On one of my regular browsing excursions through Barnes & Noble, I came across a book display entitled: “Path to Personal Growth.”
Prominent, of course, was “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book, which has sold over 15 million copies since its publication in 1936.
Arrayed around this classic volume were more modern offerings such as: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” “Unf*ck Yourself,” “Calm the F*ck Down,” “F*ck Feelings” and “I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck.”
What the f*ck is going on? Is it possible that we’re overusing the F-word?
It’s the classic cuss word, and it packs more power into its four letters than any other. Much of its strength probably derives from its literal meaning, but it’s extraordinarily adaptable linguistically to uses that have nothing to do with sex.
In its versatility, the F-word can express everything from insult (F*ck off) to bewilderment (WTF?) to aggrieved resignation (Aw, f*ck it), as well as a great deal in between.
In short, the F-word is one of our most potent and adaptable words. But does its overuse threaten its power, like crying “Wolf!” once too often?
So far the word appears to retain its capacity to draw attention to itself, and thus the five books listed above, as well as many others, use it in their titles. And it’s still sufficiently outrageous and naughty to incline publishers to use the asterisk instead of the “u,” as I do here. (The use of the asterisk is probably mildly ironic and facetious; few Americans over the age of 8 are fooled.)
And the word still has the capacity to elevate eyebrows, even if only slightly, especially in mixed company or among children. When Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chair Lindsey Graham spent an inordinate amount of time reading from emails exchanged between former FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
Graham quoted one of the emails aloud on national television: “Trump is a f*cking idiot,” not bothering to bleep out the word in question. He immediately added, “Sorry to the kids out there.” So evidently the F-word still retains its power to shock and discomfit. But for how long?
I started thinking about this a few years ago when I was teaching writing at a large community college in South Texas. I noticed one day that one of my classes of young freshmen was beginning to sound like the fo’c’sle of a navy destroyer.
Many years ago, I was a Navy man, and I harbor no undue sanctimony about one of the most powerful cuss words in the language; I put it to use myself occasionally.
But my message for my students was twofold: First, any word loses its power through careless overuse; and, second, writing well (and speaking well) is largely about making choices. The precise, well-chosen word is a scalpel, not a hammer. And if you begin to use a hammer on everything, it doesn’t do the hammer or its object any good.
On the other hand, sometimes a hammer is just the right thing. Former President Donald Trump got it right when he first learned that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. He reportedly slumped in his presidential chair and said, “I’m f*cked.”
So this versatile hammer can express despair, as well. And a version of this apt term is appropriate to describe what Trump did to our country and its democratic norms, as well as the despair that we might feel over his continuing threats against them.
But it’s too soon for despair. George Orwell noted the connection between good writing and good thinking: Careful, precise writing (and speaking) reinforces careful, precise thinking. Our country is currently in dire need of both. Which probably means that we should put the F-word to less frequent but better and more thoughtful use. As Trump knows, sometimes no other word will do. It’s nice to have it there when we really need it.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org