As Court Weighs 'F' Word Case, Context Examined

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday about the F-word. The case, FCC v. FOX TV, stems from some stunning moments of live television. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, and author of The F-Word, says the F-word has ceased being used exclusively in reference to sex.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about a word that we cannot utter on this program. The case stems from some stunning moments of live television. For example, the 2002 Billboard Music Awards televised by FOX when Cher accepted a lifetime achievement award and was less than magnanimous in victory.

(Soundbite of 2002 Billboard Music Awards)

CHER (Singer-Songwriter; Actress; Director; Record Producer): I've also had critics for the last 40 years saying I was on my way out every year. Right. So (bleep) them.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

SIEGEL: Well, Cher's utterance of the F-word is one of several instances of indecent language on television that the Supreme Court will address in the case FCC versus FOX TV. The main questions at issue appear to be these. Can the FCC penalize broadcasters in some instances for indecent language, but not in others? And is it different when the aforementioned unmentionable F-word is used in a single fleeting kind of way as opposed to a repetitive, unrelenting George Carlin kind of way?

But there's also a subsidiary argument that we're going to explore for a moment. Appellate judges were divided as to whether the F-word is invariably an allusion to sexual congress, or is it sometimes just an expletive unhinged from its actual meaning? Well, just the question of the meaning of this word led us to Jesse Sheidlower, who is editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and author of a book called "The F-Word." Welcome to the program.

Mr. JESSE SHEIDLOWER (Editor at Large, Oxford English Dictionary; Author, "The F-Word"): Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And to avoid repetition and to avoid promoting the title of your book at every turn, instead of saying the F-word, let's have another F-word, floss. Let's say the word we're talking about is floss, OK?

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: OK.

SIEGEL: OK. First of all, how old a word is this word, floss?

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: The earliest evidence for it is in the late 15th century. And in this example, it is in a manuscript where it is a text in both Latin and English. And the English words are, you know, including the equivalent of floss, are actually written in a cipher where it's replaced with different letters of the alphabet, which suggests that even then it was something that was considered taboo.

SIEGEL: Well, at what point does floss cease to just mean what it literally meant and take on the life of an independent epithet?

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Well, it's hard to tell exactly, but most of the figurative senses are comparatively recent. There is one example or two examples from the 18th century of this word being used meaning something like to harm or to victimize, but quite rare then. So all the evidence we have suggests that the very large number of examples, when people say, well, this is used in every part of speech, in every compound, in every blah, blah, blah. These are examples from this century mostly, from the 20th century.

SIEGEL: From the past century.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Yes.

SIEGEL: As we now say.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Yes.

SIEGEL: But before that, I mean, before those days, a word describing a sex act wouldn't logically be the worst thing you could say to somebody or the most offensive thing you could invoke?

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Well, there are a number of different kinds of words that have been considered offensive at different times. Words insulting one's parentage, so words like bastard or whore's son, were once considered extremely offensive. And if they were written in print at all, they would be written with dashes - you know, b-d for bastard, let's say - the same way that the F-word or the S-word might be written now in some places. And more recently, the racial or ethnic epithets would become the most offensive things we have. That would be a career ender for any politician who used it in some sort of, you know, honest way.

SIEGEL: Well, looking back then on the reign of the F-word - the reign of floss as the worst thing one could possibly say. Pretty long given the history of the English language?

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: I think the important thing here is to look at the context. For most of the history of this word, it has been in use in sexual senses. And what has changed is not - well, it's several things. It's partly that we are less squeamish about sex, but it's also that the word has ceased being used exclusively in reference to sex. In fact, the overwhelming majority of uses of it now are not in reference to sex.

SIEGEL: Yeah, Cher was not - we don't think Cher was suggesting that someone should have sexual intercourse with her critics at that moment.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: No, and neither was the vice president suggesting that Senator Leahy should perform an anatomically difficult act when he used this word on the floor of the Senate. So, you know, there are all sorts of examples of this word that are not sexual, you know, and shouldn't be taken that way.

SIEGEL: And yet the word remains very much out of bounds in many contexts, certainly including, say, primary and secondary education. It's hard to imagine a classroom where people would freely use the word without some penalty for doing that.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Well, no, but that's true of many things. And there are all sorts of places where certain words are considered OK and certain words are considered not OK. And people are, I think, correct to be upset in some cases, but not in others. I was reading this morning there was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the World Series where one of the players used this word on camera. And in front of the radios, he said world flossing champions, as it were. And the paper reported, the crowd loved it, erupting into cheers for several minutes, and the reporter...

SIEGEL: We're talking about Philadelphia...

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: In Philadelphia, yes. The TV and radio stations were extremely upset. But the reporter talked to a number of people who were in the audience, people with children, who said, well, it's really not such a big deal, and he was excited, and I don't really care. So clearly the only people who were really being upset by this are people who are worried that the government is going to crack down on them, not people who are upset because the word itself was used.

SIEGEL: Not such a big flossing deal, you're saying, in that case.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Right.

SIEGEL: Mr. Sheidlower, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SHEIDLOWER: Oh, thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Jesse Sheidlower who is editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the book called "The F-Word." And we used the word floss as a substitute for the subject of Mr. Sheidlower's book.

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