November 7, 2008

"If I say 'F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on,' am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality?"

Asked Dan Drezner, quoted by Language Log's Geoff Nunberg in his post about the oral argument in the Supreme Court case about "fleeting expletives" in the broadcast media. (Kevin Martin is the FCC chairman who favors fees for the broadcasters.) Nunberg examines the serious linguistic question whether it's true, as Martin said, that "the F-word 'inherently has a sexual connotation' whenever it's used."
Emphatic fucking may not depict or refer to sex, and may not even bring it explicitly to mind. But the link is still there. Why would these uses of the word be considered "dirty" if they weren't polluted by its primary literal use? And what could be the original source of that taint if not the word's literal denotation (or at least, of its denotation relative to the attitudes that obscene words presuppose about sex and the body)? In fact if fuck and fucking weren't connected to sex in all their secondary uses, they would serve no purpose at all.
Isn't it what we call a "dying metaphor"? The classic reference is George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language":
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
I think that applies to what Nunberg calls "emphatic fucking," a phrase which makes me think Nunberg wasn't interested in all the meanings of what he was saying or (more likely) Nunberg meant to amuse us with a vivid image as he wielded linguistic jargon.
Now it's very easy to conclude that the indignation that some people feel over the promiscuous use of epithetical fucking and the like is a reflection of their prudish inhibitions about sexuality, and that embracing the language helps to dispel those attitudes. As George Carlin put it, "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions." That was an article of faith among a the faction among the sixties radicals who made sexual liberation an inseparable part of their political programs. As Jerry Rubin put it:
There's one word which Amerika hasn't destroyed. One word which has maintained its emotional power and purity. Amerika cannot destroy it because she dare not use it. It's illegal! It's the last word left in the English language: FUCK!

The naked human body is immoral under Christianity and illegal under Amerikan law. Nudity is called "indecent exposure." Fuck is a dirty word because you have to be naked to do it.
I think most cultural liberals still uncritically adopt a version of this understanding of the words. When they uphold people's right to use this sort of language in public against the attempts to censor or limit it, they think of themselves not just as defending free speech, but as striking a blow against sexual repression and hypocrisy. That is, they see themselves as being in a line that stretches back to the Lady Chatterly decision....

But if it ever were possible to purge fuck of its literal stigma by eliminating the inhibitions and hangups that the word seems to trail, the secondary uses of the word would lose their raison d'etre....

[W]e should acknowledge that the words are suffused with an affect that's derived from their sexual meanings.
The metaphor is not dead for Nunberg, and I think he wants to keep it alive. The word is good and useful because the metaphorical meaning still lives. Now, Nunberg was born in 1945. That's a lot older than Drezner. For Drezner, the word must seem much more casual and ordinary, more common and also less powerful. Nunberg appreciates the power that comes from sex, power that Drezner probably doesn't feel.

In Orwell's words: "the concrete melts into the abstract."


Independent George said...

My favorite scene from 'The Wire' was a brilliant sequence in which Bunk & McNulty go over five minutes saying nothing but variations of the 'F-Word'.

tim maguire said...

In most uses, I don't think "fucking" has any meaning whatsoever except to emphasize the words that come immediately after, the oral equivalent of bolding the text. Its meaning is usually completely divorced from sex and does not conjure any images of same.

But what do I know? I think mixing metaphors is just fine. They don't always work, just like any other figure of speech doesn't always work, but when they don't work, it's not because of the mixing. In my opinion.

Palladian said...

I think "fuck" is used as a verbal substitute for physical violence. It is reversion to a primitive, pre-language time in our history when there were no "romantic" connotations to sex and when violence was constant and necessary for survival, not to mention the frequent overlap of the two. Saying "fuck" is a way to slough off the veneer of civilization and pick up your club to bash your opponent over the head. Perhaps civilization remains precisely because we have learned to substitute verbal violence for physical violence, but since verbal violence frequently leads to or accompanies physical violence, I don't think so. "Fuck" is a harsh-sounding word, resembling a sharp bark, and because of that probably has deep, primitive resonance for humans. "Fuck" is the vestige of the primal grunt or bark. It's often more a noise than a word, and seems to be used in that manner rather than as an expression of meaning. It is a way of not communicating, either because the speaker, through lack of education or intelligence doesn't possess the tools to communicate or because the more educated speaker wants to seem authentic by abandoning communication and behaving primitively. This is the Jerry Rubin approach, a deliberate decision to erode the progress of civilization in the service of... eroding the progress of civilization.

I admit to using the word "fuck" in this manner, even against my better nature. I find that I often deploy "fuck" against opponents who seem, for one reason or the other, uninterested or unable to communicate on a higher level. If you've read some of my less than erudite comments here, especially toward nasty drive-by trolls, you'll see what I mean. Often the target of my use of "fuck" is someone who I'd pop in the mouth rather than swear at if they behaved in person as they do online.

Fatmouse said...

Profanity is just a crutch for inarticulate motherfuckers.

Palladian said...

An aside:

Does anyone know the origin of the spelling "Amerika"? What exactly is that supposed to mean? Is it some reference to the Ku Klux Klan? Or is it some meaningless thing that's intended to evoke memories of Jerry Rubin and those repugnant people? I'm actually glad that certain people use it, because it's an easy-to-read indication that the writer is a complete douche-bag and not worth taking seriously.

rhhardin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Palladian said...

"I admit to using the word "fuck" in this manner, even against my better nature."

In other words, to my better nature I say "fuck you"!

rhhardin said...

Swear words assume a familiar relationship with the listener.

They're offensive when the relationshp has not been granted.

It's not prudery, or even latent prudery, but rather a social violation.

Which words have this power varies across languages; their referent hardly matters, just that they have this social power.

Since they're offensive in unfamiliar contexts, they're useful for offending; giving offense is often needed.

So every culture has some words explicitly for the purpose of offending.

The FCC is deciding whether it wants to keep the air clear of offense or not; it's not about sex at any level.

peprgirl said...

Thank you Ann....and George

George Carlin - The History And Many Uses Of The Word Fuck

Perhaps one of the most interesting words in the English language today, is the word FUCK.
Out of all of the English words which begin with the letter F, FUCK is the only word referred to as the "F" word, it's the one magical word.

FUCK as most words in the English language,is derived from German,
the word "fricken[?]", which means to strike.
In English, FUCK falls into many grammatical categories.

As a transitive verb, for instance.
John FUCK-ed Shirley.
As an intransitive verb, Shirley FUCKS.
It's meaning's not always sexual;
it can be used as an adjective, such as John's doing all the FUCK-ing work.
As part of an adverb,Shirley talks too FUCK-ing much.
As an adverb enhancing an adjective, Shirley is FUCK-ing beautiful.
As a noun, I don't give a FUCK.
As part of a word abso-FUCKING-lutely,
or in-FUCKING-credible.
And, as almost every word in the sentence, FUCK the FUCK-ing FUCK-ers.

As you must realize, there aren't too many words with the versatility of FUCK.
As in these examples describing situations such as fraud,
I got FUCK-ed at the used car lot.
Dismay, Aw FUCK it.
Trouble, I guess I'm really FUCK-ed now.
Agression, Don't FUCK with me buddy.
Difficulty, I don't understand this FUCK-ing question.
Inquiry, Who the FUCK was that?
Dissatisfaction, I don't like what the FUCK is going on here.
Incompetence, He's a FUCK-off.
Dismissal, Why don't you go outside and play hide-and-go-FUCK yourself?

I'm sure you can think of many more examples.
With all these multi purpose applications,
how can anyone be offended when you use the word?
We say, use this unique, flexible word more often in your daily speech.
It will identify the quality of your character immediately.
Say it loudly, and proudly!
FUCK you!

former law student said...

The dead metaphor: If I say something sucks, I don't mean it fellates.

ricpic said...

This guy is complaining about the F word and he uses the abominable, denotation?

Alan said...


I think that it may have come from the German spelling of America as "Amerika". Franz Kafka's "incomplete" posthumous novel of the same name tends to describe a place that appeals to those who feel oppressed by a more powerful majority. But I'm just guessing.

William said...

I think when Mark Twain used the phrase "Nigger Jim" in Huckleberry Finn the word had both a different connotative and denotative meaning than it does today. Nowadays, it is a word of studied offensiveness. In Twain's time, it was just a word of casual bigotry-- not for polite society but not the thumping show stopper of a word that it is today. Likewise with fuck: Twain probably had occasion to verbalize "fuck' but it would never occur to him to use that word in a literary context. And I am sure that if his wife had said "fuck me harder" during coitus he would have considered it improper.....Dirty words are always with us; it's just that the words change. I am sure that Angelina Jolie has had occasion to say "fuck me harder" in a contextually appropriate way that no one, certainly not me, would disapprove of. However, if she said "fuck me like your nigger bitch" such an image would inhibit the thrusting of Samuel Jackson, presuming he was her partner at the time.

ricpic said...

I hope, now that Angelina is married, she is confining her sex life to Brad and laying off the black

bill said...

Can't tell when it began to be used as a pejorative,though I assume before the ABC Miniseries (1987). Other origins, from wiki:

Amerika, the spelling of America in German, Dutch, Romanized Japanese, and many other languages written in the Latin alphabet

1927 Kafka novel

1944-1952 & 1956-1994 Amerika was a Russian language publication of the United States Department of State for distribution in the Soviet Union during the Cold War to inform Soviets about American life.

From Alternative political spelling: It was common among 1960s and early 1970s United States leftists to write Amerika rather than "America" in referring to the United States. [1], [2], [3], [4], [5] It is likely that this was originally an allusion to the German spelling of America, and intended to be suggestive of Nazism, a hypothesis that the Oxford English Dictionary supports.

I'll leave it to someone with access to the OED to follow up.

"The most common usage of the letters "kkk" in politically satiric misspelling is the spelling of "America" as Amerikkka. A reference to the Ku Klux Klan, this is often done to indicate the belief that the United States or American society is fundamentally racist. The earliest known usage of "Amerikkka" recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is in 1970, in a journal called Black World. Presumably, this was an extrapolation from the then already widespread "Amerika"."

Host with the Most said...


Extremely well said.

Actually, to me the "F" word is "fart". My upbringing. We could get away with "fuck", but I still, at 50 years of age, do not believe that I have ever uttered the word "fart" out loud.

It's just not polite.

Triangle Man said...

From the Oxford English Dictionary (first usage in 1969 in Ann Arbor, MI):

Amerika, n.

American society viewed as racist, fascist, or oppressive, esp. by African-Americans.

1969 Ann Arbor (Mich.) Argus 18 Nov.-3 Dec. 5/2 (heading) Hayden on Amerika on Trial. 1970 Ann Arbor (Mich.) Argus 9-23 Feb. 5/3 (heading) In Amerikkka. 1970 San Francisco Examiner & Chron. 5 Apr. (Datebook section) 18 The New York bombers identified themselves afterwards as ‘revolutionary force 9’ in a message to ‘Amerika’ (a current fad in radical literature is to spell it with a German 'k' to denote fascism). 1973 Black Panther 17 Nov. 2/2 The political situation which exists here in Nazi Amerikkka. 1985 New Statesman 27 Sept. 19/3 Exiled from Amerika (the spelling comes naturally) Beck..lived a nomadic existence in Europe. 1993 Urb 7 July 23/1 ‘The Boat’, a vicarious journey from Africa to Amerikkka aboard a slave ship. 2002 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 26 Sept. 76/1 The writer turns to a full-throated denunciation of Amerika.

A{sm}merikan adj. (also Amerikkkan)

1969 Ann Arbor (Mich.) Argus 8-22 Oct. 4/1 The ‘World Series of *Amerikan Justice’{em}the Chicago Conspiracy vs. the Washington Kangaroos{em}opened to a full house in Cowtown on Sept. 24. 1971 Black World Apr. 85 All draw not only from our unique amerikkkan horror but also from the lush beauty of Mother Africa for inspiration. 2002 Untold June-July 15/2 The Niggro will turn on you but never on its Amerikkan master.

Bissage said...




(Link has nothing to do with George Orwell, so far as I can tell.)

Joe Hogan said...

I am Nunberg's age. As a kid, I lived in a veritable sea of four letter language that featured the word "fuck" in all it's wonderful permutations. To me it was the word of choice to express anger or frustration.

But, for me it was totally divorced from its sexual context. I remember to this day the moment when, at age 12 or 13, a friend, observing a fetching young lady of the neighborhood, avowed that he would, "love to fuck her." I was stunned. I couldn't reconcile his apparent attraction to the girl with his use of so angry a word.

In the years since, my own florid use of the term encountered a second moment of shock when I began working as a young social worker in a largely female environment. Up to that time the girls of my acquaintance abjured the use of such crass words. After all, they were good Catholic girls and we were all engaged in the adolescent mating dance of the time.

In the almost exclusively female work environs of a mid-60's welfare agency, where frustration was the dominant emotion, these pre-women's lib college grads felt free to fill the air with a stream "fucks".

After the initial surprise, any residual sexual connections of the word were erased for me through its constant repetition in the world of work.

So for me, context is everything. Away from any specific connection to sex or sexuality, the word only acts as the wonderful and irreplaceable cudgel of anger and frustration that it is.

But the bottom line in this legal issue is the desire of the puritans to expel sex from the public airways. That goal has already totally failed. As we mature as a society, sex, in all its many aspects, is increasingly discussed and displayed daily on TV, and in movies, video games, etc. The battle has been lost. All Martin and his ilk can now do is cling to the symbolic battle of the seven magical words (reduced from eight by the divorce of "suck" from its ancient and honorable association with fellatio, as "former law student" noted.)

Martin and Co. will assert that they are fighting to protect the children from premature exposure to sexuality. But the true discomfort when the words are heard is experienced by the parents of those children who proceed to ask for, and deserve, an age-appropriate explanation of the subject of sexuality.

It is us, the adults, who bear the scars of our culture's puritanism. The unbreakable connection of sex = dirty is our burden, which we pass on to our children when we attach so much tension, fear and anxiety to these taboos.

"Ah, fuck it dude. Let's go bowling."
- Walter Sobchak

XWL said...

The naked human body is immoral under Christianity and illegal under Amerikan law. Nudity is called "indecent exposure." Fuck is a dirty word because you have to be naked to do it.

What a quaint and almost Victorian notion. While being naked to "do it" is common, it hardly is the case that you "have to be naked".

Sex can be fun in a variety of states of dress.

Only a damn dirty hippie/yippie would argue that you "have to be naked" to fuck.

In some ways Rubin's line of thought isn't out of step with Dr Rashid Khalil when he issued a fatwa suggesting that naked intercourse invalidates a marriage.

I absolutely reject absolutes (especially when they pertain to sexuality)

Richard Dolan said...

I think Palladian got a little caught up in his metaphors, and the point he was making ended up a bit confused. (What does it mean to say that using a word -- any word -- "is [a] reversion to a primitive, pre-language time"? What could any of us know about "pre-language time" anyway?)

I think Palladian's right to say that, in today's usage, the F-word is intended to conjure up a "primitive" image, but mostly in the sense of the authentic low-class On-The-Waterfront sort rather than some pre-modern, deep Freudian idea. It's just that the ubiquity of the usage robs it of any connotation of "authenticity" whatever.

In its most normal usage today, a la Drezner's use, the F-word is trying to communicate an attitude and an emphasis. As Palladian says, the "speaker wants to seem authentic by ... behaving primitively." It doesn't work anymore, because speakers across all class, education and context lines used it so indiscriminately as to make the F-word unremarkable. The risque aspect of the usage has long since died out, so lost that its ban is now just a totem of times past, a reflection of cultural attitudes that, for most, are as inert and incomprehensible as Edwardian humor.

In the contrast between Drezner and Nunberg that Ann draws, Nunberg is a reflection of those times past when coarseness counted for something, and Drezner of the more linguistically declasse'd circumstances that characterize public discourse today. But I wouldn't get carried away with Palladian's metaphors of pre-linguistic times and primitive, violent hominoids.

Palladian said...

Fuck you, Richard Dolan.

Oligonicella said...

palladian --

It is reversion to a primitive, pre-language time in our history when there were no "romantic" connotations to sex...

No such time existed. Even our close primate relatives have romance in their sexual encounters. They engage in every variety we do, including kissing, fondling and every form of foreplay and just cuddling for the sake of cuddling.

Palladian said...

"No such time existed. Even our close primate relatives have romance in their sexual encounters. They engage in every variety we do, including kissing, fondling and every form of foreplay and just cuddling for the sake of cuddling."

Jesus, why do you fucking people have to destroy my fucking caveman fantasy? Can't a man fucking dream?!

ricpic said...

Gorilla my dreams,
Rhesus, you're fine;
I flip for you, Chimp,
Will you be mine?

Lem said...

(more likely) Nunberg meant to amuse us with a vivid image as he wielded linguistic jargon.

Small consolation to David Shuster and his "vivid image" of the pimping of Chelsea Clinton ;)

dualdiagnosis said...

Ann -I think your exploration of the cultural liberal is fascinating. Please continue.

Amerika- think swastika. From the cultured types at DemocraticUnderground and Kos.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Tim M, Way Back Up there at the top of the thread, mentioned mixed metaphors, so I just have to tell this story.
Gordon Baxter, who used to write for Flying Magazine, wrote once that his editor issued an edict forbidding certain cliches and metaphors. (Just to date this properly for the resident fogies, one of the cliches forbidden was "Beautiful downtown (anywhere)". 3 points to the first to correctly identify the origin.)
So anyway, Gordon responded to his editor with a congratulatory note saying "you have the courage of a lion to set foot where the hand of man has never trod before in these shark-infested waters."

EnigmatiCore said...

"Emphatic fucking"

Is there another kind?

/Once again, please. This time with feeling.

Lem said...

Am I obviously encouraging rape and bestiality when I say, "F#$% Kevin Martin and the horse he rode in on?" or could I have a different intent in mind?

I depends if it’s a sacred cow ;)

David J. Olson said...

I think the majority in Cohen v. California actually makes this distinction. They explain that a jacket that says "Fuck the Draft" does not reach the level of obscenity because it is clearly not suggesting anything sexual.

No one thinks that Cohen is suggesting anyone perform the act of coitus upon the draft itself.

Darcy said...

There you go, Enigmaticore.

David said...

If I say, "Fuck you, Althouse," the meaning depends completely on the background, context and inflection, right?

In general usage, the F word has become a refuge of the inarticulate. I object to its banality. It should be banished from the airwaves because it's boring. Unfortunately, if being boring were the standard for banishment, we'd have mostly dead air.

Lem said...


Is the professor going subliminal ;)

XWL said...

No one thinks that Cohen is suggesting anyone perform the act of coitus upon the draft itself.

I don't know, seems like the pending Obama Administration with their Universal Coercive National Service proposal, are 'making sweet, sweet love' to the idea of conscription.

Just cause they're not conscripting folks into a military, doesn't make it any less of a conscription, to quote the wiki, "Conscription (also known as the draft, the call-up or national service) is a general term for involuntary labor demanded by an established authority"

Tell me how that differs from this proposal at (innocuously filed under the heading "America Serves")

"The Obama Administration will call on Americans to serve in order to meet the nation’s challenges. President-Elect Obama will expand national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps and will create a new Classroom Corps to help teachers in underserved schools, as well as a new Health Corps, Clean Energy Corps, and Veterans Corps. Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year. Obama will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start."

So, let me be the first to say, FUCK AMERICA SERVES.

Tibore said...


John Burgess said...

ricpic: Did you see those rhesus pieces? F*ckin' Hot!

I sometimes wonder about Hitler's fascination with America. His personal train was called 'Amerika', as was a planned trans-oceanic bomber, the Me-264 (the better to hit New York) and supposedly a super-submarine of the Type XXIV Class was to ravage the US East Coast under that name.

Lawgiver said...

I shocked, shocked I tell you!

Mr Wonderful Bissage how can you link to such filth? You've made a mockery of yourself. You are no longer Mr Wonderful Bissage, you simply bissage.

BJM said...

My father served under Patton in WWII and one of his favorites anecdotes was an incident that occurred when a deuce and a half broke down in the middle of a one lane bridge stalling his push into Germany.

Patton roared up as was his wont, and demanded to know what the problem was and the GI working on the truck is alleged to have replied:

"The fucking fucker is fucked, Sir!."

It may be a WWII urban legend but it had the ring of authenticy to Dad and his vet poker pals. I of course heard it from the kitchen stairs and in the ensuing years has become the fallback explanation for irrecoverable malfunctions at our house.

Richard Dolan said...

Palladian: You're welcome.

garage mahal said...

"Emphatic fucking"

Is there another kind?

You've never been married.

garage mahal said...

Oh, and fuck you Palladian.

blake said...

Wasn't that Lenny Bruce's schtick: "Fuck you, ma!"?

Mr. Dolan, all of us should be familiar with pre-language times, if our memories are long enough. Toddlers often swear, even if we don't recognize the words.

I can't seem to find any trace of it, but it seems to me a lot of leftists got upset over a spelling of America in the '80s that was something like AMEЯIKA. (This made no sense to me, since Я is pronounced "ya", but "AMEPIKA" doesn't have the same pizazz, I guess.)

Donald Douglas said...

"For Drezner, the word must seem much more casual and ordinary, more common and also less powerful. Nunberg appreciates the power that comes from sex, power that Drezner probably doesn't feel."

Or, maybe he's just a language libertarian...?