs Tina Brown had added to the venerable publication of which we speak. Nowadays, it's more like, we're just over it all.
Norris explains how far we've come in terms of swear-word shock in copy-speak: "It no longer occurs to me to query the use of four-letter words, even when they are used gratuitously, as in 'I missed the fucking bus.' I used to be a prude, but now I am a ruined woman. We had a discussion in the copy department a few weeks ago about how to style the euphemism: Shall it be “f”-word, f word, f-word, “F” word, F word, or F-word? I don’t like any of them. Fuck euphemisms. Get on the goddam fucking bus."