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    pecksniffian

    The F Word

    by | 14 | Sep 23, 2015

    Ralphie Parker washing his mouth out with soap
    Talk about coincidence, I was thinking just the other day how popular song lyrics have changed over the years – and not for the better, I fear – when I stumbled into an odd kind of research online that supported my suspicion and set me to thinking about language in general.

    The research. Believe it or not, somebody has gone to the trouble – brace yourself – to count the words that have shown up most often in popular songs in every decade since the 1890s! And if you thought song lyrics were getting cleaner and classier, move to the rear of the line. Yes, the “f” word was one of the five most common words appearing in the current decade’s popular music. “Hell” was another.

    Why am I not surprised? I saw a novel recently that would have been a short story if the author had left out the “f” word. And today’s comedians (I use the word loosely) seem unable to set up or deliver a punch line without a plentiful use of the “f” word. Don’t they know they could stand out from the crowd just by following the G-rated example of such great comedians as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Jerry Seinfeld?

    Just as an experiment, try this: In the history of American comedy, one of the funniest lines ever delivered on TV was a simple two-word sentence by Jack Benny, who was a notorious skinflint (and master of comedic timing). In the skit, he was held up at gunpoint by a robber who had demanded, “Your money or your life” and, after a moment, repeated the demand. Said Benny at length: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” America exploded in laughter!

    Now go ahead (though not out loud in public): Throw a few “f” words into that fourteen words of famous dialogue and watch it wilt before your eyes (or fizzle in your ears).

    When it comes to using foul language, believe me less is more. Much more. Not because one is Pecksniffian, but because one cares about language, which thrives on economy to make a point, not on gratuitous helpmates, especially foul adjectives. You couldn’t improve on this funny line by adding anything at all: “’Shut up!’ he explained.”

    Still not convinced? Then consider these famous lines from movies, each so well-crafted (and well delivered) that it has become engrained in our collective consciousness. (I’ll list at the bottom the movies they came from). Notice how many of the words are one-syllable, how few adjectives are employed – and how effective when employed, and how dramatic understatement can be:

    • “Go ahead, make my day.”
    • “Houston, we have a problem.”
    • “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
    • “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
    • “I’ll have what she’s having.”
    • “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
    • “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
    • “Show me the money.”
    • “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
    • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
    • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

    That last one, spoken by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the 1939 American Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, was selected by the American Film Institute as the most memorable American movie quotation of all time. “Damn” in this case, by the way, is a noun, not an adjective.

    Moral of this story: Current usage might have gone to hell in a handcart, but simple, straightforward, unadorned language is still the best route to being understood.

    (The movies, in order: Sudden Impact, Apollo 13, Cool Hand Luke, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, When Harry Met Sally, Jaws, On the Waterfront, Jerry Maguire, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind.)

    ###
    • Image: Ralphie Parker (aka: Peter Billingsley) washing his mouth out with soap from a production still from the MGM movie “Christmas Story” (fair use)
    Robert Lamb

    Robert Lamb

    I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After a stint in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English (Class of '61). I began my (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and went to work for The Constitution in, I think, 1976. I left in Sept. '82 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and my second (Atlanta Blues, in 2004) contended for an Edgar Award. My latest novel won no honors but might well get me nominated for a hanging. Titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in a small Georgia town. I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at boblamb.wordpress.com and I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.

     

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    • Will Cantrell

      Bob:
      Totally agree. Great piece and observations. Will

    • Tom Poland

      Bravo!!!!

    • Eileen

      “a novel … that would have been a short story if the author had left out the “f” word” made me chuckle. I agree, less is more, but just occasionally it deserves an airing; a restrained expletive has class. I advocate restrained use of the exclamation mark too.

      • Robert Lamb

        Sadly, this is not the Age of Restraint, in profanity especially. But you’re right; there are times when it feels so good to turn the air blue with a few well-chosen x-rated words. Have you tried “fershlugganerpackaloomer?” Works like a charm. Sometimes.

    • Trevor Irvin

      Ah, I believe it to be a rather useful word … There are great
      comedians who use it in large amounts. There are great writers who use it. It is
      one of the first great swear words one learns. It’s a word that raises the
      eyebrows and I for one likes anything that raises the eyebrows. It’s a word
      used in the real world, and I like to see it flung about in writing and comedy
      as well. Yes, it takes a little style to use it properly. It is a word I see fairly
      regularly in the New Yorker, a magazine I particularly like and is known to
      have published a good piece or two. The word “fuck, fuckin’-or as the Scottish
      say “fookit” is used in many ways, has many meanings and uses – it is a noun,
      an adjective, an exclamation point, an expletive and even occasionally used to describe
      a sexual act. Polite society tends to have a problem with it, but then I’ve always
      had a problem with polite society.

      I for one like how language constantly changes, in use, in style, in context. There is always a place for old school, but change is constant. “All is flux” as the Heraclitus once said -- But possibly he was misquoted and simply meant to say “All is fucked” … just sayin’
      Regards,
      T

      • Robert Lamb

        The point was about effective writing, not polite or impolite language. ANY word, “praying,” for instance, inserted at every possible point in a sentence is ridiculous.

        • Trevor Irvin

          Bob, I don’t think I advocated using it everywhere or at every possible point … I simply advocate its use because it, like all words, can be used effectively.
          Regards,
          T

          • Robert Lamb

            Fucking-A! Hey, Trevor. Long time, no see. Where are you and how are you doing these days.

            • Trevor Irvin

              See Bob, that’s how we used it in Jersey, it’s a great word! I’m still drawrin’ pitchurs in my studio trying to make ends meet. Janna and I are still in Atlanta, Candler Park area … I don’t see many of the newspaper folks anymore but Steve Valk (aka The Valkano) and I get together frequently and I still e-mail Dougherty regular-like to make fun of his sloppy, low-quality writing … Hope all is well with ya’ll.
              Regards,
              T

            • Robert Lamb

              Please remember me to both Steves. Fond of both of them. What are they up to these days? I am a prisoner in the Carolina Lowcountry. Still trying to figure out what happened to newspapers.

            • Trevor Irvin

              I’ll pass your salutations onto them. Valkano now works for CCl (Citizens Climate Lobby.) My younger son does some writing for him. Valkano has always had an itch to save the rest of us from ourselves … and for all our sakes I’m hoping he’s successful. DoughBoy is up in NYC, freelancing for various folks. He wrote a book with a mobster, and one about his dog that was trapped in his apartment for days after 9/11 (Steve’s apartment was very near ground zero.) He was doing travel pieces for the Times and now does stuff for the Wall St. Journal. He’s doing quite a few music pieces which you can find links to on Facebook.
              You’ll notice that I didn’t use the f-word a single time here … which means I can use it extra-copiously in my next Dew rant …
              Regards,
              T

            • Robert Lamb

              Have at it! Thanks, Trevor. I miss my newspaper days. Do you miss yours?

            • Trevor Irvin

              Well, I miss some of the people. It was a very interesting job, something new everyday. And I hate to see newspapers folding or getting smaller. More difficult, is watching what I believe is a reduction in the quality of serious reporting, both in newspapers and other media. As for leaving the paper, I don’t regret it. I went to CNN while it was still a cement hole in the ground, and did all of the first on air graphics. I stayed until one week of my freelance work paid me more than Ted was paying me in three months. At that point I went freelance -- -- and as my Dad liked to point out “have been permanently unemployed ever since.” Newspapers are a writers medium and an artist at a newspaper will never be able to do what he or she ultimately wants to do artistically -- so I had to leave in order to draw and paint other subjects for other clients. I did keep my fingers in a little, by partnering with Dave Osier when he bought Brown’s Guide and we started Georgia Journal. We had a couple years of fun trying to keep that albatross aloft. I also worked with him on his Okefenokee book which remains uncompleted due to his death, which was hard and very sad.
              Regards,
              T

    • Jeffry Scott

      I don’t have a strong opinion about the word either way. When it’s a crutch the joke limps. If it fits the conversation because that’s the way a lot of people talk, then fine. In the movie The Big Lebowski the John Goodman character tells the Steve Buscemi character “Shut the fuck up, Donny,” it seems like ten times. Funny every last one.

      A few lines from the movies might have been added:

      “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” from Casablanca.
      “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” from Chinatown.
      “Plastic” from The Graduate.
      “Get up angel, you look like a Pekingese” from The Big Sleep.

      As for newspapers, where I worked for nearly a quarter of a century, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the staff and the heart seems to have gone out of them. I think they never recovered after 911 when they begin, sadly, to cave to the accusations of “liberal bias” and weren’t responsibly critical of this nation’s reaction to the terrorist attack for fear of coming off as “liberal” (whatever that means).

      So we got a war out of that, Iraq, and the re-election of George Bush.

      The Internet just made the matter worse, sucking away all the classified ads, and killing the “business model” of newspapers. They could no longer afford to thumb their noses at critics. Had to cave. And still do. They’ve bought the Fox News idea of “fair and balanced” when, in fact, all facts aren’t equal.

      I used to joke that nowadays if newspapers were covering the civil rights movement, in the name of “fair and balanced” they would assign equal importance to the works of JFK, MLK, and the KKK.

      And those facts just aren’t equal. They have different atomic weights.

      Had papers not caved, I don’t think you’d see the candidates you see now running for president. They would have been sorted out and discarded by due diligence of the press,

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