George Carlin had a routine about the seven words you’re not allowed to say on television. The other night I confessed to some people having noticed I’m much more likely to use that language in public than any of my friends. I became conscious of this tendency a few years ago when I was at lunch with two coworkers, enthusiastically holding forth on I can’t remember what, and realized they looked a bit thunderstruck. Replaying in memory the last thing that came out of my mouth I understood why. If we’d been on the air, a couple of items would have been bleeped.

Where did I pick up that habit? Although I grew up in the Sixties contemporary with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the comedy of Lenny Bruce, neither was an influence – I read about the controversies in the paper, but I was too young to be exposed to any of their verbiage directly. No, I’m pretty sure I learned those lyrics from other students in gym classes during junior and senior high school. We seemed to believe that sprinkling our sentences with sexual and scatological innuendo proved we were rebellious, powerful and authentic.

I am musing about this today because I’ve been seeing the F-word a lot recently. Of course, that’s because I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts about SFWA controversies.

It’s not just my imagination. Taking the list on Jim Hines’ blog as my test population, I found the 18 out of 74 writers, roughly one-quarter, used the F-word at least once — Seanan McGuire, S. L. Huang, Foz Meadows, Heidi Cullinan, Betsy Dornbusch, Natalie L., Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kameron Hurley, Samantha Henderson, Rachel Acks, Ann Aguirre, Tracy Cembor, Amy McLane, Matt Yaeger, Karina Cooper, Lauren Roy, Alan Baxter, Thomas Pluck.

(The number would be even higher if I counted instances where a blogger quoted another author’s use of the word.)

I thought it was just me.

I’m curious how they made that choice. It isn’t that they grew up in the Sixties, that’s for sure.

14 thoughts on “F

  1. I’m reminded of something I heard years ago from the English expatriate folksinger John Roberts: “F-ing: a word used in the British army to indicate that a noun is to follow.”

  2. I have no idea of where *I* picked up my usage of the f***-word. Actually, I am much more prone to use s*** and d*** than f***. (And how do YOU pronounce asterisks?)

    I grew up in a middle class household – my father was a dentist – where there was no swearing or cussing and I became a teenager in the late ’40s, a time when swearing was not common in the area in which I was living. I think that I picked up swearing in my middle to late teens when I was hanging around with writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types in Pasadena as a kind of in-your-face reaction to the straight-laced community in which we lived. (Lots of dopers, too, something which I think the oh-so-saintly burghers of that part of the San Gabriel Valley would have been horrified to find lived in their midst.)

    Anyway, these “nasty” words are part of my vocabulary; and, being in my late 70s, I have my doubts that I will be expunging them any time soon.

    Besides, I do not believe that there really are words too dirty to use in everyday conversation. After all, if a person is horrified at the use of these words, it is not the words which are dirty, it is mind which is hearing the words which is dirty. After all, the person harboring the mind /knows/ the meanings of the words, so shame on them for calling the words “dirty.” If they were so pure, how do /they/ know the meanings of these words?

    Ponder /that/ over your morning coffee …

  3. My parents didn’t use the bleepable words, and I rarely do. I *think* them sometimes, though, as when I slip on a patch of ice in winter. My son almost never heard me or his mother cuss, and I don’t remember hearing him ever cussing. But of course I knew all the words. And I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties too. An amusing look at the subject is Robert Graves’s little book “Lars Porsena, or, The Future of Swearing”.

  4. I was raised to be a polite little dweeb, and partial deafness probably meant I wasn’t hearing the range of word coloration that my father could deliver. It’s not a word I use much, nor write often, and its use in my territory is quoting someone. Why use common vulgarites when you can insult people with words they don’t know the meanings of?

  5. @Robert: That too. One of my petty inconsistencies is that I virtually never add vulgarities to my writing. Two reasons. I always hear the parent/teacher voice in my head reminding me that using them demonstrates a lack of imagination — something no fan wants to be accused of. More importantly, I learned in early feuds that I couldn’t nuke anybody else’s argument by calling it BS. That didn’t stun my opponents for a single moment, no matter how final it sounded when a Big Name Pro said it. And if my opponent dropped that nuke on me I could hardly reply “Well, what you said is bigger BS!” That would merely sound lame, which is not how I wanted to appear in the midst of an Important Fan Feud… So when it comes to any kind of persuasive writing I simply don’t go there. Those words aren’t effective tools for my work.

  6. From time to time I enjoy making up “learned” equivalents to various swear words and insults, such as “schizoceramic” (crackpot), “osteocephalic” (bone-headed), “enproctocephalic” –or should that be “cephalenproctic”?–(head up anus), “steatopygic” and “steatocephalic” (fat-arsed and fat-headed, respectively), “vitreumbilic” or perhaps “umbilicovitreous” (having a glass belly button so as to be able to see despite having head up anus). But somehow these words don’t do the job of insulting or swearing as well as the shorter, more native words and phrases, so I almost never use them “in anger”, as the saying goes.

  7. I was born in 1980, as a matter of fact. One might notice that foul language had become a regular part of popular culture during my formative. I had a mouth like a trucker in high school. However, my cursing in speech it not directly related to the way I write, other than when it comes to dialog I know that real people (shock) cuss, and a often.

    Regarding written discourse, I’ve actually addressed this topic in another blog post of mine: http://katsudon.net/?p=31

    Basically, if I type the f-bomb, it’s intentional. Words have meaning and power, and I’m using it to make a point. In the case of the post in question, that would be the point that I was:
    a) angry
    b) did not want to be mistaken for anything at all “ladylike” (whatever *that* means)
    c) felt that the issue in question was vulgar enough that it didn’t deserve anything but a vulgar treatment
    d) I knew no matter what my argument would be tone policed because I dared to be female and simultaneously angry, so I decided to give them something easily dismantled to whine about


  8. Given how most of the vulgarities and profanaities of the 1950s have lost their most of their power to offend, and mean little more to most of us than “I really mean this,” your musing on the use of the F word raises only one question in my mind.

    Who are your friends?

  9. @Rachael Acks: Thanks for breaking down your strategy for me. I like having a real answer to think about, instead of my best guess.

  10. I paused in thought earlier, and recalled the other f bomb word in fandom: the word “fat”. I once used it to add to a list of tags placed on Rush Limbaugh, but a few people crawled out of the internet wire works and told me it was a taboo word.

    Any others?

  11. Possibly “bitch.” It still connotes a female dog protecting its pups, so has the power to raise eyebrows among the feministically sensitive.

  12. Sorry for the third draft. I wish WordPress would let me make correction to errors noted after posting rather than have to post another, corrected version.


    To call Rush Limbaugh “fat” is not pejorative, but descriptive: he is fat, just as Nero Wolfe is fat or Nicholas van Rijn is fat or Falstaff is fat.

    Mr. Wolfe himself complained of the corruption and reduction of the language in one the stories Archie Goodwin told of him through his agent Rex Stout. Mr. Wolfe was displeased that he could no longer have a gay time, sing a gay song, wear gay apparel, etc., as the meaning had been reduced to one of sexuality with the older meaning of cheer having been lost.

    (There was once a cartoon in Playboy of a male cross-dresser donning female holiday garments while singing “Now we don our gay apparel…!”)


    Curse words lose their impact through overuse. Archie exclaimed “Son of a bitch!” in the Wolfe corpus exactly once, when he found the body of a murder victim in the outer basement steps of Mr. Wolfe’s own house, a particular insult to the both of them as detectives.

    The first time I ever heard that phrase on broadcast television was in an episode of L. A. Law, when attorney Michael Kuzak (portrayed by Harry Hamlin) discovered that the witness who could have prevented his client from being falsely convicted of murder had deliberately not come forth with his testimony for over a year. To emphasis the power of the exclamation, Kuzak, who had been kneeling in front of the witness (who was seated on a straight-backed wooden chair) sprang up so abruptly as he shouted it that he knocked the witness backward to the floor.

    Nowadays it’s casually used on both dramas and sit-coms to the point of having no power at all. When Betty White says it, it’s her being “salty” and speaking against type for comedic purpose.

    And of course, there is the usage of “kink” in The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein as an example of similar language drift, albeit in the other direction.


    As an aside to his routine about the Seven Words You Cannot Say On Television, the late George Carlin noted that fucking was a good thing but raping was not, and wishing someone would get fucked was wishing them well. He then proceeded to recite dialog wherein from context one would expect uses of the verb “fuck” as expressions of ill-will and substituted the word “rape” to prove his point.

    (One presumes that Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle — most likely Mr. Niven from what I know of the both of them — had heard the Carlin routine as “rape” was the worst, forbidden curse word in The Mote in God’s Eye, used exactly in the same way as Mr. Carlin had used it.)

    Unfortunately, as Mr. Carlin also noted, “rape” as a curse suffers in the lack of the ‘k’ sound: say “fucking cocksucking motherfucker” six times fast and note the aggressiveness of the words. This is also why Battlestar Galactica‘s “frak” or “frakking — and “motherfrakker”, which wasn’t written in a script but was an on-screen ad lib by actress Nicki Clyne (which made it to air despite getting an amused smile in reaction from actor Aaron Douglas even though the two of them were in a story situation in which nobody should have been smiling) — are used more in fanspeak than Farscape‘s “frell” and “frelling”. (I’ve never encountered “motherfrelling”, although I suppose its usage is possible.)

    Because of its aggresive ‘k’, I expect Defiance‘s “shtako” to appear in oral fan speech presently, if it hasn’t already, and written prose shortly thereafter. “Hot shtako” has already been used on the program where you would expect to hear “hot shit”. However, since the phrase was being used in reference to a NASA astronaut, according to Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, pilots are the reverse, “shit hot”, so the respective usage should have been “shtako hot”.

    Of course, Defiance has other weird usages. It’s difficult to believe that the word “car” would be replaced by “roller”, even by people who were alive before the arrival of the Votan extra-terrestrial refugees, just as “hailer” has replaced “cellphone” or “phone” in the same way among the same people (with everyone seemingly stuck with the ugliest ringtone I have ever heard in my life!). And the use of the word “terraform” to describe the changes to Earth ecology and geology is completely inappropriate, as the correct word would be “votanform”, although this may be a compromise for an audience which the producers think may be familiar with the concept of terraforming but unable to make the intellectual leap to “votanforming”. Points to Larry Niven for giving his readership the credit of being able to understand the meaning of “kzinform”.


    On a more personal note, my reference to “the haggis is in the fire now” in an earlier post is a line of James Doohan’s in the original Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armegeddon”; I also frequently use Lt. DeSalle’s “I’ll bet credits to Navy Beans…!” from the Robert Bloch-written episode “Catspaw”. (Then-actor Michael Barrier who was given that line is a science fiction reader and particularly a Robert Heinlein fan, and is now retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander from the U. S. Coast Guard. His daughter Maerian Morris was later an editor of the Church of All Worlds magazine Green Egg for several years.)


    Okay, I hope I don’t notice any more mistakes after I post this. Or if I do, perhaps I will instead perform the literary equivalent of throwing my hands above my head and giving up.

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