F@%#!

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Cursing is an art, especially around little kids, grandparents, and your new in-laws. These are the occasions when alternative, listener-friendly expletives, such as "frick" and "frack," come in handy. They get the job done without offending. But can they really adequately convey the moment's frustration? Somehow "effin" just isn't as satisfying as the real deal. But such is social convention. Tell us your favorite kid-friendly (read: publishable) curse word, and check out an excerpt from Steven Pinker's new book about why we swear and what it says about us.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Years ago, my brother and I were teenagers driving in traffic near the Pentagon, where there was a notorious merge. The driver ahead of us kept refusing to choose a lane, and my brother, in extemis, cried out: "Shoot or relinquish the foweling piece!" I've always been proud of him for that!

Sent by Anne Costello | 2:13 PM | 10-17-2007

It seems like the F word comes out when one person doesn't want to talk to another, yet they are forced to because a question was asked.

Sent by Darin | 2:17 PM | 10-17-2007

Growing up in an Italian ethnic household I got used to these explitives. My father was a hard worker, paid tens of thousands of dollars for my education and with many 12 plus hour workdays as a printer full time and running a little print shop part time he had a low tolerance for any bull%$#@. Our "Christian" neighbors at the time did not approve of his language but respected him for his work ethic.

Sent by Vince Fidanza | 2:21 PM | 10-17-2007

Fudgesicle!

Sent by Jenn | 2:21 PM | 10-17-2007

I'm interested in the use of the f word as an intensifier placed in the middle of a word - like "abso-f'ing-lutely". How common is this? Do we do this with other intensifiers? Is this common in other languages?

Sent by Laurel | 2:25 PM | 10-17-2007

Professor Pinker's conclusions on taboo and language play out in an interesting way in the legal context. My research at The Ohio State College of Law on the intersection of the word "f@#$" and the law confirms the role of taboo and its impact on language restriction. See Christopher M. Fairman, "f@#$", 28 Cardozo Law Review 1171 (2007) (also available online via the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=896790). Sexual taboo provides the best explanation for legal restrictions imposed on f@#$. Taboo is compounded by the inability to distinguish between sexual and nonsexual uses of f@#$. This leads to bizarre FCC positions such as all uses of f@#$ being per se sexual. It is unfortunate, however, that both The New Republic (What the F***?) and this blog (F@%#!) reinforce the taboo by using euphemisms for f@#$.

Sent by Christopher M. Fairman | 2:27 PM | 10-17-2007

i remember lenny bruce stating that he was prosecuted for the words as a vanguard against society being infiltrated with the words where/while it had to do with the ideas being stated. but nowadays, with words being used nonchalantly and perverse in society, does it have to do with class in usage as to intent?

Sent by kuasi | 2:28 PM | 10-17-2007

I have always felt that when i spoke an expletive, it reduced my stress. is this a real human response or just my rationalization? comment: i have a copy of the journal "Maledicta" and thoroughly enjoy reading it.

Sent by linda | 2:28 PM | 10-17-2007

Interesting topic! My father used the word, "Dunner watter!!" and shook his head and occasionally spit after delivering it. My mother would shield my ears and shudder. I later found out the word meant, thunderstorm, in German. It all was in the way it was delivered. I also grew up with the practice of boys coming into adulthood (age 16) being then allowed to swear --girls of course, never swore ;)

Sent by E. Kelly | 2:31 PM | 10-17-2007

It appears pretty obvious that if this language is triggering painful messages to our brains, then we have not gotten very far in the food chain to continue being so negative to continue using these hostile provocing words...maybe that is why we have such a angry world..angry energy out....angry energy back....I worked in a office that allowed this behavior..."it is a warehouse get use to it" well I must still have a active part of my brain that felt attacked...and would physically respond with stress related illness...sure wish some one would take this to task with a hostile work environment..aka attorneys. This is so sad. Please do not use my name on the air.

Sent by Emma | 2:39 PM | 10-17-2007

I used to be contemptuous of euphemisms, but now that my daughter is talking, I find them useful. Knowing that she'll repeat verbatim whatever I say, I have to be careful, not so much because I don't want her to say these words, but because I don't want her to say them without understanding what she's saying.

Sent by janet | 2:44 PM | 10-17-2007

The explanation for some "swear" words to not be acceptable is that it comes from the Judeo-Christian faith where it is declared wrong to take God's name in vain, and also the prohibition against cursing, which is calling down evil upon your neighbor. I also would like to see differentiation among the terms-swearing is used as a catchall term but really means using God's name unthinkingly, thus dishonoring him. Cursing is, as mentioned above, wishing evil upon your neighbor. All the other words that are considered unacceptable are usually obscenities. I would like to see more exact terminology used in this regard.

Sent by Eunice Hafemeister | 2:44 PM | 10-17-2007

The f-word, as well as well as other expletives, is a very interesting linguistic device. I am one of those that think it is an innate characteristic that we swear in moments like hitting your thumb with a hammer, burning dinner, etc. What I want to know is what linguistic theory has to say about the use of these words. Any of you syntax/semantics fiends want to weigh in here...I know you have something to say about this subject :>

Sent by Groat | 2:57 PM | 10-17-2007

My question for your guest Steven Pinker: regarding Tourette's syndrome where many of those afflicted use profanity - is the same part of the brain involved?

Sent by Jon in Portland Oregon | 3:22 PM | 10-17-2007

At the beginning of the conversation, the speaker said that everyone swears and if anyone says they don't, then they must be lying.
I would like to say that I never use swear words or for that matter any words to describe people(eg. even simple words like idiot, fatso etc etc). I have always felt that I have to be respectful of other peoples feelings/be patient and always put yourself in the other persons shoe(to know how you would feel if a bad word was said to you). It could also be a part of maturity/growing up.
You will not find anyone in my family/friends/co-workers cirle or even strangers who have heard me say any undesirable words.
I conclude that you can train yourself to not say any unwanted words by being a good human being with thoughtfulness.
Do you think the Dalai Lama would use curse words !!!! Never.

Sent by Sheela | 3:28 PM | 10-17-2007

I've only used the f-word twice in my life (48 yrs). It still offends me, although many of my friends use it (sparingly). But I think because of it's common usage, it will soon become less effective. Many time if really listened to, it makes no sense in the way it's used. My favorite swear word is "damn!"

Sent by Leslie | 3:31 PM | 10-17-2007

I believe we should admire and do our best to emulate the Amish for their spiritual actions. I can bet my life that they don't even KNOW a profane word; thus never use them. As we all know of how their community was struck harshly with the many young girls being beaten and raped inside their Amish school in PA in Oct 2006. I found a Turkish newspaper with the article. It is globally known that the FIRST response to this horrible tragedy upon them; the AMISH gave forgiveness to the man that did this to them. Amish people are isolated but WOW-- look at how saintly they are and we must learn and try to live this way-- but still have modern technology;-)

Sent by Lauran Gangl-Plant | 6:00 PM | 10-17-2007

Whenever I wanted to use the "f" word I couldn't because my children were usually around. So I told my husband whenever I said I'm thinking, he knew exactly what I meant.

Sent by Elaine | 6:36 PM | 10-17-2007

This was an interesting topic today, as a child I gave my heart to Christ, my gift to GOD was to renounce the use of swear words in my life. I was often the victim of abuse growing up, I held firm to my conviction and at 40 years old I became the victim of a lying detective who accused me of the profanity that another person spoke. The judicial system then violated my constitutional and unalienable human rights.

I agree with Sheela that people can choose not to use profanities and I would like to see that our judicial system gets cleaned up and fixed!

Sent by Gary (TheGreatWhiteBuffalo) | 7:19 PM | 10-17-2007

I started swearing when I was a still a wee girl attending a Catholic elementary school. It was all about shock value. It was all about looking tough when I was feeling weak and ignored. It worked. The girls that I wanted to like me paid attention even though it was only in real or feigned disgust. I still love to swear. It continues to be a release for me and sometimes a method by which to assess those around me.

Sent by lisa jindrich | 8:00 PM | 10-17-2007

When I find someone's speech to be offensive ,which is very rarely, it's the context that I find offensive and never by a word. Tone of voice can even create context in a single word.
It seems to me that people who are offended by swear words are using it as a means to put down the speaker so as to make themselves feel superior to them and frankly I find the their "I'm a more moral and intelligent person because I never use that word" mentality to be quite offensive.
If you don't wont your children to be offended by a bad word then don't teach them that the word is bad.

Sent by David | 8:59 PM | 10-17-2007

I find that swearing is "catchy" A woman with whom I work swears constantly and I inevitably and eventually succomb to joining in the fun.

Sent by Teresa L | 9:28 PM | 10-17-2007

I love Steven Pinker's works and greatly respect his research and intellect.
On that note, however, his discussion of swear words, at least on TOTN, ignored the aspect of power in the use of the "n" word, both during Twain's age and ours.
When I was in law school and we discussed the Cohen case (regarding "'F'" the draft" written on clothing and worn into a courthouse in CA--the Ct determined it was free speech), I wore a jean jacket to the final exam and had written the same on the back. The professor saw it and was livid. Not because of the F word (even though this was at the largest Southern Baptist university in the world), but he mistakenly read it as "F- the RAF"--the Royal Air Force, and he was a big fan.
I am a big fan of "butternut squash", "mother of pearl" and "martha!" for my polite company swearing.
I look forward to reading the book and seeing the

Sent by Lisa | 9:51 PM | 10-17-2007

As a twenty year veteran of the Army I can testify to the fact that the f-word is not just a lowly swear word but a perfectly good adjective, adverb, verb and noun, although one sees usage as a verb more often in the British Army.

Sent by Chester Morrison | 10:33 PM | 10-17-2007

I recently went to a performance of David Mamet's "Glenngarry Glenn Ross". Unaware of the profanity involved I was shocked at the outset but by the end of the play I hardly noticed that every other word was a stinging curse. It reminded me that atonal music has be written in ways such that what we think we hate, if repeated enough, becomes the resting point and tonality the tension.

Sent by Greg Huang-Dale | 11:01 PM | 10-17-2007

Expletive! Expletive! As my cell kept dropping my call into the program, I could feel that ancient part of my brain on overdrive.
Because the concept of motherhood is so exalted in Latino cultures, swear phrases all have to do with it: "your mother that had you"; "I F--- your mother", "You f--- your mother", and so on. Interestingly enough, the emphasis is not on the f word but rather in paying insult to your mother. Fascinating program, I want more of it!

Sent by Stephanie Pringhipakis | 10:26 AM | 10-18-2007

The word "f***" is so overused these days that it's been stripped of its vulgar power. The word "c***" however remains extremely offensive in almost any context. Funny how an ancient little word for the female genitalia can cause so much fuss.

Sent by yoni | 11:33 AM | 10-18-2007

c*** is the word to throw out if you truly want to cause shock. i just use the f word as a vocalized pause.

Sent by kate | 1:55 PM | 10-18-2007

A teacher once explained to my class that the f-word is particularly nasty because it is a catch-all word that evokes both violence and sex. Quotable quotes by Jane's Addiction aside, the subsequent connotation of rape is enough to keep me from using it at any time other than when I'm alone in my car in D.C. traffic.

Sent by ben | 3:34 PM | 10-18-2007

When my sister was little, she wanted to use a profanity, but could not remember the exact phrase. Instead, she delcared "Stamish!" And now, I use that!

Sent by May | 12:39 AM | 10-19-2007

I think cussing is just as much habit and a way to enforce what you are saying as it is a way to fit in.
Honestly, I cuss a lot mainly because I just do. I dont think about it before it comes out of my mouth, and its generally used to emphasize a point. Other words such as sh$t as nothing more than just another word for excrement, not meant to be nastier, or more vulgar.
Hubby works offshore, everyone out there cusses, if you don't cuss, its a problem. So he cusses to fit in, and then it became habit.

Sent by Shelley | 2:46 PM | 10-19-2007

During my early recovery after a severe Traumatic Brain Injury I was traveling with a friend in Ireland. Stopped at a red light in Dublin and a gentleman behind us began to honk and simply wouldn't cease. Our vehicle couldn't fit through the area to make a left turn. He honked and anger, which I had not had access to came back in excess. A lovely mixed bag of intense curse words put in whatever order my amygdala wished. Learning to speak again with fury or grace, what a true joy.

Sent by Kimberly Lowry | 10:03 PM | 10-21-2007