Fuck, the Word

Fuck. Why is this word still so powerful?  In a recent conversation a woman got around it, as is common, by saying, " you know, the f-bomb." The "f-bomb" is now as common as fuck: everyone

knows what it means, and while skirting the vocalization of rage, contempt, disgust achieved by combining the teeth-on-lips f with the hard-k sound at the back of the throat, it acknowledges the force of the word it refers to. Yet the word fuck is so overused it qualifies as a cliché. I used to urge my students to give their characters, especially street-wise types, more original language. Every street tough says fuck, a lot; so do businessmen and lawyers who aim to appear streetwise in TV shows, and I assume, in actual life; and hipsters, and... everybody. Yet, despite its constant overuse, the word still works as a shocker, a strong word, a way of expressing pain, anger, frustration, menace. It is still prohibited by certain broadcasters, and sometimes accompanied by an apology, as in, "Pardon my French."

French? Sacre bleu!  That's an expression that dates from centuries past in France and is related to the sacred blue veil of the Virgin Mary. Sacre bleu literally means sacred blue, and is a kind of Gosh darn it shorthand for Sacred God, which isn't too bad either, at least not so much that "Good God" is bleeped on TV and radio broadcasts. I thought sacre bleu hilarious when I read it in literature of the 19th century, and of course in Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot books. Religion is also the source of choice in Quebec, where one of the worst things you can say is tabernac or calice, i.e. tabernacle and chalice, both words referring to the sacrament of the eucharist. Sacre bleu is no longer used as a swear word in France, and has not been for maybe centuries, at least decades. Instead, merde is the most common epithet, and putain.  You don't have to be Gerard Depardieu to know what merde means, and putain is literally a prostitute.

Swear words articulate fierce emotion (they also reveal adjectival laziness, as in "fucking this, fucking that"). Emotions are evoked by the force of a particular cultural connection, say a culture's relationship to religion, or to bodily functions, including sex and defecation. Interestingly, the relationship can be one of honour or complete disdain. If you take the name of something in vain, i.e. swear, it means you're perverting it, you don't respect it. So, if fuck is defined as copulation, can we generalize by assuming that we don't respect sex? Can we do the same with the swear words in French, assume that Parisians don't respect prostitutes, or shit? That French-Canadians who use tabernac do not respect the sacrament of the eucharist?

Maybe not. One thing I think we can assume, though, is that we often don't realize what we are saying.