Once the English language’s most shocking, egregious, off-limits word, it’s become just another cultural noise, thrown around with the casualness of a summer softball, appearing on your TV, on your answering machine, at a newsstand near you, from the mouth of your son, your mom, your Congressman, your philosophy professor, your dentist, your waiter, your basic innocent virgin on the street. Remember gosh , golly and darn ? They’re history! At least in the most civilized places.
Last week, at a political rally, Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island told a gathering of Young Democrats in Washington, D.C.: “I don’t need Bush’s tax cut, I have never worked a [bleeping] day in my life.” And when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz received a mild taunt from Al Franken at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he responded with a simple, elegant, “[Bleep] you.”
Snoop Dogg, the newly crowned king of television, jumps out of a pull-quote in Newsweek – Newsweek !-saying: “I guess I’m just a likable motherf–er.”
Of course, sometimes the word is just the thing for little outbursts of temper, as when George W. Bush called Wall Street Journal reporter Al Hunt in 1992 and told him, “You [bleeping] son of a bitch. I saw what you wrote. We’re not going to forget this.” But lately, it’s been saved for more casual dinner-table use, as in “Willie, I can’t believe your [bleeping] report card!”
Note to the reader: Are we off page 1 yet? If we are, we might as well get on with saying what we mean:
It’s the Summer of Fuck!
The door slams too loud, the waiter comes too late, the drinks are mixed too strong, the traffic’s too bad on the L.I.E., the mother-in-law is coming, the Yanks are behind, the Mets are ahead, T-3 is good, The Hulk isn’t. You stub your toe- fuck! You hear good news- fu-uhck! You hear amusing news: You’re fucking kidding! You hear amazing news: No fucking way!
The sex act it used to so scandalously denote is barely conjured by the word any more; it’s a linguistic tailbone, the vestige of a previous incarnation. It’s the word that Superman would use for emphasis if he could have: What the fuck ! It’s a stand-in for the black cloud that would rise above Charlie Brown’s head in Peanuts : Fuck me ! But it’s lost its bite, its Anglo-Saxon threat. And what it’s gained in currency-and a new range of multi-expressiveness-it’s lost in its former beautiful, lupine lethality.
Pardon our French, but-what the heck is going on?
Darned if we know. But the ascendance of the word expresses our topsy-turvy, mish-mash moment like nothing else. It’s a non-stop cultural infusion in a culture pushed to the brink by infusion. Is our economy doing well, or terribly? Is your apartment the best investment you ever made, or a pitiful relic of a soon-to-burst bubble? Did we win the war, or not? Are we the luckiest nation on earth, or the most … fucked? If you’ve ever said, ” Oh, fu-uck, honey ,” then you know what we’re talking about. Everything around us has been merged into one big sentimental glob-with a decided core of rage.
The roots of the word’s new currency are everywhere. Musical artists like Eminem and Snoop Dogg, of course, can take a lot of credit; so can the dozens of rap and hip-hop groups, good and bad, who are downloaded by the fuck-happy masses. Ozzy Osbourne, likewise, also did his share. They are the family-values fuckers: Their language is street, but they’re also perfectly sweet parents, family guys-perfect emissaries of the new usage of the word. Throwing “fuck” around skillfully, sharply, lovingly, these multicultural potty-mouthed dads show that you can express your inner rage and still be a good, concerned parent.
Fuck is au fait :
Customized versions of an “I fucked __” T-shirt (fill in the blank: Paris Hilton, Gisele, Anna Wintour, David Remnick … ) are flying out of Landing, a boutique on Wythe Street in Williamsburg, at $80 apiece. “Basically, they’re commentary on social climbing and star-fucking,” said the shirt’s creator, Ken Courtney, 31, a Williamsburg artist. “They are the names that get fucked, that are overused by the media, as currency-like Matthew Barney. It’s commentary more on us than on the people whose names are on the shirts. I call it name-fucking.”
Mr. Courtney added that high-end boutiques have been talking to him about stocking the shirts. “The word ‘fuck’ is almost so honest that no one believes it,” he said.
Fuck is young:
This week, for example, a barely five-foot-tall boy in a Red Sox cap was selecting comics at Alex’s MVP on 89th Street between Second and Third avenues. “I’m going to camp soon, so my mom’s letting me pick out a bunch of comics,” he said. “Isn’t that cool?” There was an assent that it was. “Yeah,” said the kid. “It is pretty fucking sweet.”
Fuck is old:
At a senior center on the Upper East Side the other day, social worker Jen Maybar had to break up a physical confrontation between two elder ladies, one age 98 and the other 65. When Ms. Maybar pulled the younger woman aside to explain that it was inappropriate to get in a 98-year-old’s face, she was taken aback to hear the 65-year-old declare: “I don’t give a fuck how old she is, she is gonna show me some respect!” Or, as 78-year-old Elaine Stritch toasted Liz Smith at the Drama League’s annual benefit gala, “Fuck old age!”
Fuck is left: In language, if not in action, most of the Democratic party is right there with it.
Fuck is right: The President throws “fuck” around with the best of them. According to conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, George W. Bush is “a fan of ‘fuck.’ He’s a ‘fuck’ fan. It’s good, ’cause he’s American. He’s a fundamentally American man.”
Fuck is happy:
” This is really, really fucking brilliant! ” Bono yelled on live national television, on NBC in January 2003, as he bounded onstage to accept his award for best song at the Golden Globes. “We’re the best fucking band on the planet!” There was no bleep. And people were so unsurprised, so inured, there was almost no protest.
Fuck is angry:
At the corner of 86th and Lexington, a woman in her 30′s was hailing a cab. The cabbie slowed down. The woman tried to open the door. The cabbie kept driving.
The woman: “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The cabbie: “What the fuck are you doing? I can’t stop in a crosswalk like that!”
Fuck is grateful:
Have you picked up your “Thanks a fucking lot” notecards at Papyrus yet? They’re on sale.
Fuck is friendly:
” Fuck you man ,” began an e-mail that Jay Cocks, the screenwriter of Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence , recently received. “He means it as a compliment,” Mr. Cocks said. “It’s a guy I bought some records from off eBay, and he said, ‘I paid so much money for these and you got them so fucking cheap, I don’t believe this. Thanks and good luck.’”
Fuck is witty:
Well, maybe not Noël Coward witty, or as witty as the first time the word was heard on television, when critic Kenneth Tynan said it live on the BBC in 1965. But dial the Nokia of Philip Stark, 30, a producer for That 70s Show , and you’ll get this message: ” Hi, you’ve reached Philip, please leave a message at the fucking beep and I’ll call you back as soon as I can .”
“It beeps and they’re like, ‘Uhhh … hey … fuck! Hey, what the-?’” Mr. Stark said. “Producers call me and say, ‘Fucking Stark, that’s hilarious!’”
Do we know how to be entertained any more without fuck? Not in the movies, certainly, except in Finding Nemo . Downtown at the Public Theater, Fucking A closed in April-and there was, of course, last year’s Shopping and Fucking . From the summer camps come stories of campers chanting the lyrics of 50 Cent and Eminem under the stars; to Madonna chiding file-sharers with “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”, sparking the inevitable remixes; to the destination TV of the moment, the entire HBO line-up- Six Feet Under (“Fuck my legless grandmother”), The Sopranos (“What, no fucking ziti?”), Sex and the City (“Abso-fucking-lutely”)-but exempting most of Nickelodeon, so far.
Get good enough with the word, and some people might see you as Presidential material. Cursing, after all, has been consistent with authority, masculinity, toughness and Presidential leadership from Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson through the White House tapes of Richard Nixon. Andrew Jackson was never taped, but one can guess. According to Mr. Carlson, a facility with profanity is a not-insignificant part of Mr. Bush’s appeal. “Every American male over the age of 12 uses ‘fuck’ in daily conversation,” Mr. Carlson said. “It didn’t detract, in fact it added to my feelings for him. The fact that Gore reined his impulses in so tightly made me think less of him. It implies a trust-you’re revealing something about yourself. It sort of suggests that he’s an ordinary guy, a towel-snapper, and if you like towel snappers-and I do-it’s good.”
That can only be cheering news for Senator Hillary R. Clinton, who would definitely know her way around a Sopranos script. “Stay the fuck back, stay the fuck away from me!” the Senator reportedly yelled at a Secret Service agent.
Needless to say, the word sells. Capitalism has welcomed it like a long-lost prodigal son into branding: the French Connection’s “FCUK” ad campaign refuses to go away, with a boppy “FCUKiki” layout in a recent New York Times Styles section. The MuchMusic USA Channel on Time Warner Cable is changing its name to Fuse, with a “Keep on fu**ing” marketing campaign. Urban Outfitters on Broadway in Soho has a display sign that reads: F*UCK TV, TAKE A HIKE. It’s an ad for CD’s that are meant to be a soundtrack for a New York walking tour.
Timothy Jay, a psycholinguist at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has written four books on cursing, said that he credits the intrusion of video into quotidian life ( The Osbournes , etc.) with the infusion of a formerly forbidden four-letter word into the mainstream culture. “We’re under observation more than ever before,” he said on his way to a panel on censorship and the Internet (“a real gold mine for my research!”). “We’ve got cameras all over the place-TV goes everywhere. Now we can go down in the locker room and hear Greg Lloyd say: ‘We’re going to bring home the fucking Super Bowl,’ whereas five years ago nobody did that-and believe me, the football players talked like that.”
Philip Kaplan, 27, who founded Fuckedcompany.com-a Web site about corporations going under-in May 2000, thinks that “fuck” may be the legacy of the go-go 1990′s crowd, of macho Wall Street/tech talk. “It shows you that this isn’t run by a really big corporation,” he said of his Web site’s name, which has propelled him to regular spots on CNN. “It makes it cool.”
What the four letters express best, according to Aaron Karo, 23, a stand-up comic who lives in the Gramercy area, is “exasperation.” He said he uses it promiscuously, in his act and in his everyday life: “There’s the war, the recession, everything sucks, and it just sums everything up nicely.” Mr. Karo has found fortune in the word. He attended the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote a monthly e-mail newsletter called “Ruminations on College Life,” famously signing off each column with the phrase “Fuck me.” After Simon & Schuster made it into a book (excising the F-word), he quit an investment-banking job and is in talks to do a sit-com.
“‘ Fuck me ‘ means so many different things,” he said. “It means … there’s nothing you can do about it. I use it even more so now since I don’t have a ‘real job’ anymore …. Instead of saying ‘Hmmmmm’ when I’m thinking, I say ‘Fuuuuckinnnnnnnn’.’
“I don’t think fuck is the new damn ,” said Mr. Karo. “I think it’s the new the .”
Follow Maria Russo via RSS.