Former F-Bomb Hardly a Firecracker Anymore

A book title unfathomable not so long ago!

I was walking downtown a few days ago when I overheard two men engaged in casual conversation. “How’s it going?” asked the first. “Not so good,” replied the second. “I spent all day looking for work but there’s nothing out there.” “Yeah, that’s fucked up,” responded the first. I agree that the economy is pretty awful, but my eavesdropping actually made me think about George Carlin.

Back in 1972 Carlin had a funny routine about “the seven words you can’t say on television.” Avert your eyes if you’re sensitive, but they were: piss, shit, tits, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, and motherfucker.  Things have changed a lot since 1972. It’s for sure that only five of those words are problematic and only the last three are real shockers any more. Like British English speakers, the word “piss” has come to mean just about anything except urine. It can piss rain, one can piss and moan, get pissed or pissed off, or expose a phony by taking the piss out them. Shit still causes some alarm on TV, but it slips in, and hearing it upsets hardly anyone, even if it comes from the mouths of youngsters. Ditto “tits,” which I’ve (surprisingly) overheard college-age women use to refer to their own breasts.

Of Carlin’s list, the only words I ever use with regularity are the first two and I never use the last three. But it’s the word formerly known as the “F-bomb” that got me thinking about how language and culture change. Frankly I marvel at how easily and casually the word pours from people’s tongues these days. I don’t say that as a way of decrying the decline of Western morality; it’s more about me. I recall a time in which the F-bomb wasn’t a small firecracker; it was the nuke of the English language. Detonating it, even by accident, meant–depending on where you were–an instant trip to the principal’s office, a backhand across the mouth, ostracism from everyone within hearing distance, or a close encounter of the worst kind between soap dish and mouth. No more. It’s become like piss–a word that means just about anything except what it meant a generation ago. The word is now used to convey personal misfortune (I was fucked.); anger (Fuck you!); being beaten up by another, drugs, or alcohol  (I was really fucked up.); or astonishment. (Fuck!) We drop to register anger or disinterest (Fuck that!); confusion (Things were fucked up.); communicate that something doesn’t work (It’s fucked.); or adjectively enhance the power of another ex-swear (He’s a fucking shithead.). We even use it as gentle jibe, (Who are you, fucking Einstein?), to express admiration for the mighty feats of others (He knocked the fuck out of the ball.), or to register complete agreement or disagreement (Fuck, yes/no!). These days I suspect that only porno sites still use the word to reference sexual intercourse. Heck, look up the word on Google Images and you'll get 16 pages that any toddler could access!

I wonder what Carlin would say about this if he were around today? I pass no judgments one way or another. You folks need to make up your own minds if it’s a good thing or a bad one that language is losing its sting. I’m just fucking saying….

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel that where shit is concerned, using the phrase 'slips in' ought to be substituted with another which includes the word 'out!'