Defending the F-Word

It's the Swiss army knife of profanity.

The linguist John McWhorter takes issue with the notion that “Profanity is the common crutch of the conversational cripple.”*

People occasionally complain to me that so many today seem to lean on profanity rather than utilizing the other lexical resources at their disposal. “Why do they have to keep using that word over and over? What is that?” I was asked by someone of a certain age, for example, when I spoke at a gathering of academics last week.

We all can guess which word he meant — it starts with f — but I don’t hear it the way he does. It’s partly because we sometimes miss the richness of meaning in our profanity and partly because we tend to miss the richness of how we use the rest of our vocabulary. 

After a discussion of the use of non-profane idioms in our language, McWhorter continues:

When we perceive a word as used a lot or too much, it’s often being used to mean multiple things. The casual usage of “like” divides into about four different usages, some having drifted pretty dramatically from its stock definition. The N-word that ends with “er” and the N-word that ends with “a” are, for all intents and purposes (idiom alert!), different words now, and the latter is also developing into, of all things, new pronouns. What we might hear as a mere matter of yet another F-bomb is actually a vocabular sapling sprouting apace, with branches growing in different directions. As I put it in “Nine Nasty Words” (with wording a notch too zesty to print here), the F-word can convey destruction, deception, dismissal, dauntingness and down-to-earthness.

Russian speakers seem to get this more readily about profanity than English speakers. There is a tradition among Russians of cherishing its richness; for example, a Russian I am especially fond of has given me dense, sober volumes chronicling and exploring their profanity. Hence, what some bemoan as too much profanity is, to me, the equivalent of the glories of what Russians call mat, or dirty language. As the writer Edward Topol wrote in “Dermo!: The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used,” a nonnative speaker who learns “even one-third of this lexicon can be sure of being the most popular and honored foreigner at any Russian gathering.”

Which reminds me of a bit on the sheer versatility of the word that I first saw maybe 30 years ago (and, judging by some of the examples, it wasn’t new then) and is incorrectly attributed to everyone from Adam Sandler to Monty Python.

Perhaps one of the most interesting words in the English language today is the word fuck. Out of all of
the English words that begin with letter F, fuck is the only word that is referred to as the F-word. It’s the one magical word, just by its sound can describe pain, pleasure, hate and love.

Fuck, as most words in the English language, is derived from German, the word fricken which means to strike. In English fuck fall into many grammatical categories.

As a transital verb for instance : “John fucked Shirley.”

As an intransitive verb. “Shirley fucks.”

It’s meaning is not always sexual.

It can be an adjective such as “John’s doing all the fucking work.”

As part of an adverb : “Shirley talks too fucking much!”

As an adverb enchancing an adjective : “Shirley is fucking beautiful!”

As a noun : “I don’t give a fuck!”

As part of a word : “Abso-fucking-lutely” or “in-fucking-credible”

And, as almost every word in a sentence : “Fuck the fucking fuckers!”

As you must realize there aren’t too many words with the versatility of fuck. As in these examples describing situations such as:

Aggression – Fuck you!
Agreement – Fucking-ay right!
Amazement – Fucking shit!
Annoyance – Don’t fuck with me.
Apathy – Who really gives a fuck, anyhow?
Benevolence – Don’t do me any fucking favors.
Command – Go fuck yourself!
Confusion – What the fuck?
Denial – I didn’t fucking do it.
Despair – Fucked again.
Difficulty – I don’t understand this fucking question.
Directions – Fuck off.
Disbelief – Unfuckingbelievable!
Dismay – Oh, fuck it!
Displeasure – What the fuck is going on here?
Encouragement – Keep on fucking.
Etiquette – Pass the fucking salt!
Fraud – I got fucked.
Greetings – How the fuck are ya?
Hatred of chemistry – Thermofuckingdynamics.
Identification – Who the fuck are you?
Ignorance – He’s such a fuck head.
Incompetence – He’s a fuck up.
Insight – You’re out of your fucking mind!
Laziness – He’s a fuck off.
Lost – Where the fuck are we?
Panic – Let’s get the fuck out of here.
Passive – Fuck me!
Perplexity – I fucking know all about it.
Philosophical – Who gives a fuck?
Pleasure – I couldn’t be any fucking happier!
Question – You ain’t fucking me?
Rebellion – Fuck the world!
Resignation – Oh, fuck it!
Retaliation – Up your fucking ass!
Suspicion – Who the fuck are you?
Trouble – I guess I’m really fucked now.
Ugliness – You’re a dumb looking fuck.
Wisdom – Fuck that shit!
Wonder – How the fuck did you do that?

It can be used in an anatomical description – “He’s a fucking asshole.”
It can be used in business – “How did I wind up with this fucking job?”
It can be maternal – “Motherfucker.”
It can be political – “Fuck Dan Quayle!”

It has also been used by many notable people throughout history:

“What the fuck was that?” – Mayor of Hiroshima
“Where did all these fucking Indians come from?” – General Custer
“Where the fuck is all this water coming from?” – Captain of the Titanic
“Thats not a real fucking gun.” – John Lennon
“Who’s gonna fucking find out?” – Richard Nixon
“Heads are going to fucking roll.” – Anne Boleyn
“Let the fucking woman drive.” – Commander of the “Challenger”
“What fucking map?” – Mark Thatcher
“Any fucking idiot could understand that.” – Albert Einstein
“It does so fucking look like her!” – Picasso
“How the fuck did you work that out?” – Pythagoras
“You want what on the fucking ceiling?” – Michaelangelo
“Fuck a duck.” – Walt Disney
“Why?- Because its fucking there!” – Edmund Hilary
“I don’t suppose its gonna fucking rain?” – Joan of Arc
“Scattered fucking showers my ass.” – Noah
“I need this parade like I need a fucking hole in my head.” – John F. Kennedy

I’m sure you can think of many more examples. With all of these multipurpose applications how can anyone be offended when you use the word? So, use this unique flexible word more often in your daily speech. It will identify the quality of your character immediately. Say it loudly and proudly : “FUCK YOU!!!”


*I prefer the variant “Profanity is the crutch of inarticulate motherfuckers.”

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Humor, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    To me, there’s a huge difference between one of the OTB authors or commenters, the vast majority of whom write extraordinarily well (certainly by Internet blogging and comment section site standards) and some semi-literate moron running around endlessly screaming “fuck Joe Biden” because he’s linguistically too impoverished to dream up anything more eloquent.

    The formers’ selective use of the word is pungent and appropriate. The latter’s makes you want to start screaming at the dull, churlish repetitiveness of it.

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    The formers’ selective use of the word is pungent and appropriate. The latter’s makes you want to start screaming at the dull, churlish repetitiveness of it.

    Fuckin’ A, man.

  3. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Well, saying “Let’s Go Brandon” instead of “fuck Joe Biden” might incur less censure, although it’s just as stupid.

  4. Mu Yixiao says:

    One of my biggest disappointments about China is that I barely learned any good profanity (and only a couple insults all told).

    I’ve heard a few native Arabic speakers who have translated their profanity into English, and it is so wonderfully descriptive. And, of course, there’s the legend of R. Lee Emery’s audition tape–which was just him standing and spewing insults for 15 minutes (never repeating a single one) while people threw oranges at him. (I’m not sure if that really happened, but if anyone could do it, it would have been R. Lee Emery!)

  5. CSK says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

  6. becca says:

    I read years ago that the f-word is an old police acronym “for unlawful carnal knowledge” when charging prostitutes and clients.
    Guess not, but it sounded good.
    Funny, I cuss like a sailor, but never slip up with the F-word in front of the grandkids. Sh*t is a different matter entirely, tho.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: As I’ve noted before, I really, really do not want the country run by people who think “Let’s Go Brandon” is clever.

    Locally we have a guy in Punta Gorda who’s apparently made “Fuck Joe Biden” the center of his otherwise useless life. In response to a rash of such things, last year the city passed an ordinance banning profanity on signs and flags. The guy has been displaying such and suing the city over his Free Speech(TM) since. I ran across him one evening as we were leaving a restaurant. He was parked in a lot with a big projector in his car displaying “**** Joe Biden” on a building wall. Apparently he does this regularly around town, gets ticketed, and claims it’s legal because light is not a “sign”. Which is an entertaining little footnote to Textualism and Originalism.

  8. Mike in Arlington says:

    I try not to swear online, not always successfully, but I try.

    In real life, I use the f-word all the f’n time.

    But I also think that we’re witnessing a major change in our society that’s being reflected in the way our language is evolving.

    That is, sexual themes and issues are becoming less and less taboo, while ethnic, racial slurs as well as insulting ways of referencing people with disabilities are becoming more taboo. It’s part of what’s driving the “politically correct” reaction back to the old days when you could refer to people using ethnic slurs.

    Obviously, this is also being driven by people who were once either excluded from society or had to remain in the closet to participate in society gaining both economic and political power and are starting to flex that power.

  9. Kathy says:

    I don’t mind the word “fuck” at all (given the content of the post, I assume we can write that word freely in the comments). The word “sh*t” on the other hand, is a major turn off.

    I do have one story concerning it. In Vegas there are many club promoters out in the Strip during the day, offering coupons and other enticements to get people to visit their clubs. Mostly they go after young, attractive women. There are many other kinds of promoters as well, not to mention street performers and people selling stuff, so one learns to ignore them after a day or two. Mostly they are used to being ignored and don’t even get annoyed at it, but some do take offense.

    One time I saw one of the latter react to a group of four scantily clad girls who shouted at them “What? Did you leave your fucking manners home along with your good clothes?”

    I wonder if he saw the irony.

  10. CSK says:

    @Mike in Arlington:
    I agree with you that racial, ethnic, and ability slurs are becoming far less acceptable (thank God) and that we’re franker about sexual issues.

    But I disagree that this change, at least insofar as the use of the word “fuck” is concerned, is being driven by people who were once excluded from society. It’s just become an increasingly acceptable locution among vulgarians.

    I freely admit to employing the word myself–but I know how and when to use it. 🙂

  11. Scott says:

    @becca: I am also totally situational. Even though I’m perfectly capable of stringing together a long series of obscenities, I never did that at home in front of Mom or Dad. But in presence of friends or even sometimes my children, I am looser with language. Also more uptight in the written word, like here.

    Side story: When I was 18 in 1972, I backpacked through Europe. One of my traveling companions had an great uncle living outside of Amsterdam and we went an visited him. He learned his English in the merchant marine. His mixture of English and Dutch obscenities that he spewed out in just ordinary conversation was the funniest I had, to that point, ever heard in my life.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If I stopped saying “f*ck” I’d be a mute.

  13. Matt Bernius says:

    As part of a word : “Abso-fucking-lutely” or “in-fucking-credible”

    An old friend who is a linguist loves pointing out that “fuck” is one of the few (possibly the only major) infixes in the English language. I’m not sure if that is a shortcoming of English or a sign of how important “fuck” is to it.

    Probably both.

  14. Mister Bluster says:

    Back in the ’70s I spent some quality time with a woman who was an auto mechanic. The shop she worked at specialized in foreign cars and most of her profanity was directed at the vehicle she was fixing at the time. Apparently whenever she had to light the torch it was a real fuck fest.
    She had a five year old son and her and I tried real hard to limit our imprecations when the three of us were together which was a lot.
    One time I was aggravated about something or other I curbed my tongue just enough to blurt out:
    “Well! Sexual Intercourse that!”
    Next thing I heard: “Mom. What does that mean?”

  15. Joe says:

    I was super-entertained when my college aged kids – especially my daughter – who have been completely comfortable swearing around me for a long time started archly adding “AF” to the end of phrases as a matter of emphasis. Very easy to decode and made even better by referring to, rather than simply saying, the phrase.

  16. CSK says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Good one. When I was in high school, I was on the phone with a friend, and he had to leave the conversation for a moment. When he came back, I asked, “What was all that about?” He replied, “Oh, it was just my father telling me to get off the sexual intercoursing telephone.”

  17. EddieInCA says:

    I’m fortunate to work in a field where one can say the word without almost no negativity associated. Seriously. Everyone from studio executives, to network executives, to other producers to crew members all use the word regularly and in every context, with no one ever blinking or giving it a second thought.

    I’m surprised though at my own inner censorship. I do not curse, at all, in business meetings, even when those around me are doing so. All other times, I curse like a drunken sailor on leave in Thailand.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    I swore like a sailor when I was younger but have pretty much expunged it from
    my vocabulary. I remember the exact instant when I made that decision. I was visiting some relatives in Peoria and we were outside barbecuing within earshot of neighbors. I let out a casual fuck (the word, I mean, not the act). There was a moment of awkward silence and then someone said, “People don’t really talk that way around here.” Rather than teach myself to curb my impulses on demand I just decided to stop cursing. It is a rare, and usually painful, occasion when I do so now.

  19. Mu Yixiao says:


    I’ve mentioned this before, but I created the First Law of Theatrical Language: Everything is okay as long as the stagehands are swearing. Corollary: If you ever hear a stagehand quietly say “oh no” or “oops”, things are very, very bad.

    As stagehands, not only did we use a lot of profanity, we tossed around insults like jugglers toss bowling pins. It took me a while to figure out that it was a way of expressing trust–and a signal that if someone says “get the fuck out of the way!” they’re not being insulting, they’re trying to save your life.

    As local crew, we’d start out speaking somewhat politely to the road crew–because we don’t trust them (yet). If the hands under my supervision (as Master Flyman/rigger) ever heard me say “Excuse me, sir” to a roadie, it was a clear sign that they shouldn’t trust him*. If I’m tossing rude comments around him, he’s okay.

  20. Scott says:

    @Mike in Arlington: @CSK:

    My adult children were visiting this past weekend and they mentioned they had never seen “The Godfather”. So we watched it. A lot of swearing went on; however, what most shocked them was the ethnic slurs, most of which they had never heard before.

  21. wr says:

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned the scene in episode 2 (?) of The Wire, in which every line of dialogue between two characters is “fuck.”

  22. James Joyner says:

    @wr: I’d forgotten about that.

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mister Bluster: I was a union carpenter. Asking me not to curse is… well, like I said, to mute me. Besides, isn’t it better that they learn how to curse from somebody who loves them as opposed to some little hoodlum they go to school with?

  24. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    These days it basically just adds emotional weight (usually but not always anger) and focus to a statement. I hadn’t heard of the “Infix” concept Matt Bernius linked to (except maybe in passing in an English class WAY too long ago), but that pretty much covers it.

  25. Mimai says:

    It used to be that juveniles shouldn’t curse (especially the “fuck” variety), because that’s adult language.

    And adults shouldn’t engage in juvenile name-calling, because that’s, well, juvenile.

    And now this has been inverted. Sometimes.

  26. CSK says:

    Trump seems to have made playground name-calling–“crazy Nancy,” “lyin’ Ted,” “sleepy Joe,” etc.–not only acceptable, but enthusiastically approved by a certain percentage of the populace. Thanks, Donny.

  27. grumpy realist says:

    Since am not someone who uses profanity in ordinary speech (I prefer to use it for the absolutely essential cases), I have found one can get the same effect quite often by leaving an equivalent period of silence: ” He’s a….total complete idiot.” To which the surrounding listeners will quite correctly fill in the word that you wanted to use but were restraining yourself out of gentility and politeness from using.

    (Of course, one can also go for the more creative insults: “you would be out of your depth in a parking lot puddle!” “He has the intellectual capacity of a lobotomised clam.”)

    Then there is the British equivalent: “effin’ bloody hell” and “cunt”, the latter of which seems to get applied indiscriminately to individuals of all sexes.

  28. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Going for the creative insult, which I agree can be far more effective, is contingent on possessing some degree of wit and verbal facility. The kind of people who run around yelling “let’s go, Brandon” have none.

  29. senyordave says:

    I discovered that the word “fuck” can be a bellwether. A few years back I called my my mom just to chat. She was 86 at the time, and had begun to slow down, but she was still sharp and liked to talk politics. After we exchanged updates on friends and family out of the blue she said, “so what did el fucking moron do today” (I think this was early on in Trump’s term when people were still shocked at the things he would do).
    I am 100% sure that until that day I had never heard my mother use “fuck”, and had hardly ever heard her say anything much stronger than “damn”. I took it as a testament to just how awful Trump was that it drove my mom to start doing some serious swearing.

  30. Scott F. says:

    Which reminds me of a bit on the sheer versatility of the word that I first saw maybe 30 years ago (and, judging by some of the examples, it wasn’t new then) and is incorrectly attributed to everyone from Adam Sandler to Monty Python.

    I’ve always loved that bit – it was what first came to mind when I read your headline. Oddly enough, I heard the bit attributed to some writers at Disney. The narrator in the recording I have sounds just like the VO actor you’d recognize from lots of old Disney public service short films.

  31. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    And tell me, where else can we go on the Interwebs where we can have this topic and conversation without falling into a rancorous pit of ire? Thanks!

    IIRC, I was in second grade when I came home with a bright shiny word I’d heard at school. Pulled it out and showed it to my Grandma. Next second, I was upside down in the corner, sliding head-first toward the floor. She then calmly informed me I could use that word again when I was old enough to hit her back. Oddly enough, she’s the one who taught me (inadvertently) to swear in Norwegian.

    OTOH, Daughter was 12-ish when, in a fit of pique, she informed me that my name, title, and job description was “Evil Demon Spawn of Satan.” SWMBO’d was peeved when my response was to applaud and award her style points for expressing her anger without swearing (Hey, even the Bulgarian judge scored a 9.9). Given that she’d heard both of us swear like hung-over sailors I took that for a win.

  32. sam says:

    @Mu Yixiao: @Mu Yixiao:

    And, of course, there’s the legend of R. Lee Emery’s audition tape

    Well, he was a Marine, you know…

  33. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: I have the same idea about people whose every other word out of their mouths is an expletive: what’s the point?

    Of course, you can always go traipsing through other languages for wonderful-sounding expletives: “Donnerwetter!” “Bakayaro!” “Kisama!” I used to use overly formal Japanese to say basically “What in the HELL do you think you are doing?!”

  34. Mister Bluster says:
  35. Ken_L says:

    Assuming Mailer knew the language of the members of the ‘Greatest Generation’, it certainly isn’t new.

    The publishers of The Naked and the Dead prevented Mailer from using the word “fuck” in his novel and had to use the euphemism “fug” instead. Mailer’s version of a subsequent incident follows:

    The word has been a source of great embarrassment to me over the years because, you know, Tallulah Bankhead’s press agent, many years ago, got a story in the papers which went…”Oh, hello, you’re Norman Mailer,” said Tallulah Bankhead allegedly, “You’re the young man that doesn’t know how to spell…” You know, the four-letter word was indicated with all sorts of asterisks.

    Add to the list “Fuck me dead!”, a common Australian expression conveying anything from surprise to resignation.