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Like a Dead Skunk

August 1, 2011

A friend came into my office and asked, “What is it about the f-word?”

I thought she might have been asking me because I live on Alpine Park. Anyone who lives on Alpine Park through the summer knows the f-word.

Every year, there’s a new crop of young people who have just learned the word, and they gather around the park at night to use it.

It’s a tiresome thing for us, and it must get that way for them, because nothing is ever expressed through its use. It’s like a pirate growling, “Aarrrr!” Only less interesting.

My friend, though, was talking about books, such as a new novel by a popular author whose other books worked fine without the f-word but whose newest book is peppered with it. Perhaps we should say, salted with it.

Either way, the spiciness was not appreciated. It’s not so much the word itself, which may have a few good uses, but the pointlessness of its general and frequent use.

The fallback position for novelists is veracity—that the word is required for verisimilitude. Certain kinds of characters talk this way in the real world. But I don’t buy that, because there are a host of utterances that are never reproduced, such as “um” and “uh,” both of which serve more purpose than the f-word.

In literature, the word has lost its shock value even while it retains its stench. Like a dead skunk—once you’ve smelt it, it is familiar, but you don’t chose to bring it into the house.

A good author may occasionally find a good use for the word, but I would expect her or him to have sufficient skill rarely to need it.

I’m a little more understanding of teenagers latching on to the word because it would seem to have the cachet of shock and rebellion (but if you’re a teenager reading this, know that it is merely old and tedious).

It is also allied with anger, a cheap and easy emotion to nurture, and so you can see young and old alike expressing unfocused anger with the meaningless f-word. If you bang your thumb with a hammer, maybe it’s ok. Otherwise, no.

For young people, there is the immersion in commercial hip-hop culture, in which it is cool (if unoriginal) to be angry, and when you’re angry or acting like you’re angry, you get to use the f-word. Anger is also tiresome, but it’s an easy sell—to teens and to talk radio listeners.

Soon enough, it will be Fall, and we can close the windows in the house, muting the f-word. I suppose the same holds for reading—one can always close the book, and we know plenty of readers at the library who do.

The word (as opposed to The Word) along with explicit if poorly written sex scenes drive some readers to the world of Christian publishers. I would say that most readers of Christian fiction I know do so not for doctrine but for the filter on explicit language, violence, and sex.

That formula certainly operates in Hollywood, if it didn’t come from there. The next remake of a Jane Austen novel may well have black helicopters, automatic weapons fire, foul language, and the requisite sexual denouement.

The f-word is little more than a rude noise these days, and like most rude things, it’s not any one instance that’s so bad but the thoughtless, relentless repetition.

The word is usually meaningless. Let’s say what we really mean.

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