Lately, I’ve found myself monitoring–and trying desperately not to get in the middle of–a dispute between two of the people on this planet who I love the most: my oldest son, and my brother. My brother, Rob, is a businessman, and one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, a man who really, genuinely tries to live the life of a Christian. I’m making him sound like a stiff–he’s not, he’s got a goofy sense of humor, he’s fun. But he’s personally conservative, not politically particularly, but culturally. Kai, my son, is in grad school in Minnesota, and he’s amazing too, incredibly bright, interested in everything, one of those people who thinks things through, and arrives at his own often unusual opinions. He’s also a deeply Christian soul; gives of his money to the homeless, is the best friend you can imagine.
It hurts to have these two wonderful men at odds. I can’t begin to say how much I love them both.
But Kai posted on Facebook, and his post used the F-word. And that offended Rob. And Kai was offended that Rob was offended. And so on.
Language changes. That’s part of what defines language–linguistic shifts. Words change meaning, words once considered slang become mainstream, other words just disappear. At the Kentucky Derby, they used to sing “My old Kentucky home.” Can’t anymore: “The sun shines bright, in the old Kentucky home; ’tis summer, the darkies are gay. . . ” Ouch. Double ouch.
The F-word was once a taboo word; in fact, probably the most taboo word in the English language. Couldn’t use it in polite company. There was a class thing–it marked you as lower class, as ‘common,’ as ‘vulgar.’ Mormons didn’t use it, especially. It was sort of defining: Mormons didn’t smoke or drink or use foul language. And it was ‘foul’ language–it had moral connotations. President Kimball put it in The Miracle of Forgiveness. It was seen as something that defined your character.
But when language changes, it can become a marker for the generation gap. When I was a kid, we used words like ‘groovy’ and ‘happenin’ and we punctuated every sentence with ‘man.’ “You know, man, Vietnam is not groovy.” My Dad made fun of me for talking like that. “Kids these days.” But there are always language usages that define “kids these days.” Nowadays, if I were to be foolish enough to use ‘groovy’ in a sentence, my kids would tease me mercilessly. And I’d deserve it. I try to keep current, but if I use their language, they tease me for that, too. ‘Yo, homes, ‘sup.’ Anyway, one generational marker is the change in taboo words. It’s the change in status for the F-word.
Nowadays, the F word is an intensifier, especially when used as an adjective. Because F used to be so taboo, using it creatively became a sign of coolness; a hipster marker. Think of these sentences: ‘It’s cold today.’ ‘It’s very cold today.’ ‘It’s f-ing cold today.’ The last of these suggests a seriously cold day, or someone exaggerating for comedic effect.
It’s also interesting the way the F word isn’t one word, it’s several. Everyone knows that movies can use up to two F words and still get a PG-13 rating. But it depends on how it’s used. Used as an adjective, it’s essentially a more intense version of ‘very.’ Used as a noun, it has some twenty meanings. But used as a verb? It gets uglier, it suggests not just sex, but sex turned violent and mean. Use it as a verb, and your movie’s getting an R.
But F does get used a lot, and used professionally. I have a few websites I really like. One is Bill Simmons’ Grantland website. It’s home to some of the most insightful commentary on sports and popular culture I know of. It’s sort of a clearing house for really really smart bloggers. All of whom drop F-bombs all the time. I love Salon.com, one of the best websites I know, political commentary, movie and book reviews, personal essays. F words don’t quite abound, but they do appear. These are not underground websites–they’re very well funded; they were created by ESPN and Barnes and Noble. The F word isn’t just the last refuge of shock-comedy. It’s mainstream.
But it’s not ubiquitous. It’s not heard on network television,for example. And in the corporate world, and in government, it’s still taboo. And it’s still a generational thing. My parents’ generation still finds it offensive. Kai’s generation just flat doesn’t. My generation? On the fence. Some people hate it, and find its use a sign of the times, evidence of a growing immorality in the world. That would be, I think, the position of the leaders of my Church. Other people in my generation see it as no big deal. That’s where I am. I’m just not offended by it, not at all, not ever. But my wife is, doesn’t care for it in movies, for example, though she doesn’t mind in context. (She loved the way the F word was employed in The King’s Speech, for example. She loved that scene.)
It’s just language. Language evolves. Words that were once taboo aren’t anymore. Doesn’t mean the world’s growing more corrupt. But when I say ‘it’s just language,’ that’s stupid of me. Language is tremendously important! It’s how we think, how we communicate, it defines our culture. But which culture?
Rob suggests that kids use ‘clean’ language. That usage makes me cringe–these do not strike me as moral issues. But then he urges caution. Facebook is a public forum. You never know who reads your stuff. And some people may read something intended innocuously and take offense, and possibly that someone may be an employer. And that’s true too.
Then there’s this. I don’t swear much, I really don’t. But I am homebound, and chairbound, and I do have some bad days. Hard to get out of a chair days. Just getting up, going to the bathroom is painful, 9 on the pain charts painful, cold sweat on the forehead painful. To make myself try, I swear. “Get your f-in’ butt out of that chair,’ I’ll order myself. Some days that’s all that works.
J Golden Kimball would have understood that, I think.