Jesse Scheidlower holds the esteemed position of Editor at Large for the Oxford English Dictionary, which is one reason why he’s one of my heroes. Another reason is because late last year he revised and reprinted a book originally published in 1995 called The F Word. And yes, it explores the F -bomb in great detail.
Why does that give him hero status in my little world? Because here we have an eminent scholar taking on society at large, challenging our bizarre attempts to arbitrarily choose a sound and give it power. Somebody had to do it. I’m just glad it’s someone with a sound, scholarly educational background.
The origins of the F-word are unclear, but contrary to urban legends, it is not an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or anything else. It has been in use in the English language since the 15th century and is probably related to older Germanic words meaning either “to strike” or “to move back and forth.” Which is innocent enough; almost makes it laughable that people can’t use it in common language in some circles.
Anybody can use it or any other word in front of me. I, personally, have the vocabulary of a drunken sailor on occasion–and I don’t have to be drunk or at sea to do it (though I’m sure that would only encourage me). Words are just words for me. The power in them, I believe, comes from how they are used, not simply in their sound or existence. Sometimes I drop an F-bomb because I’m angry. Sometimes I do it because I’m awed. I use it when it seems to fit the circumstance better than any other word that comes to me. If I felt another word would do just fine, I’d pop it in there; really I’ve no preference one way or another.
I do censor myself in certain company, knowing full well that there are people on this planet who are offended by that word regardless of how it’s used. And though I don’t understand it, I do try to respect their opinion on the matter and stutter out something else. The hard part is teaching my children to do the same.
I try hard not to swear in front of my kids. Not because I think their innocence will forever be destroyed if they hear mommy yelling “shit!” as she runs to the stove where smoke is billowing out from the oven. But because society will treat them as if they are miscreants should they emulate me at their current age. They have heard me curse (I refuse to call them “bad” words), as I do tend to slip up on occasion, and they now have a list of words they cannot say until they are as tall as I am because, my theory is, by then they will understand why they cannot say certain things in front of certain people. My goal in that little educational endeavor is that they grow up not to be offended by words, but by actions. After all, isn’t that one thing all parents agree on? Isn’t that one of the things we all teach? “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me?”
Another challenge with the kids comes from me not realizing some words are offensive. My daughter rounded a corner in the hall and slammed into my husband. Startled, she yelled: “Daddy! You scared the crap out of me!” My husband was upset with her and demanded to know where she learned the word “crap.” I’m sure he knew the answer before she said “Mommy” but he gave me the benefit of the doubt and waited for her reply. In all seriousness and honesty, I never knew “crap” was considered an obscenity. I still find it questionable, even though I looked it up in my American Heritage Dictionary where it says the word is “Vulgar Slang.” Since when? And really?
So yes, I thank Jesse Sheidlower. Thank you for agreeing with me. Thank you for challenging society on the way it thinks. And thank you for writing one hell of an entertaining book.