Sometimes I sit in quiet contemplation, thinking about what things would have been like if Shakespeare had been a fan of the Really Bad Word.
You know. Romeo could have used the word to describe the frustrations of young love or to better emphasize the beauty at yonder window.
Or perhaps we would have Macbeth swearing a blue streak to describe what he really thought of King Duncan. Or the Three Witches may have used The Word as they stirred their pot. Add a dash of it to "double, double, toil and trouble" and there you have it: One of the world's most powerful tragedies with an R rating.
Shakespeare never used The Word, although he did hint at it a bit in Henry V. The Word has no place in the works of the Bard, I think we can all agree on that. The question is, does it have a place at all, outside rap music and the various films of Samuel L. Jackson?
The Word — aka the F-word, F-bomb, effin' and its many alliterative substitutes including flipping, fricking and freaking — seems to be everywhere. And yet its use is looked down upon by many, and has been throughout history. Like all taboo words, but more so, it is by its very nature both difficult to talk about and intriguing, and that conflict is evident in how people often view the word.
"Though I do use it in the expletive when I stub my toe or whatnot, I do not think that it should just be bandied about in conversation," opines Allisa Glasscock, in response to our query. "It sounds uneducated when used in public debate. There are more accurate words and terms available. It is a taboo word teenagers say to be defiant around adults and make them cringe. It is a word that can be made to mean anything and used in any tense. A socialite who says it sounds surprisingly profane, while for those in lower classes it is almost cliche. The inclusion or lack there of in someone's speech demonstrates class, maturity and education level in our society."
Frankly, Allisa stole my answer. We share the same opinion when it comes to matters of The Word and how it should be used. It's a minor miracle, because opinions on the subject vary. Although if the responses to our query are any indication, people aren't as uptight about it as you might suspect. It's a matter of perspective.
"I do believe that children shouldn't use the word and I believe that adults should use caution and restraint when swearing around children," said Michael Bouffard. "But, honestly, I think its overhyped and useless. Cable television already allows certain once-taboo words to be used on a regular basis and even the FCC has become more lenient to what the censors do and do not take off the air for whatever reason. I mean, the television allowed the entire country to watch 9/11 unfold before our very eyes with seven thousand different cameras and a million different opinions . . ."
Got it from Gramps
How much pain and misery can one little word cause? It's only one syllable, after all, and it's got just that single vowel? Yet, this little guy DOES have the power to cause mayhem. Try uttering it during a job interview and see what happens. Or unleash the word during your first meeting with your new in-laws.
At the newspaper, editors are always on the lookout – not only for The Word itself but for other words that sound similar or which are meant to impart the same meaning. You know: those clever word substitutions young mothers and fathers employ so as not to contaminate the delicate ears of their young.
And speaking of the young, it's a safe bet that they're going to hear The Word sooner or later, no matter how careful you are. If they don't hear it from you, they'll hear it from a friend, an older brother, in a movie or from the people you'd least expect to be cussing.
"My parents and even my grandfather let it slip out once in a great while," says Wendy Hutchins of Andover. "I was shocked – Gramps was born in 1901; my parents in 1921 and 1924.
"We have been present when our older grandkids have been watching movies in which every other word is (The Word.) We were EXTREMELY uncomfortable, although we were all adults who know the word exists as well as what it means. Yes, I use it. And my husband uses it. We don't use it around the children or the grandchildren and rarely in the presence of anyone but ourselves."
It's easy to SAY you won't use it. But then you bash your thumb with a hammer or stub your toe on a chair leg. The Word can fly out of your mouth before you even know it's there.
"And there are times," Hutchins says, "when it is the only word that truly conveys the message I want to send."
Like when it's the first day of spring and you have to shovel snow out of your yard. We hear you, Wendy.
That which we call a rose
So, who invented this mother of all bad words? It isn't an anagram. That urban legend has been soundly debunked. It wasn't Andrew Dice Clay or George Carlin. They were just men who made careers out of using it. It wasn't Mark Twain, although he admittedly loved to cuss, when appropriate.
"Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances," the great Twain once said, "profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer."
But the origin of The Word predates all of them by hundreds of years. You want to blame somebody? Blame the Germans.
Probably the Germans.
Says Wikipedia: "The Oxford English Dictionary states that the ultimate etymology is uncertain, but that the word is probably cognate with a number of native Germanic words with meanings involving striking, rubbing and having sex."
That's fairly ambiguous. It is also believed that the very first use of The Word was in a poem, in a mixture of Latin and English, composed before Columbus set sail for the New World. It's that old, and yet The Word still rattles us. We still take pains to avoid saying it in front of children or our parents.
Mostly we do.
"I understand that everyone is entitled to his or her own list of bad words," says Kaitlyn Boulet, "and this one is just a big no-no for many, including my father, but it's not going to stop me from using it any time soon, so sorry, Dad."
The Smurf connection
Kaitlyn's views on the matter may be of great importance. As a college student, will her generation be the one that finally changes how The Word hits our ears?
"People are so afraid of the F-bomb just because someone once told them it was a bad word and not to use it," she says. "But my question is why? What actually makes the F-word so bad? It's actually a pretty interesting word."
Interesting enough to get into the Oxford English Dictionary, anyway. It first introduced the word in 1972. That's almost half a century after D. H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" gained notoriety in 1928 for its frequent use of The Word in several different forms.
Henry Miller used it. So did James Joyce. Stephen King uses it all the time and Quentin Tarantino couldn't make a movie without it.
When Vice President Joe Biden whispered a sentence containing that word into the president's ear, it made headlines and so many people gasped, they say it could be heard from the moon.
That sweet thing Alanis Morissette uses it boldly in one of her songs and Pink has it the title of a Top 40 hit. There's also that song by Cee Lo Green that radio stations insist on playing with not-so-clever replacement words: "Forget You."
If Bouffard is to be believed, some beloved cartoon characters constructed a language based on frustrations over not being able to use the word they want to use. This is swearing a blue streak in a literal sense.
"I grew up knowing that the word was considered the worst word," Bouffard says, "but never understood until I figured out why the Smurfs were so cool. They developed an entire language based on the word 'smurf.' It was used as nouns, verbs, adjectives and exclamations. So years later, I discovered that (The Word) was the grown-up derivative for 'smurf.'"
Author Crash Barry of Buckfield marvels over the enduring spell The Word casts over us. Readers still get offended by The Word even if they manage to overlook more obscene things.
"I find it odd, as a writer" who uses swear words, "that people will complain, often loudly and rudely, about my diction. Yet when I write about things like a retarded girl being taken advantage of by a sailor, which to me is extremely disturbing, not a peep from the language police."
'Power to profanity!' or 'Sexist and crude'?
The Word remains forbidden, and in our culture forbidden means tantalizing. Some will use it simply because they know they shouldn't. Others are drawn to its versatility – as a verb, The Word can be transitive, intransitive, active or passive. It can serve as an adverb, a noun or an adjective. It can be inserted into other words to make bigger, more potent words.
I'll pause here while you mutter your own examples of these.
"The word works so well, thanks to that opening consonant that has you scraping your upper teeth across your lower lip, and then finishes with that hard, back-of-the-throat consonant that segues so eloquently into whatever it is you're trying to impart," says freelance writer, editor and writing instructor David Griffiths of Mechanic Falls. "Indeed, it may be the most powerful word in the English language. Power to profanity! Anyone who's offended by a mere word needs to lighten up, dude."
Not everyone agrees. Some are of the opinion that we've already lightened up enough when it comes to vulgarity.
Another F word
Five hundred years in existence and the word still has power to generate debate. To be uptight or not to be uptight, that is the question, Bard.
We still tiptoe around the word by using dashes, the ellipsis or a mix of symbols such as #@$%! if we are expressing ourselves in written form. Out loud, we play Dirty Word Chicken by uttering mutations of the word that just slightly change its sound. There's "freakin'" and "friggin'" and a couple others that would surely get me called into the editor's office.
And in all that, you can behold the everlasting power of that little word. A single utterance of it could get me fired. It could get a person thrown out of church, suspended from school or even hauled off to jail if you say it in just the right way.
You know what else begins with F? Fish. And some would say we have bigger ones to fry.
"We live in a country," Bouffard says, "where a large percentage of the population believes that our government is not capable of things other governments do. Other armies. The wars, terrorist bombings on a usual basis, hunger, disease . . . The condition of the world right now is poor, and I think that we have bigger things to worry about than a word.
"Please now," he says, bringing the argument to a close. "It's just a word."