What the Eff?

My intent is to write about swearing, which is why my fingers are trembling above the keyboard.  I know that at some point I will have to type those four letters, the word that I have such trouble saying even to myself.  I’m sure that you know what I am referring to, but for now I will only say that it is an eviscerated firetruck.   Several years ago it was my New Year’s resolution to swear more aw a way to deal with frustration instead of breaking down in tears.  I was tired of hearing my voice get pinched, and tired of the wary stare of strangers who realized that tears were imminent.  It would happen even with the littlest things – like the local bank that sent me a revised receipt docking me twenty five dollars for a stack of checks that I had deposited after a holiday bizarre. 

“Isn’t it possible that there was a breach in your chain of evidence and a check went missing somewhere between this desk and the bowels of the home office in Chicago?” I asked the bank manager.  It seemed like a very reasonable question.  After all, I remembered that teller with the multicolored hair, garish fingernails, that teller with the black bra visible in the puckers between overtaxed buttons.  I watched her as she casually put my stack of checks into the drawer without benefit of a paper clip.  I pressed ahead  “What would happen if someone dropped the checks and they fluttered all over the floor?”  The bank manager did not flinch and I revised my expectations.  Restitution for a lousy twenty five dollars was no longer my goal, I just wanted some recognition that similar to Monopoly, a bank can occasionally make an error.  “What is the point of a deposit receipt if the bank can arbitrarily change it?”  I asked.  Again a totally reasonable question, but I felt my throat tightening.

The bank manager looked at me evenly, “Perhaps you should take pictures of each individual check before you deposit them.  That would be tangible proof,” she said, tacitly admitting that the receipt that I had carefully kept was worthless.  Tears were brimming and I knew that I had to leave before they trickled.  I gathered up my  pathetic shreds of remaining dignity and stormed out.  How much more cathartic if I could have let loose with a firestorm of obscenities – even if I just said a string of firetrucks to myself?  But I have never been able to do it.

My reticence is clearly based on my parents’ sense of propriety.  My father was a rule-follower to the nth degree whose primary goal was to remain a gentleman.   Beneath his calm exterior, he must have had many provoking frustrations ripe for a cleansing rant – a mother who clearly favored his more charismatic older brother who twice escaped from a German prison camp, an autistic son who would require life-long care, and a bright and boisterous wife, well loved but one who cast a suffocating shadow across his more subtle charms.  My father spent hours in the car each day commuting between suburbs and city, and I like to think they were filled with cathartic obscenities he picked up in his brief career as a Navy ensign at the end of World War II, or in his everyday work life as a salesman for a printing company.  I don’t think I ever heard him swear, other than the occasional cathartic damn or hell if he stubbed his toe.  The only thing that came even close was a picture in his office of a bull poised above a little pile with a slash across it denoting “No bull shit.”

In contrast, my mother was a rule breaker, but mostly in the name of irreverence for the pretensions of our affluent suburb.  One of her favorite outfits was a dress with a diamond shaped-cut out above her modest cleavage.  Before she went out she would decorate this small expanse of flesh – she pasted in S&H green stamps, a spray of the dog’s hair, basically anything that was handy.  My father would be horrified.  However, my mother’s irreverence did not extend to swearing.  She had no qualms about damn or hell, and liked to make fun of the saccharine neighbor who could not even utter the mildest of swear words, instead relying on “ding dang darn it” to express frustration.   But the big red firetruck was clearly off limits.  I don’t think I ever heard her say it out loud.

Oddly enough, occasionally she would use the word mother-firetrucker, never in frustration or directed at a person, but only as an adjective to describe something memorable, basically a synonym for “humdinger.”  “That is one mother-firetrucker of a bruise,” she said when I showed her the legacy of a skiing mishap.  Her best euphemism was the “MFO,” ostensibly describing a “mandatory family obligation.”  However, if things went badly the MFO could turn into a mother-effing-ordeal.

I decided it was time to find out what the experts thought and was surprised to discover a lively literature describing swearing and its cultural role across centuries.  A frequently referenced text is Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing, published in 1967.  Even Mr. Montagu is reticent.  Using general terms he discusses swearing and cursing in Shakespeare followed by the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Finally towards the end of the book there is a chapter titled, “Four Letter Words.”  Mr. Montagu is coy, and refers to firetruck as The four-letter word, and then at last, I sensed that he could go no further with the charade.  The author took a deep breath and dove in.  The paragraph was simply titled f*ck (I added the asterisk).  If Ashley Montagu can do it even in the more tender sensibilities of the long ago 1960s, maybe I can learn to let my guard down.

The general themes of these books are the recognition of different categories of swearing and their roles in different social situations.  It turns out that swearing is an umbrella term, encompassing profanity/blasphemy, cursing/oaths and obscenity.  According to Montagu, profanity is “the unsanctioned use of the names or attributes of the figures or objects of religious veneration,” i.e. your basic God Damn It!  Blasphemy may use the same words as profanity, but specifically criticizes religion itself.  Cursing and oaths also have religious origins and describe either a self-directed promise (oath) or an outward-directed plea (curse) for a future evil event.  Both of these categories can evoke all sorts of higher authorities, including religious figures such as God, Jesus, Merciful Father, all sorts of biblical characters or other authority figures such as royalty or even one’s own ancestors.  The curse often describes a grisly death involving the sequential loss of different body parts.  “A plague on both your houses” now seems like a quaint Shakespearean curse, but in the late 1500s, such a fate was could be terrifying for true believers.  In today’s terms this curse could be equivalent to saying “I hope that you, your wife, your mother, father and all your children contract a disfiguring antibiotic-resistant bacteria that slowly eats away all flesh, bones, sinews and tender vittles.”

The church took a dim view of profanity, particularly blasphemy.  After all, the third commandment says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain,” and Leviticus 24:16 states, “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall be put to death.” While the church’s ban might have been an effective deterrent to the pious, outright prohibition often has the exact opposite effect.  Besides people began to realize that many curses were only empty threats and as the dominance of the church waned, profanity and curses lost their taboo punch.  Instead, swearing became an art form, with champions taking advantage of the vast menu of religious figures and grisly deaths that could be combined in any number of creative ways.  Montagu notes, “Catholic swearers are far more accomplished in the art than the votaries of other Christian sects.”

Psycholinguists, the niche group who specifically study the cultural impact of swearing, point out that once God, Damn, Hell and their religious ilk were no longer taboo, new words were needed.  The next frontier was obscenities describing sex, anatomy and the curious category of “effluvia,” i.e. piss and shit.  Steven Pinker, author of the 2007 book The Stuff of Thought, points that there is nothing inherently obscene about these words – after all everyone has to piss and shit on a regular basis, it is just that our society has anointed these words as obscene.  Scientists have probed the physiologic basis of swearing, investigating whether the urge to swear is always simmering within our grey matter, variably brought under control by social norms.  Tourette’s syndrome has served as a model.  While the disorder is dominated by tics and twitches, occasionally sufferers will erupt in obscenities.  Across cultures and languages people with Tourette’s use their own suite of taboo words.  Pinker reports that a deaf person with Tourette’s even spelled out the f-word in American Sign Language.  Research suggests that, across-the-board, swearing is an overpowering urge held in check by the brain’s basal ganglia, a pair of structures that function as an internal censor.  Without this censor, obscenities just come spewing out.  The basal ganglia of Touretters are lax, while mine have me twisted into a knot.

By and large I am comfortable with effluvia but I just cannot embrace the f-word, deemed the worst of them all.  It is a word that has been around forever, perhaps derived from the Latin futuerer ( to copulate), French foutre (again to copulate) or the German ficken (yes, to copulate).  The f-word has taken an interesting course since it appeared in the late Middle Ages when it was used, as intended, as a verb.  It has now morphed into every grammatical form –  noun, adverb, participle and the f-word has even been inserted into the middle of words, i.e. un-effing-believable, a phenomenon called infixing.

The World Wars were the great leveler and the f-word in all its glory crossed class lines. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, was saturated with the f-word and the publisher mandated the ludicrous substitution of the word fug.  While originally used for abusive or cathartic intent, now the f-word can be used even in social settings.  As the psycholinguistics say, the f-word has lost its “referential base.”  We can be thankful for that, considering the various anatomical impossibilities described by the word – “take a flying f*ck (in a rolling donut)” comes to mind.  It is now combined with profanity, such as Jesus Effing Christ, an example of its common use as a mood “intensifier.”  Sanitizing the word by using asterisks or bleeps on TV hardly disguises the word, and an incessant string of bleeps probably does more to convey high emotion than the word itself.  The f-word may be following the same trajectory as damn and hell and is approaching the realm of polite conversation.

However, I am not quite there yet – my basal ganglia are still balking and will only consent to friggin’ or freakin’ euphemisms or those silly asterisks.  Maybe I can retrain my censors by focusing on casual social swearing and set aside angry cathartic swearing for now.  I think of my parents and the small pig farm they bought when my father retired.  They knew nothing about farming and relied on their neighbors at the end of the driveway, Phil and Marie.  On weekends, my parents would work side by side with Phil in the pig barn as he told them what to shovel and where to put it.  As shovels scraped and manure flew, Phil regaled my parents with a steady stream of the f-word in every grammatical contortion admixed with a smattering of diverse effluvia.  The performance was further embellished by syncopated splats of tobacco. They loved it.  “Phil is the most marvelous swearer,” my mother would enthuse.  “You just can’t believe what comes out of his mouth.”

Aside from Phil’s wordsmithing, my parents appreciated the other role of social swearing – its sense of solidarity and common bond.  Here was my father, wearing a natty cabled sweater and khaki pants, seeming a world away from Phil who rarely strayed far from the farm and had never seen nearby Lake Michigan.  My mother was not a shit shoveler, but she worked hard carting stones from the field to create a stone wall at the base of the farm house.  Phil showed his respect by feeling totally comfortable in his profuse swearing in their company.  This was a real coup for my mother, who hated pretension of any kind.

Phil could also recalibrate his basal ganglia at a moment’s notice.  If my parents brought suburban friends or children to the farm, Phil’s language would clean up instantly.  This was further evidence of my parents’ favored status.  I was only an occasional visitor to the farm and Phil never swore in my presence, which I regretted.  I was tagged as an outsider.  Perhaps he was waiting for a signal from me to let loose.  If Phil offered me an iced tea on a hot day, maybe I should have casually said, “F*ck yeah, Phil, that sounds great.”  In fact, maybe I am a member of a cross-cultural diaspora of bottled-up vicarious swearers, all milling around waiting for the proper moment to either give or receive the go-ahead signal – the slight nod of the head, arched eyebrow or sly smile.  “F*ck, yeah” could be an ideal test phrase.

Part of my interest in swearing is its creativity and its status as a linguistic art form.  I think of the swearers of centuries past who could call on God and many other religious figures to produce a string of profanity that could run on for minutes.  In his book Montagu quotes a Middle Ages curse by the Bishop of Rochester.  It runs for about a page and a half and uses such phrases as:

“May he or they be cursed in living, in dying, in eating, in drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting in sleeping in slumbering, in waking, in walking, in standing, in sitting in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting and in blood-letting… may they be cursed in their eye-brows, in their cheeks, in their jaw-bones … in their veins, in the groin, in the thighs, in the genitals…”

I can just imagine the indignant Bishop, standing with Bible in hand, working himself into a froth as he ticked off each body part and position.  In contrast, our current cursing vocabulary is impoverished – the Bishop’s entire  curse could reduced to a simple “f*ck you.”  Aside from my mother’s favorite motherf*cker (basal ganglia still on high alert), the f-word does not lend itself to linguistic artistry.

Swearing like the classic trooper, sailor or even fishwife may now consist of the f-word with jack-hammer intensity and frequency.   Where is the creativity in that?  In contrast shit (my personal favorite obscenity) has generated wonderfully descriptive idioms.  What could be more evocative than the expression “When the shit hits the fan,” describing something that goes terribly, terribly wrong or “Up shit creek without a paddle,” perfectly capturing an utterly hopeless situation?  The f-word seems very pale in comparison, it just doesn’t take any creativity to sprinkle it thoroughly into conversation.

Who are those geniuses who came up with the great visual of shit, the fan and the paddleless canoe?   I  would like join their ranks as a wordsmith and come up with my very own original idiom.  Then I could watch with pride as my creation, my bon mot, goes viral and shows up in the Urban Dictionary.  Finally, based on its durability, my idiom could end up in a dictionary of slang.

I have worked on this for several weeks now, and have only come up with tepid entries, such as a shitless wonder (and I have no idea what that means).  Clearly I set the bar too high, time for Plan B.  I found Green’s Dictionary of Slang at the library and started looking for a hidden gem that deserved wider play, one that would allow me to be the PR agent for a clever wordsmith.  There were immediate problems in the 21 pages of entries for the f-word.  While I am conceptually comfortable with the word as an ubiquitous intensifier, all the idioms derived from the f-word reverted to their very explicit sexual nature.  My inhibitory circuits raised a bevy of red flags, and my basal ganglia screamed, “No frigging way! Not on our watch!”

The twenty pages of entries for shit were more promising, and I am proud to announce my selection – “Ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.”  Perhaps not obscure to all, particularly those who work in male-dominated environments where creative obscenities seem to thrive.  But the expression is new to me and fits my must-have criterion of a strong visual image.  (Just pause a minute to let the visual sink in.)  The dictionary also provides references to books where the expression is used, suggesting a very peculiar job for the editor who combs the literature for new obscenities   According to the slang dictionary, the expression refers to an ugly women, but I am going to broaden its meaning to anything that is repulsive.  Today is October 1st, 2013, and the government is shut down.  I would like to say that the Republican Tea Party is nothing more than “Ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.”  Fuck yeah.  There I said it out loud and even put it in print.  My fingers are no longer trembling above the keyboard and my basal ganglia have accepted the new normal.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

In Medieval times the villagers quickly learned that

You must steer clear of the man in the pointy *** ***.

That was a bishop spewing ****** for blasphemous souls,

Whose fate was a quick death amongst burning hot coals.

But these taboo words hung only by a tenuous ******

As the church’s power ebbed, people lost their dread.

Now there is only a ****** of taboo words and they’re mostly obscene

Noun, verb, adjective or adverb, the F-word has become our routine.



Answers:  red hat, hatred, thread, dearth

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