Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Crass Ceiling

Let us now consider the F-word. I begin by noting that it is practically a pro-forma rite of passage that middle-aged grumps inevitably feel moved to complain, in print or in whining audibility, about the seemingly relentless coarsening of our culture. I hesitate to indulge but a phenomenon of interest has appeared so here goes.

Just about everyone knows that the F-word has in the past couple of decades reached a level of ubiquity in casual conversation that it has been all but entirely robbed of its ability to shock or to be useful as a forceful emphatic. It has become an all purpose adjective and modifier of virtually every part of speech thus relegating a vasty bunch of colorful expressions to near obsolescence. Further it has become commonplace to the extent that screenwriters use it in irrelevant abundance to give a character's speech "authenticity". It is of course mere laziness to relegate a fine old anglo-saxon scatological emphatic to the same station as speech hesitation fillers such as "uh" and the more recent "like" but what's done is done. It has been so fully devalued by now that a linquistic conundrum has arisen.

That problem is that there are few if any linguistic candidates to take the place of the emasculated F-word. It makes little sense to use it when one has smashed a thumb with a hammer or slammed a car door on a pinky if mere moments before one has used it idly note that, "My f**kin' coffee's gone cold. The word has been entirely robbed of its punch and piquancy by massive overuse and what oh what I lament will take its place as the noisy ejaculation of choice in moments of intense stress or sudden pain? We seem to be "built out" in our language to the extent that we are left severely wanting for some notional uberf**k to satisfy our occasional need for grammatic emphasis greater than the now weak tea that the F-word provides.

We might, and frequently do, resort to profanation to meet the need but that has also been devalued to the point that mere taking the Lord's name in vain just barely gets a flick a PG rating and scarcely seems up to the task anymore.

The inestimable George Carlin averred that cuss words were "just words" and they did not deserve the oppobrium that the stuffed shirts and shirtwaists of the suffocatingly uptight past visited upon them. Well groovy man but if one is going to reduce the (previously) vilest cuss words one knows to the milquetoast ranks of heck, shoot or darn then why bother to use them at all if you rob them of their raw earthy cultural force? If the F-word with its many scatological bethren and profane cousins have been reduced to entirely innocuous adjectives and modifiers then what constitutes genuine cursing anymore?

We appear to be up against it. We seem to have culturally hydrauliced cussin' into a thin muzzy layer smack against the granite roof of the language with no verbal headroom left. A lamentable turn of events but at least the coarsening of the language, if not the culture, has been essentially halted in its headlong flight by coming to the end of the linguistic road. The language simply is unable to oblige with words of greater force anymore.

Adopting from other languages might be possible or inventing new variations like Battlestar Galactica's "frakkin' but neither approach is likely to match the expletive punch of the late lamented "dirty" F-word. Note to whippersnappers: there actually used to be words that were considered dirty enough to not use in even highly impolite company. We allegedly are more enlightened now and those words have been drained of all their useful vehemence. We are bound to miss being able to turn our stress induced verbal volume up to eleven on occasion by using those ancient anglo-saxon "dirty" words. In finding satisfying substitutes for them we may just be, well, f**ked.

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