The F-Word Is Going the Way of Hell

In today’s world, slurs are the real profanity, not the use of an “F-bomb” to describe a mass shooting.

Beto O'Rourke addresses supporters in El Paso
Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

The truth is that in 2019, using the F-word is quite commensurate with being clean of scrub. We may be taught to include it in lists of “profanity” in a formulaic sense, but in terms of how most of us actually use it today, it is less obscene than salty. We’ve long moved on to other words to move the shock needle—the words that truly make us cringe, that we perhaps wish would go away completely.

The Anglosphere is always out of step in terms of what we call profanity versus how we actually speak. Today, many of us are comfortable using damn and hell to some extent in front of children. Not too long ago, they were more like the F-word: formally treated as hot peppers, informally understood as no big deal.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, from 1878, the captain diligently sings to us, “I never use a big, big D___”—or “hardly ever,” he specifies.  As late as 1935, Thomas Edison’s assistant Miller Hutchison was eliding hell in letters, quoting Edison in 1915 saying, “I want to be able to tell an Admiral to go to h___ if he is in the wrong.” And of course, David O. Selznick had to get the Hollywood Production Code amended to allow Rhett Butler to say “give a damn” in Gone With the Wind in 1939.

On the ground, however, certainly by the time of David O. Selznick but in certain circles long before, the great many hardly abided by these antimacassar restrictions. In the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer was fond of saying things like “inde-goddam-pendent” on the job. A woman named Virginia Stopher, describing her days being homeless in the 1910s, noted that the men used damn and hell constantly, but shielded her from other bad words. As Hutchison’s letter shows, Thomas Edison tossed hell around quite freely. Early talkies, before the Production Code had teeth, reveal the reality of common speech: In the 1929 movie Glorifying the American Girl, a stage mother casually growls “Damn” when her glasses don’t open. Even cartoon characters got in on the action, such as an anthropomorphic mirror in 1930 grunting “Damn!” when having trouble waking up Flip the Frog.

The old sensitivity about damn and hell was rooted in medieval discomfort with swearing to or about God and Jesus, or daring to take part in actions consecrated to them, such as damning people to hell. However, across the 19th century a new concern with euphemizing matters of sex and the body gradually overran these old anxieties. Hence the idea that words like fuck and shit are profane—which once upon a time they truly were. In the pre-code talkies, just for instance, actors didn’t mess with the F-bomb.

It’s been a while, however, since the F-bomb really caused an explosion. In 2003, when Bono erupted with “This is fuckin’ brilliant!” at the Golden Globes, what most of us heard, if we were honest with ourselves, was genuine joy and warmth, not a vulgar prod of “obscenity.” Of course the Federal Communications Commission deemed this “indecent and profane” and explored fining NBC, which had broadcast the ceremony. However, this looked priggish and even trivial to most—the gap had already settled between the formal grounds for the FCC’s take and how the word was used in real life.

The idea that the F-word is “bad” persists today mostly as an unthought habit of mind—quite like children are acculturated through kids’ books to believe that geese and sheep are default parts of existence, as if most people still lived on farms.

In an America in which a hit children’s book can have the F-word in its title, as can a hit pop song by CeeLo Green, when WTF is emblazoned on T-shirts and countless people utter the relevant phrase as virtual punctuation even in formal settings, and when someone like me can openly attest that I use it freely in circumstances where my grandfather would have said damn or hell, it becomes clear that the F-word today is spicy, but hardly evil or taboo. By contrast, today some well-meaning students believe their white professors shouldn’t even mouth the N-word when referring to historical usage.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is what profanity means.

So, O’Rourke objected, “profanity is not the F-bomb. What is profane is a 17-month-old baby being shot in the face.” Point taken, but note that he would not have said the same thing in reference to the N-word. O’Rourke’s “F-bomb,” then, was less a matter of swearing than his seeking a note of sincerity. The F-word these days may not be truly profane to many of us, but it remains potent, a way of indicating genuine feeling. That is a common note from O’Rourke, paralleled by his display of his Spanish-speaking skills during the first Democratic debate in June. Related to this sincerity is that his F-bomb was downright articulate: “We don’t yet know what the motivation is … but we do know this is fucked up.” The word untenable would have sounded too formal; problematic too weak; troubling too uncommitted; egregious too Mr. Mooney. “Fucked up,” combining pungency with a streak of impatient dismissiveness, conveys exactly the sentiment O’Rourke intended, as well as precisely the one his supporters share.

Eventually, but evidently not yet, our formal understanding of profanity will catch up with reality, and it will seem as silly to write “the F-word” as it seems now that Pinafore’s captain refers to a “D___.” At that point, dropping the F-bomb on the campaign trail will attract about as much attention as dropping the D-bomb. In other words, no attention at all. Slurs are our real profanity today. Beyond those slurs, we might take a page from George Carlin and consider that words only have the power to shock because we give them that power.