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Rita Stevens Nonfiction

Too Late to Save the F-word

by Rita Stevens

            It was an overheard conversation.  Older Man A said to Older Man B: “He used the F-word. I just had to tell him I considered the word unacceptable.”

            Jack and I were seated in the hotel’s breakfast room, the two men at a table near us. The unacceptable word, we learned, had been uttered on the golf course the previous afternoon. The pro had put together a foursome of single players, one of whom was Older Man A. Unfortunately, another of the four turned out to be the eventual F-word offender. We lingered over warmish coffee as A and B continued to remark about the young man who had been “out of line,” as B diagnosed it. And it got worse: Older Man A had heard others use similar language later in the day.

            Wives A and B arrived from their rooms for breakfast. Older Man B spoke with his wife at once. “Young people drinking beer were outside around here last night using the F-word,” he told her. I saw her nod and look serious as she sat down.

            The four went on to other topics, but my mind lingered on the F-word.

            In an abstract way, I’ve long been a fan of the F-word, although probably never was it considered a polite term. (For what it’s worth, I’m also a fan of the despised word “ain’t,” but that’s another issue.) My appreciation of the F-word lies in its being an old Germanic verb with timeless features. The universally popular action it names gives it emotional weight and some erotic usefulness. As an interjection, in the way it was once used — rarely, and under extreme circumstances — it delivered as intended. It’s short, compared with the Latin derivatives “fornicate” and “copulate,” both wishy-washy intransitives, unlike the punchy F-word.

            “Just think of a synonym verb that takes a direct object,” I said to Jack on the drive home after breakfast. “There is none.”

            “Screw?” Jack suggested.

            “Well, yes, but that’s a late-comer euphemism with the wrong consonant sounds. When you take it out of the toolbox, it’s a third-rate word.”

Jack had to agree.

            We both remembered an F-word incident from many years ago involving a cousin on Jack’s side of the family. It came up under circumstances that all of us have experienced at one time or another – the “no good deed shall go unpunished” scenario.

            We had tried to intervene for the benefit of a worthy cause and were opposed by the cousin, whom I’ll call, “Clyde.” Because of Clyde, we had no success in our intervention, which eventually led to the kind of many-tentacled horror we had predicted. Before Jack and I finally gave up, Clyde sent one more letter. “Dear Jack,” it started. It proceeded mildly but soon elevated into cold sarcasm, then became slightly heated, and in its last sentence fired the F-word, followed by “you and your wife.”

            Jack and I remembered how shocked we were. But even at the time I considered it an especially good use of the F-word in its attack mode.

            As far back as 1951, J.D. Salinger’s fictional Holden Caulfield was driven to distraction by proliferation of the F-word in its knee-jerk presentation, written on walls. Holden was a sensitive soul, but very young. I’ve never been able to figure out if, at heart, he most objected to the triteness of the signs, or to their random belligerence, or if he had internalized a generational revulsion for the word. Salinger certainly didn’t intend him to come across as protective of it, which I am.

            I’m sorry, for example, that dramatists in recent decades have sprinkled the F-word around so liberally. Like the rubber belt on an old vacuum cleaner, it has been weakened by too many uses. Back in the day, any of the impolite four-letter Anglo-Saxon words uttered in a play would be met with either nervous giggles orstraight mouths and sour facial expressions. Casual reviews would often emphasize the play’s “bad language.” The F-word was the next-to-last of the bunch to be taken in stride by the cultivated crowd.

            Sometimes movie scripts deliberately throw in so many F-words that, after a while, the audience hardly notices — becomes, in fact, bored by them. The movie “Pulp Fiction” employs that brand of audience manipulation 265 times. The most, I thought. But no, only the most in moviesI personally have seen. “Goodfellas” reaches 300 and “The Wolf of Wallstreet” makes it to 569. Unacceptable, as Older Man A declared.

            Losing a golf ball or hooking into the rough may call for a tension-relieving snarl of some kind, but using the F-word seems to me like overkill. It has become a common substitute for the S-word. Or even for “Rats!” Or “Darn it all!”

            I’m doing what I can, but I fear it’s too late. I hate to see the F-word overused because that undermines its value. Unlike vacuum cleaner belts, it can’t be replaced.


Rita Stevens has worked as a teacher and as a writer and editor for a small newspaper. She lives in Portage, Michigan.