Friday, July 29, 2011

The F Word Has Lost its Shock Value

Remember when the f word used to be bad? It was the word that earned Ralphie a mouthful of soap in A Christmas Story. It was, as Ralphie put it, "The mother of all dirty words. The f dash-dash-dash word."

Well, not so much anymore, folks. Our society has become a bunch of potty mouths, because the word for unlawful carnal knowledge is so ingrained in our modern culture that it's openly used in public and on TV as a verb, adjective, adverb, noun and anything else we can get away with grammatically. On a recent edition of Hell's Kitchen, I counted the f word bleeped out no less than 15 times in only one minute, and most of them weren't coming out of Gordon Ramsey's mouth, but those of the contestants.

I mentioned to my mother the other day that one of the reasons I like Mad Men so much is because there's virtually no swearing in it, particularly the f bomb. No matter how agitated the characters get, you don't hear them telling someone to f off. She said, "That's because we didn't say it back then (in the 60s)! It was a bad word and you didn't hear anyone making it a part of regular daily conversation." And when we were growing up in the 70s and 80s, who could ever imagine a hit pop song having the f word in the title or lyrics? Yet that's exactly what happened to Cee Lo Green with his now iconic up yours aria "F*** You." OK, I'll admit it, I loved this contagious hit as much as anyone else (and its censored twin, "Forget You", just didn't have the same impact) but the first time I listened to it I was a little embarrassed. Worst of all, I see the f-bomb regularly dropped on Facebook by some of my Gen Y connections. C'mon kids, wouldn't your parents be ashamed?

So what the f--I mean, heck, happened? I've really noticed the change in movie and television dialogue during the past 15 years. There's some debate as to when the f word was first used on the big screen. According to Roger Ebert's book Questions from the Movie Answerman, it was first said in a movie during the 1930s; however, some people think Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? and Midnight Cowboy both opened the doors for the f word to be freely used. Today it's pretty rare to watch a film that doesn't use it, but it's the ones who overuse it that bother me. Nothing annoys me more than when every other word in a string of dialogue is the f word. Unless it's truly appropriate to the character, it's a sign to me that the screenwriter is low class and frankly, unimaginative. It has actually caused me to stop watching a DVD or two when it's relentless. 

Please know that I'm no prude--it's not like I never say or write the word. However, I try to reserve it for the appropriate time and place, if you know what I mean. You've probably noticed that I've never written it, to the best of my knowledge, on this blog, and I would NEVER say it at the office or in a professional environment, or with people I barely know. I wonder how many kids get away with saying it in school. Back in my day, saying the word out loud in class would earn you a one-way ticket to the principle's office.

The f word's popularity in current pop culture means that it's also lost its shock value. Think about it--are we really shocked anymore when we hear it? Now that it's no longer a big deal, the question is what will take its place as the mother of all swear words? Maybe I don't want to know, but it's amazing that a word with roots dating back to 1475 enjoyed its profane reputation up until about 10 years ago. I guess we all need to keep those bars of soap handy.


  1. Brava! Am with you on growing weary of entertainment that is a barrage of bleeps. Great post.

  2. Pam, a very insightful post and so very true. People who drop that word just show their ignorance and lack of vocabulary skills. It doesn't make them cool or tough - it shows they are stupid. Use your words, people.

  3. Growing up I was taught that people who use vulgar words have a limited vocabulary.

  4. wow, it dates back to 1475? Great post Pam!

  5. I'm with you....I tend to reserve the word for occasions when it's called for (hopefully rare). I hate that it's so common on tv, actually.

  6. I was trained to be culturally correct*, chivalrous, manners and all; I found that pretty much everyone else ate like wolves, licked their fingers, scratched themselves, double-dipped, used language I only heard in the a pool hall. After awhile it gets tiring trying to be the best you can be. And as far as language, my high school friend (a girl) asked me why I used such big words; I said those are what we use in college.
    *as close as an imperfect human can get

  7. Like you, I use it when the occasion is right.

  8. My Mom first heard the word in about 1968 at a party and she had to ask my Dad what it meant when they were on the way home. I should mention that she had two kids by this time.

  9. I have tried to stop using this word but haven't been able to do so. I really don't like using it and never really used it before the late 1990s. I don't use it in public/inappropriate places though. I also hate when it is overused in movies and shows.

    You brought back memories of my mom washing my mouth out with soap for cursing a few times when I was a kid.

  10. While I don't use the F word at work and generally not in front of people I don't know that well, I do like to use it. I'm not sure why. My parents forbade bad language (although my sister spoke like a trucker around them)... I just think it's a funny word. I also use the C word and lots of others too. I agree that the power of the word has really diminished, I just think it suits lots of occasions, and well, I enjoy it!

    And I agree that when it's overused it's rather boring. The Blair Witch Project is full of the F word because it was improvised and it shows how unprepared the actors were.

  11. Funny because I remember the first time I said it. My mom overheard me playing outside with friends. I was told to come inside the house and was punished. I still never use that word in front of my folks today as an adult.

  12. Thanks everyone for your comments! It's not like I never say the word, but it's definitely overused in our current culture.

    LaraAnn - yikes...sorry to hear you're one of the few kids who had to taste soap.

  13. It's been overused even more since you wrote this! Almost any testosterone-driven reality show (think Gold Rush or Ice Road Truckers) features more 'beep's than the Roadrunner on high-octane coffee. It's sad. I avoid shows like that as much as possible. But ironically, Pam, Mad Men used the F word in the very first episode! When Don told Pete he'd be a lonely old balding man in a corner office, Pete mutters "F--- You" after Don leaves, but it's muffled. Might have been used once or twice toward the end, but it was justified.

    1. I'll let you in on a secret. Therese. I say the "F" bomb. A lot. Not at work or with people just getting to know me, of course. But with family and close friends, sure. It's something I'm actually becoming more mindful of and working on changing, only being reserved for when I *really* need to use it for emphasis.


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