20 Mar In Defense of F**k

It’s a good word. By “good,” I mean a word that does the work it’s made for. If you believe in progress, you should conclude that f**k — the expletive — is the product of arduous field-testing and development. Centuries of testing. No other English word comes close to expressing abject outrage and frustration. I use it whenever my work around the house goes awry. I start with “Oh my f**king God!” then end with “Oh just f**k me!” This may go on for a while. It’s quite therapeutic.

If we didn’t have f**k, we’d have to invent it. Therein lies the irony of every objection to the word. Saying “snap!” or “fudgedragon!” just isn’t going to cut it. Any honest person will admit as much. For all their good intentions, those who prefer a substitute are playing a fool’s game: in saying “fudge,” the speaker derives satisfaction not from voicing the innocuous replacement but, rather, from thinking of the real word, f**k, and then reveling in the fact that he/she hasn’t said it aloud. Fudge is to f**k what methadone is to heroin. You’re still using an expletive; it’s just not a very good one.

All of this came to mind recently when Jill and I watched the first few episodes of the HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire.” The show features Steve Buschemi as an Atlantic City crime boss in the 1920s. It has a good cast, lavish sets, and producer Martin Scorcese. But, by the third episode, I tired of the show for two reasons: I didn’t really care about the characters (I need somebody to root for) and everybody was saying f**k a lot. I mean a lot. This struck me as wholly unrealistic.

Granted, gangster types nowadays say f**k in every sentence. But do you really think that 1920s-era gangsters did this? No doubt they enjoyed saying f**k, but society and its constraints were such that one f**k went a long way. When 1920s-era gangsters said f**k, they probably said it only when it really meant something. On “Boardwalk Empire,” they say it with every breath: “I don’t fucking know, but I think he’s fucking making a mistake. Right? Let’s fucking get out of here.”

I remember in the late 1980s and early 1990s when stand-up comedians started saying f**k a lot in their monologues. A typical opening would go something like this: “I was fucking sleeping, okay? And then I woke up and fucking thought, ‘What the fuck?’ I found myself in a fucking Dumpster, fucking reeking of puke and peeā€¦.” It got old fast because f**k became a kind of bad-ass place holder instead of a powerful expletive. And its overuse suggested that this new generation of comics lacked the confidence to sail solo. They needed to say f**k a lot to keep their audience off guard.

That’s the problem with “Boardwalk Empire”: the actors seem unsure of their dialogue and so, to make it stick, they keep saying f**k, as if this anachronistic over-usage would jar us into thinking we’re in the company of some really bad-ass 1920s-era gangsters. But, actually, f**k‘s overuse only makes me feel that I’m in the company of writers who have little imagination.

I didn’t start saying f**k until I was eighteen. That’s how I was brought up. But, man, when I finally started using the word, I felt its power and used it accordingly. Which is to say: I used it when it really meant something. In short, I won’t overuse because I respect the word for the good work it does. There’s still a certain novelty to hearing a child say f**k, but it seems it won’t be novel for long because f**k is becoming as common among youngsters as crap was in my day. So, yes, I worry about the demise of this formidable word, even as I acknowledge that it is probably too late to wonder, Are we wearing out f**k?