Every once in a while, I'll be reading something someone's posted to the internet, or emailed to me, or on rare occasions printed in a newspaper, and an otherwise intelligent, literate human being will have consciously typed up the word F*CK.
Not "fuck." F, asterisk, C, and K.
How neurotic is this? Who exactly do they think they're fooling? It's not a work of particular cunning to parse f*ck as "fuck" as quickly as you can read the word. Are there children out there who are smart enough to read yet dumb enough to earnestly wonder which vowel the * stands for?
I realize I may have been in the minority, growing up around parents who swore a lot, and who didn't particularly care if I did the same, provided I knew enough not to say "Pass the fucking butter" to Great Aunt Hazel at Thanksgiving dinner. (I actually did this when I was in the 2nd grade, which is where I learned this particular boundary.) But I've also spent just enough time around pre-teens to know that the word fuck is no real stranger to their vocabulary. Before age ten or so they may not understand the physical act to which it refers, but honestly, unless Great Aunt Hazel is the one saying it, the shock value is about zero. But say "fuck" on teevee, on a channel you didn't have to pay extra for, and you're in deep fucking trouble because KIDS might be watching.
At this point, it's a totally artificial obscenity. At some point in your youth, a bad kid (or a kid who was just being bad) taught you a bad word, and then you said it in front of someone who felt obligated to tell you that you're not supposed to say it, and you learned it was dirty. It's not really obscene, it's just standard practice to treat it as such.
At one point, fuck was a genuinely degrading word. Men who said it in mixed company were rude and insulting, women who dared utter it were immediately deemed cheap and whorish. Like "cunt" is still a bit degrading, or any of various racist epithets that I'm genuinely loathe to put into print. A bit silly of me, I think. Intellectually, I know that making a big deal of words just gives them more power, but I can feel my mother's disapproving stare and can only bring myself to refer to them in the abstract.
The only real positive side to all this is that it's sort of nice that "fuck" has remained an ostensibly offensive word, because it's useful to have some bad words left in your arsenal. As long as a handful of grandmas in Omaha are still shocked that people are saying that most horrid of horrid words, it still retains its value as a hostile epithet: "Fuck YOU!" Or helps flavor your language with a certain casual attitude: "That was fucking great!" Automatically, you're separated from those old biddies. You're a different kind of person altogether. Fuckin' A.
But the group of people who are really offended is growing smaller and smaller. Most of those old biddies are already too deaf or senile to know the word Fuck if you yelled it into their ear. Pretty soon, they'll all have died out. Sure, people get more uptight as they get older, and disapproving old killjoys do recruit converts among disillusioned fifty-somethings -- but Fuck has slipped a long way into casual usage, and there's no reason to think it will ever return to its former stature. It's sort of sad, in a way.
Fuck Fuck Fuck.
Columns by Cindy