The Banality of the F-Bomb

(Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Once taboo, the word has become an unfortunate national habit in need of breaking.

One of my favorite 1960s anecdotes comes from legendary broadcaster Larry King, who tells of attending his first roast at New York City’s Friars Club. There, French actor Maurice Chevalier dared to utter the F-word live on stage. King was practically blown out of his seat. “I thought I’d die,” he recalls.

Today, as King himself has noted, the F-bomb — once known as the ultimate forbidden verbal lightning bolt, the Utterance That Must Not Be Named, or at least the word of last resort to use when you’re really hopelessly mad — might as well be growing out of random cracks in the sidewalk. In 2019, the F-word is a throwaway. It is a sneeze. It is as common as dandelion fluff.

Does anyone else find this awkward? Mock me if you will — no doubt my quest is a lonely one — but I certainly do.

Just the other day, while I was communing with a wildly energetic and occasionally shouty spin instructor in my garage — I am the enthusiastic new owner of one of those Peloton workout bikes where you can beam into classes via an Internet-connected screen — I discovered that even the most winsome and cheerful Peloton instructor might one day randomly bombard you with the F-bomb. In my case, this happened right in the middle of an insanely steep fake “hill” climb and a cheerily judgmental pop song. (If the song had happened to be Ariana Grande’s regrettably catchy hit “Thank U, Next,” or perhaps Pink’s unedited “F-ing Perfect,” I could have absorbed approximately seven bonus F-words for good measure.)

I have since discovered that Peloton classes have labels and filters for explicit language, which is certainly nice of them. I somehow missed this the first go-round, because just as no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, I naïvely failed to expect that my workout bike would one day curse at me like my own personal Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men.

Thankfully, my kids were out of earshot when that particular F-bomb dropped. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of others to go around. My kids were in exceptionally clear eyeshot on a different day, for instance, when we happened to pass a bored-looking young lady sporting a tank top that declared, “YOU MUST HAVE ME CONFUSED FOR SOMEONE WHO GIVES A [F-WORD].” The word in question was, of course, uncensored, helpfully available for every kindergartener in a 20-foot radius to see.

What is wrong with everyone? Have we lost our national “edit” button? (I’ll answer my own question, because the answer is obvious: Yes.)

The F-bomb has long been with us, but the growing tendency to cheerfully, unhesitatingly use it in any old circumstance is something new and alarming. Forget venturing into R-rated movies or edgy art galleries: Take your kid into a random gift shop in the Texas hill country these days, and you might find cutesy hand towels embroidered with swear words that would have made young Larry King faint. Beto O’Rourke, always game to roll on the bad-idea bandwagon, gained notoriety during his Senate campaign for letting an impressive parade of F-bombs fly. Self-help books with the F-word fly off the shelves, even though — at least in the humble opinion of this writer, who grew up in the famously repressed rolling fields of the American Midwest — “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Rip” would make for just as compelling a title as “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a” — well, I’ll stop there. You know what word is coming next.

It gets worse: Just last week, Burger King, which is gross even without the help of swear words, launched a series of mood-themed “Real Meals,” questionable foodstuffs boxed with wonderfully poetic names like — you guessed it — the DGAF Meal. (DGAF, in case you’re still gloriously unaware, stands for “Don’t Give a [You Know What].”)

Weirdly, Burger King released these meal deals as part of “Mental-Health Awareness” month. That seems paradoxical at best, but since we’re speaking of mental health, let’s take this moment to get philosophical. My crusade against the public explosion of the F-bomb, you see, goes beyond simple manners. Much like, say, The Lego Batman Movie, it is far deeper than it appears.

In many ways, words can shape our very perception of reality. Edward Sapir, who helped develop the hypothesis of linguistic relativity in the 1930s, put it this way: “Human beings . . . are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. . . . The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”

It’s a radical idea, but what if it contains a grain of truth? What does our society’s thunderstorm of public F-bombs do to our greater sensibility, cultural or otherwise? When the worst swear word becomes commonplace, what do we use to describe the truly horrific? What happened to mystery and subtlety? For that matter, what happened to the fashion sense of people who regularly sport shirts that evoke memories of the early routines of Andrew Dice Clay?

It is no surprise, I suppose, that the F-bomb has become ubiquitous as our culture’s exhibitionism has gotten out of control. But here we can draw at least one consolation: Back at the Friars Club in the Sixties, the F-word was shocking and rare, at least when uttered in public. Today, it’s emblazoned in insouciant acronyms on the packaging of mass-produced Burger King meals.

Behold, America: The F-bomb has officially entered the realm of the hopelessly banal. Who knows? Perhaps if we’re lucky, Americans will get bored with using it — and that might just save us all.

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