Friday, March 5, 2010

FUCK, the Word

This simple little word has such an unsavoury reputation. For many centuries it has been considered unspeakable, even filthy and wicked. This reputation, however, is changing. It drips from the mindless lips of old men and bubbles from the mouths of infants. As far back as 1972 the Oxford Dictionary decided to include it, only noting that it was considered "vulgar."

What brought on this meditation on the word was not the "fuck you" scream of a preschooler, nor the "fucking awesome!" exclamations of jubilant adults watching the Winter Olympics. I can understand its use in times of stress and emotion, when vocabulary is not the easiest thing to access. But when a poet, a person who should be familiar with words and language, the so-called tools of their trade, calmly describes someone they don't like as a "fucking dog," something is wrong. Certainly the term expresses clearly the high level of contempt implied but the true descriptive powers of language have been completely circumscribed. And such activity should concern anyone working with words.

Fuck is such a beautiful and useful little word. It was probably used in the earliest times of the English language with the simple meaning "to breed, to fornicate." All Germanic languages have a cognate from a common root; most have not been as unfortunate in their treatment.

Two things took away the ease and familiar usage of the term. First was the heavy influx of French and Latin through the Norman conquest so that their terminology took precedence. Second, and related, was the feudal system of land ownership and power, setting administration apart from the common people. After all, "vulgar" does mean "of the common people."

So the word languished outside of the vocabulary of all those who mattered until recently. In the twentieth century, public personalities, be they revolutionaries or simply social agitators, began to slip the word into their speech and writing. But not just as a little verb. They found it so versatile that it could be used as any part of speech.

It is a verb, both transitive and intransitive, i. e. you can simply "fuck" or you can "fuck someone/something". It can be used as a noun, as "a fuck" or "a fucker." It can be used as an adjective, "the fucking car." It will serve as an adverb, "so fucking good." It becomes an interjection, "Oh, fuck!" And the use most distasteful to me, as an intensifier, "he's so fucking smart ..."

I know the language continues to change and that there are no rules that can be enforced. I am not against vulgarities: I claim to be vulgar, one of the common people. All I ask is that we don't forget the other words in the language just because this one is so versatile.

No, no! "May a swarm of honey bees build their hive in your rectum!"

That's what language is for.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

Thank you for such an interesting and informative look at this common word. It has become the word of choice for the uneducated & disenfranchised.