By Priya Mirchandani Mar. 31, 2016
Has the word “fuck” lost its bite or has it finally come of age? Sin or syntax? Arré decodes the nimblest contortionist in the English lexicon.
t may not have the supersonic agility of a Boeing 747, but my MH 7474 has been known to break a barrier of another kind. Like any professional pilot, I have a moral obligation to get my passengers to their destination on time. And right now, it’s 15 seconds to the death knell, errr… school bell.
I gun the engine and the trusty Honda City is about to lift off, when a suicidal pedestrian steps into the flight path. Brakes screech and a loud “fuck!” resonates in the backseat. Hell yeah, I think, without really thinking. A second later, I spin around to glare at my passengers, none old enough to blaspheme my piloting skills. My teenage daughter is shuddering with suppressed mirth, while her eight-year-old brother is radiating awe at the perpetrator, the Buddhaesque toddler beside him.
The feisty fruit of my sister’s loins babbles, “Why you no say fuck, maasi?” Checkmated by a wee Zen master.
The tyke knows me well. He knows about that primal connection between the motion of my foot hitting the brake pedal and the unleashing of expletives. It’s no secret that this particular profanity is hard wired from an automobile’s brake pad to the human limbic system: Foot hits brake, mouth says “fuck”.
Language, situations, and subjects are just variables. Every sound I utter morphs into white noise before it hits the tympanic membranes of my indifferent offspring. Unfortunately, my superpower doesn’t seem to shield nieces and nephews, or me, from the wrath of an apoplectic sibling. My defence – it’s a harmless word, coined by 16th–century monks, and used abundantly by literary stalwarts such as Miller and Joyce — is feeble. Basically, I am royally foot-hits-brake padded. I’m looking at either a restraining order that exiles me from said nephew, or hardcore rehab.
Did not see this coming from my own flesh and blood, the woman whose baby shower keepsakes were hardbacks of parenting bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep. The lowest blow – she tattles to mother. Next up, a full-blown family intervention, “Save the Fuckhead”, is launched. “Cold turkey,” orders the mob. “No expletive for a whole month.” Did I mention my clan is big on tough love?
But I can do this. I’m only expected to abstain from the articulation of the verb, not the verb itself. Easy-peasy.
The family rallies around. A “fuck jar” is installed by grandma, waiting to accept one hundred rupees for every “fuck” that escapes my lips. The little sods I’ve procreated, supposedly sworn enemies, form a coalition tighter than my daughter’s jeggings. Their strategy: to chant “potty mouth” at miscreant mother until she zips her potty mouth.
So I reach for the surrogates, but they suck. Flip, frick, eff just don’t hit the spot. The F-jar begins to overflow. The family debates how to splurge their ill-gotten gains, while I plot a multiple homicide.
I don’t even notice when one of the billion Fs I’ve bitten back, manages to give me the slip. “Time out,” shrieks the family. I pick my self-respect off the floor and do what every self-respecting junkie should – go into retreat.
I sit in solitude and reflect on this sumptuous four-letter word that has me by my short and curlies. How has this crass little word wormed itself into my very core and made itself comfy? Why does spitting it out at every chance I get, elicit the kind of oral gratification no other word in the English language can? Is it the guttural sound, or is it about the pleasure association? How, for fuck’s sake, has a synonym for copulation, reproduced a hundred meanings, all unrelated to sex? The sheer linguistic flexibility of the word makes it the nimblest acrobat in the English lexicon.
The word also comes with its own meme, the ever-popular finger flip. It’s no surprise then that someone, somewhere is dropping the F-bomb practically every second.
In these four innocuous letters exists a whole universe of emotions, even contradicting ones: anger, fear, triumph, admiration, respect, hostility, camaraderie, ennui, and of course, pleasure. This little shape-shifter defies grammar and takes any form it pleases: noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, affix and, sometimes, even an infix. As in, “unfuckingbelievable!”
To emphasise the sheer versatility of the word, I quote from the 1986 film Blue Velvet, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck!”
The word also comes with its own meme, the ever-popular finger flip. It’s no surprise then that someone, somewhere is dropping the F-bomb practically every second. Film maestro Scorsese, is personally responsible for killing the flinch factor by repeating “fuck” a record-breaking 506 times in 108 minutes in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Sis, you listening?
In 2009, science journal NeuroReport published a study establishing a direct link between profanity and increased pain tolerance. Researchers in Britain’s Keele University asked 67 participants to submerge their hands in ice water for as long as they could. They were then asked to pick a curse word and keep repeating it. Most people picked… you guessed it. Round two followed, this time without any curse words. The fuckers not only endured more pain, they endured it for almost 40 seconds longer than the non-fuckers.
There’s more. Turns out, “fuck” isn’t just a champion in the grammar arena, it also wears the timeless cloak of history. While its origins are unclear, and the printed word got legal sanction only very recently, it hasn’t stopped every culture and tribe from staking a claim to intellectual property rights — Celts to Vikings, Slavs to Goths.
One interesting story dates back to the Middle Ages, in plague-ridden Europe. With scarce uncontaminated resources, the rulers struggled to keep their population under control. Babies could only be conceived with the king’s consent, after posting the sign “Fornicating Under Consent of King” on the door. Imagine needing a DND license to get down and dirty. Maybe this was really what kicked off the human rights commissions, way before the nasty world wars.
Thankfully, the word “fuck” has left behind its squalid beginnings and evolved into a hip semantic hybrid. It has grown much larger than the sum of its naughty parts. The purists grumble that it may have lost its sexual bite. They worry that censorship has forced the word to abdicate its power to the prudish asterisk or bleep.
But has that stopped you and me and the rest of the consenting adult world from giving a flying fuck? Not fucking likely.
Priya Mirchandani is an independent writer and editor. She has a curious but incurable condition – her funny bone has outgrown the femur. Which means whether it's celebrity profiles, politics or just life situations she writes about, you could end up infected – with chuckles.