F**k: Explaining the Expletive

A few days ago I stubbed my toe on the leg of a chair while in mid sentence. What came out of my mouth was something like, “yeah, that’s a really great idea, I’d – ah fudge!” Except I didn’t say “fudge.” I said the other word. The bad one. After I was done crying—my toe hurt, after all—I started thinking about that word, and I added it to my list of favorite words.

Though I was brought up to know better than to drop an “f-bomb” into polite conversation, as someone who likes words, writing, and language in general, I can’t help but appreciate the f-word’s linguistic versatility and strength.

Parts of speech

F**k is the only word I know of with a legitimate colloquial usage as a noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, conjunction, and exclamation. One can form a whole sentence out of almost nothing but f—ks. As Paul Fussel recounted in his book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, an airman working on the engine of a bomber suddenly flung his wrench and exclaimed, “F**k! The f***ing f***er’s f***ed.” Other than the article “the” this whole sentence is constructed out of different versions of the same profanity (even if I did soften the expletives used in the book, in family-friendly fashion).

Meanings and context

The obscenity in question can be used as a term of endearment or a vulgar insult. Its meaning depends on the context it is used in, and the audience who hears it. It can even be used as an intensifier to change the strength and conviction of one’s sentiment. “this soup is great,” is a nice thing to say, but if you are complimenting someone who wouldn’t be offended by the word, “this soup is #@%*-ing great!” is much more evocative of the sense of exuberance felt over the soup’s alleged greatness.

As an exclamation

Using naughty words—like I did when I injured myself—is a pretty common practice; even my mother, who always claims to have said “shoot” or “frick” afterwards (she’s not fooling anyone), is prone to using a swear word when hurt or surprised. But did you know that bad words can do some good? Studies have shown that swearing can serve an important function in relieving pain.

The study consisted of college students immersing their hands in cold water; the students who cursed reported less pain and lasted an average of 40 seconds longer. Next time you get hurt, instead of dropping two aspirin, try dropping a few f-bombs.

My thoughts

Sure, the f-word has a bad reputation, but so does salt. Ultimately, I use the same method for dealing with both: I sprinkle it liberally when it’s needed—like my recent run-in with furniture—but I don’t overuse it. It may only be a four letter word, but it sure packs a punch.

How do you feel about the f-word? Do you take advantage of the flexibility of the word, dropping f-bombs like there’s no tomorrow, or do you refrain because of its impropriety?