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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.


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