Today, a federal court ruled that the Federal Communication Commission’s restrictions on “fleeting” expletives run counter to the First Amendment. Policies toward fleeting expletives—which, according to The Washington Post, are defined as a “a single, nonliteral use” of an obscene word—were invoked in 2004, after Bono’s use of “fucking”—the qualifier, not the verb, mind you—during the 2003 Golden Globes. Today’s ruling, however, overturns these guidelines, which were deemed “unconstitutionally vague” and responsible for “creating a chilling effect that goes far beyond the fleeting expletives at issue here.” Indeed, although the institutionalized indictment of “fuck” long predates this particular predicament.
Both verb and noun, infix and interjection, “fuck,” like many chimerical beasts, is of ill repute and unknown genesis. The American Heritage Dictionary, similar to its tweedier brother, the Oxford English Dictionary, is unable to divine the exact etymology of “fuck,” however it does provide information about its first known publication. Specifically, the word initially appeared in a satirical poem composed sometime around 1500 that takes aim at the Carmelite friars of Cambridge. Although the letters F, U, C, and K do not appear in their recognizable, rancorous order, they are expressed in a simple code that “is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now,” according to the dictionary. Drained of its cryptic Latin and less cryptic cryptology, “non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk” begets “they are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].” For what it’s worth, the Online Dictionary of Etymology surmises that “fuck” has roots in the Middle English “fyke,” meaning to “move restlessly.” “Fyke” had sexual connotations, too; it suggested fidgeting as well as flirting, as the wives of Ely might attest.
Hundreds of years later, James Joyce was not as covert in his use of the word. The 1921 publication of the complete Ulysses was met with book banning and book burning. A New York court ruled the work obscene, even though the word “fuck” appeared just twice—once as noun, once as verb—in 265,000 words. Other classics infamous for their embrace of the word include The Catcher in the Rye and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Norman Mailer substituted “fug” for “fuck” in The Naked and the Dead, from which the band the Fugs would later take its name. (One of the group’s founding members, Tuli Kupferberg, passed away yesterday.) “Fug,” a cacophonous cousin, is still an undeserving member of the vernacular. Alternative progeny also include “fink,” “freak,” “feck,” “frack,” and “frig,” the latter regretfully embalmed for pop-culture immortality with the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite. The Wire eschewed euphemisms altogether, embracing the guttural, satisfying “fuck” a total of 38 times in a single scene.
In recent times, the word has been most memorably muttered by Vice President Joe Biden during the televised signing of health-care reform legislation. “It’s a big fucking deal,” he whispered to President Obama, unaware or uncaring that the two were still miked. The word—or rather, one-seventh of the word—was emblazoned on t-shirts bearing the acronym “B.F.D.” that commemorated the historic legislation. It was perhaps an equally momentous occasion for “fuck”: after centuries of toiling in near-obscenity obfuscated by dead languages and deadening governmental censorship, it was legitimized, live on television, by the second-highest authority in the land. A big fucking deal, indeed.
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