Let Us Now Hallow the F-Word

Some months back I subscribed to SiriusXM Satellite Radio for the first time, and one of the first stations I tuned to was Outlaw Country. I wasn’t paying much attention one afternoon during the NCAA basketball tournament when I heard the DJ remark, “College basketball is getting as hot as two foxes f—ing in a forest fire.”

Whoa, I thought, did I hear what just heard?  Now at this point in my life I’d heard or read the F-Word thousands of times in thousands of contexts.  Perhaps I’d even said it a few times myself.  I was no F-Word virgin.  And I pride myself on linguistic tolerance. I’m not easily shocked, but still the taboo out of the blue came across as a little bit shocking to me.

Photo of Mojo Nixon

Satellite radio DJ Mojo Nixon.

Since that day I’ve listened to a lot more Outlaw Country and heard a lot more of that DJ, Mojo Nixon, a man who revels in the F-Word. Mojo l-u-u-u-u-ves to shock, and of course the only reason he can get some charge out of the word these days is that, thanks to the FCC,  we’re not used to hearing it over the air waves.

The light went on. It’s SATELLITE radio, available only by subscription, just like cable TV, a realm where the FCC in its wisdom has refrained from enforcing its usual standards against the late George Carlin’s “seven words you can never say on television.” Where the F-Word is concerned, context is all.

Those who read my last post know that I’ve been working my way through Jesse Sheidlower’s definitive opus The F-Word, and out of curiosity, I checked the book for Mojo’s heated metaphor. Well, there it was:

“hotter than a fresh-f—ed fox in a forest fire,” extremely hot in any sense. Jocular. ca1950 in T. Atkinson Dirty Comics 197: “Betty! This guy’s got me hotter than a fresh f—ed fox in a forest fire.”

Photo of fox.

Forest-fire survivor.

I’m venturing onto uncertain ground here, but I can’t help feeling there’s been a loss in our culture since 1950 in the way the F-Word has invaded our language.

I first heard the word myself one memorable day at age 6. We lived at the edge of a small city that was still so rural there were cows in the field behind our neighbor’s house across the street. A neighborhood gang of us were sitting on the back porch one evening checking out the cows, and the older kids, fourth-graders as I recall, were talking about what the bull known as Old John did to the heifers. They made frequent use of the F-Word. As a budding connoisseur of words, I inquired what they meant and got told in detail. Amazing.

From the very first it was clear that the word was part of the secret code of childhood, things that could never be discussed with parents or any adults. My compatriots were pulling a Mojo, reveling in the taboo.

In an age when the German word for f— has been trademarked, Web sites chronicle the use of the word in movies (the current leader among narrative films is Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth with 428 uses), and you can read an article cataloging the first use of various obscenities in the New Yorker (even the famously prissy editor William Shawn could not hold the line), it may sound hopelessly quaint to lament the loss of the F-Word’s power even as it gains currency.

In 2009 Time magazine asked Sheidlower about this possibility and he’s not much concerned:

It has an effect because it is still taboo. If it lost absolutely all of its force, well, there wouldn’t be any good reason to use it that much. As long as there is still some feeling that this is a sexual term, it will maintain some power. Sometimes I’m asked, like, what’s going to happen when it becomes so commonplace that it doesn’t really matter anymore, and I don’t think that will happen in the foreseeable future. Even as taboos against it weaken, they are still there, and it is still usually the case that you’re using this informally for effect.

Photo of Kenneth Tynan

F-Word pioneer Kenneth Tynan; he uttered it on the BBC in 1965.

Me, I’m worried. My ancient Webster’s defines a counterforce in our language, the cliché, as “a trite phrase that has lost meaning by iteration; a hackneyed or stereotyped expression.” When countless teenagers feel free to sprinkle it through their tweets and wear it on  T-shirts, I fear we are in grave danger of turning the F-Word into a cliché and draining the word of all its primeval power. The F-Word is like penicillin. Very powerful, very effective, and it‘s been around a very long time. The problem is the more widely it’s used, the more the masses of microbes become immune to it and the less potent it becomes.

Why has the F-Word gotten so popular in recent years? Here’s my theory, which relies on the concept of the meme (like a gene, only for culture), an idea invented by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Christopher Johnson in Microstyle summarizes the power of a meme as it applies to language: Johnson writes:

When a mutation leads to a new trait that gives an organism some kind of reproductive advantage, the mutation spreads, because the organisms that carry it tend to have a lot of offspring that also carry it. Over time the trait predominates in a population.

Photo of Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor, master of the MF variation.

What is the reproductive advantage of the F-Word (no pun intended)? In a word, attention. In the 24-7 digital age we live in, attention is fast becoming one of the scarcest and most valuable of human commodities. What could be more exciting than what was once the ultimate attention-getting word. Thus the rush to the F-Word. It’s one more way for the most witless among us to say, “Look, look at me. I matter.”

I’m not very optimistic about any retro movements to put the F-Word back in its traditional spot of secret power. Those who attempt to prescribe language in my view are as doomed to failure as the Danish-English King Knut, who once demonstrated the fallacy of royal power by placing his throne on the beach and commanding the tides to hold back.

But there are some signs of a counter-revolution. A friend recently sent me one of those pass-along emails with the subject line “When is F*** acceptable?” The email went on to specify the 11 times in history when the F-Word was properly used. I like #11:

“What the @#$% do you mean, we’re sinking?” Capt. E.J. Smith, RMS Titanic, 1912

3 Responses to Let Us Now Hallow the F-Word

  1. Caroline Altman Smith Nov 8, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I’m really glad you explained the origin of the amorous foxes in the forest metaphor, as that was a new one to me- I should have trusted that you wouldn’t leave us hanging on that one. Great simile about the F word and penicillin, Ras!

    • Thanks, Caroline. It’s been said before in other contexts that I have a nose for vital information. And I like your description of the foxes so much better than Mojo’s.

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