Is The F-word Foul?

Posted at 03:56am on 22nd July 2008

Whatever happened to the old saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me'? They can, of course. But only if we let them. Have we become a nation of wimps that we have to talk of legislation to prevent the use of certain words? Words like Chav, for instance.

I say they can hurt, but is that entirely accurate? I once had a debate with a friend, a well-known author, about the use of the F-word. It’s not a word I would use: it would shock my friends and family if I were to do so. But actually, as a word (and as a reader and author I love words) it’s onomatopoeic. And that makes it a good word to substitute for the phrase sexual intercourse because it sounds like the act itself. In the 16th Century where the word originated, that probably had a lot to do with its use.

My friend (a Scot) decried the agitation expressed by the English over the use of mere words, when there were other, more insidious influences being ignored. Our discussion took place when the Richard Gere, Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman was on general release at the cinema. I saw it three times! Not intentionally, but because, having first seen it with my husband, a couple of girl-friends then asked me to accompany them on different occasions. I have to say, it wasn’t a hardship to see it again and again. The film was a classic fairytale – a Rags to Riches, Cinderella to Princess – one of only seven themes in story-telling. It was the sort of thing that sets the heart a-flutter for practically every woman alive.

But had I considered the morals behind the story, my friend asked. What does it have to tell the world? That prostitution is a legitimate and assured way of finding a rich husband?

His observation forced me to think more deeply about something I had accepted on a superficial level. And isn’t that the whole point about the use of words that outrage us? The F-word has become subverted. It’s not used as a decent alternative to the term sexual intercourse (an act intended to be an expression of love) but is employed to describe an act that is debased and dirty. Perhaps, even, an act of abuse. It is linked to the attitude behind such an act: foul-mouthed and contemptible; debased and full of anger.

It is not my intention to suggest that the word Chav – or indeed other words like nigger, or Paki – are in any way on a par with the F-word. But it does seem to me that legislation against the use of such words is ludicrous. As Shakespeare put it in Romeo and Juliet: What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It’s not the word that’s at fault. What’s needed is a change of attitude. And that, sadly, can’t be dealt with by the law.

Or can it? What do you think? More of this later . . .

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