Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The most powerful four letters in the English language

A little exchange on Facebook got me thinking about the F-word. It doesn't take much to make me think about the F-word. I'm pretty fond of it.

Starting with the unvoiced, soft sound of the f, passing through the vowel u at whatever speed your mood dictates, the word then ends on the unvoiced hard cut of the k sound, reinforced by its preceding c. The word goes from soft to hard, yet traditionally describes an act that goes from hard to soft. Perhaps that paradox is part of its power.

Would the person who took exception to my use of those four powerful letters have objected if I had said, "Who gives a YHWH?" Maybe not as much. Vulgarity crosses more lines than blasphemy.

In writing, camouflage helps. Internet postings are full of euphemistic alterations like f***, f@^&, dashes, cartoonish $^%%#^ substitutions. How about etbj? Foreplay, if you will. Quickie encrypters have already staked out gvdl. 621311 is old news to anyone past about the sixth grade.

I first encountered the most powerful weapon in the verbal arsenal when I was about 8. My older brother came back to the table in a restaurant to report that he had seen something terrible on the wall of the restroom. He seemed pretty shocked. I developed an immediate need to go see. I said pee, but that was just cover.

The word might as well have been inscribed with a scrawl of satanic fire instead of scratched into the stall divider with a sharp implement and left to rust in the caustic spray of misdirected urine. It was clearly a powerful talisman I could use to smite my enemies. It was like taking delivery of the first atomic bomb. Here was a word that would vaporize all other words, and billow upwards in its terrible majesty until it was the only thing the senses could detect. It was a thunderclap of a word.

People who believe that anyone and everyone should have access to automatic weapons will still take exception to the use of the f-word in conversation. That's how powerful it is.

Those of us who find the word irresistible must seem like the performers you see juggling torches and chainsaws. But really, by taking the f-word out of the deepest bunker and turning it into a simple syllable of emphasis we help to increase its benign uses, like generating electricity with nuclear power instead of just using it to wipe whole cities off the map. Maybe that hasn't always worked out super well, but at least they're trying.

I held onto the word for a couple of years before I used it in combat. Some other fifth grader was teasing me about something, and finally I snapped. "You fuck!" I yelled at him, from many yards away. I had just crossed Main Street under the eye of the kindly crossing guard, a gentle woman I liked. I was so shocked at my own transgression that I avoided the official crossing for weeks. I made my own way across the street -- which was also US Route 1 -- and proceeded to school on back streets on the other side.

When I finally gathered the courage to return to the official crosswalk, I apologized to the guard. She didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't explain, only blessed my luck and vowed to be more careful with the heavy weapons in the future.

As it happened, the future was two schools later, at a private school for boys, where you'd better have a full arsenal of profanity and be ready to use it. My parents were right: that school taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I lost nearly every fight and had no real friends, but if those are the lessons you need to learn, learn them.

Profanity can become a verbal formula you repeat to soothe yourself in the face of frustrating circumstances. You know, like prayer. Prayer and profanity are the feeble twin consolations in the face of the insoluble dilemmas that life among our fellow humans assaults us with. And profanity is much more effective with the petty annoyances.

Maybe with enough repetition and mainstream acceptance, the f-word and its lesser kin will lose all their power to harm and to heal. They're still racy enough to attract attention in many contexts. And they have their literal meanings to bolster their metaphorical application. It seems like a good recipe for self-perpetuation.