By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, June 25, 2006;
The most versatile word in our language can do almost anything, other
than be printed in a family newspaper. It can be a noun, a verb, a
gerund, an adjective or just an expletive. It can be literal or
figurative. Although it has an explicit sexual meaning, it's usually
used figuratively these days, as an all-purpose intensifier.
The F-word remains taboo. But just barely. We may be entering an era
in which this fabled vulgarity is on its way to becoming just another
word -- its transgressive energy steadily sapped by overuse.
From hip-hop artists to bloggers to the vice president of the United
States, everyone's dropping the F-bomb. Young people in particular
may not grasp how special this word has been in the past. They may
not realize how, like an old sourdough starter, the word has been
lovingly preserved over the centuries and passed from generation to
generation. For the good of human communication we must come
together, as a people, to protect this word, and ensure that, years
from now, it remains obscene.
Our leaders aren't helping. Before he was elected president, George
W. Bush used the word repeatedly during an interview with Tucker
Carlson. Dick Cheney on the Senate floor told a Democratic senator to
eff himself. Presidential candidate John F. Kerry said of Bush and the
war, "Did I expect George Bush to [mess] it up as badly as he did? I
don't think anybody did." No one is shocked that these people use such
language, but as statesmanship it's not exactly Lincolnesque.
More generally, the word is imperiled by the profusion of
communications technologies. Everyone's talking, e-mailing, blogging
and commenting on everyone else's comments. Combine that with partisan
rancor and a general desperation to get one's message across, and
naturally the word gets overtaxed. In Blogworld there are no idiots
anymore, only [blithering] idiots. The most opportunistic move in the
corporate realm may have been the decision by a retailer to call
itself French Connection United Kingdom, which allowed it to put the
company's initials on T-shirts everywhere. Jeepers, that's clever!