When is it okay to use the F word?


A lot of what I learned in college I learned from the New York Times. I was completely incapable of managing the college application process on my own. In hindsight, it strikes me as similar to my experience with the DMV. The application process is way too complicated for someone with Asperger Syndrome. But I didn’t know I had Asperger’s then, so I assumed that if the process was impossible for me it was impossible for everyone, and no one was really doing it.

My parents only realized in April of my senior year, when my friends were getting early admissions to Stanford and Brown, that I had not applied anywhere but Vassar.

I got rejected. So my parents pulled strings and gave a big donation, and I got into their alma mater, Brandeis. During the McCarthy era, Brandeis was a haven for left-wing professors who scared everyone else. By the time I got there, in the ’80s, Brandeis was a haven for smart, Jewish New Yorkers who did not quite make it into the Ivy League, and wanted a haven from the semi-adult world that did not function like Jewish summer camp.

I did not fit in well, but of course, all the kids that did not fit in well somehow ended up hanging out with each other. My freshman year roommate, for example, had Asperger’s. (What luck!) My junior year roommate was just realizing that he was gay, and he thought he was being taken over by the devil. I told him being gay is fine, and that if anything, the devil is working though his dad, whose job was to ensure that Camel sold ten billion gazillion cigarettes to kids by using their icon properly.

All normal kids are the same, and all kids who are weird are weird in different ways, but the common thread through the weird kids at Brandeis was that they all read the New York Times. I had never seen that newspaper until I went to Brandeis. I’m not sure it was worth $40,000 a year, but to learn to read the New York Times when you are young is, actually, a great step toward being successful in adult life.

One of the most eye-opening parts of the paper was William Safire’s column, On Language. I grew up in a family of doctors and lawyers, so I never considered that writing was something an adult did with any seriousness, but I found myself doing writerly things in secret, and reading William Safire was a part of that.

His column was mostly about how dynamic language is. He knew tons about language, but he never snubbed his nose when people did not use language in a conventional way. I learned from him that it’s just not that interesting to be the language police; it’s more interesting to be the language philosopher. I also learned from his column that it’s interesting to watch language evolve, because language is the visible result of underlying changes in our society.

Which leads me to the word fuck. I use it very infrequently in this blog, because I think makes for uninteresting writing—there’s always a more precise way to express dismay, and precision is interesting to read. But in real life, I say fuck all the time.

I did not have any trouble with this before I had kids. In general, though, I tell the kids that fuck is an adult word, and they can’t use it. (My son asked if he could use fuck when he is old enough to quit violin lessons. I said yes, although tentatively because I hate to have the day he can quit violin lessons be the marker of when the world gets great.)

No one had ever told me that my using the word fuck was offensive, so I never thought about it much. Until I met the farmer.

The farmer had never heard anyone use fuck in everyday conversation. I thought he was sheltered, so I basically ignored his request to stop saying fuck. But then, I was talking with the contractors who were working on our house, and I said fuck, and they nearly fell off their chairs.

“See,” the farmer said later, “I told you. People never say that word around here. They couldn’t believe you said it. Right there. In your very own kitchen.”

The thing is, I think fuck is like dick. And I never say the word dick. I mean, I can write it, but really, I can’t say it. And the farmer actually said to my kids, “Try peeing out of the hole in the barn. It’s fun. Just point your dick in the middle so the pee doesn’t bounce back at you.”

I said, “What? You cannot use the word dick with the kids!”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’s crass. And kids should learn the proper names for talking about their bodies.”

“Hold it. You are telling me that I’m crass?”

I knew he was talking about fuck. He just can’t say it. I thought about it. I said, “I think it’s just cultural, because, really, fuck is slang for something that is perfectly fine to say, and dick is the same way.”

So we agreed that he will use language that I think is crass, because I think it’s fun. And I will refrain from using fuck.

Then I came across some other information about swearing. There is research from Yehuda Baruch, professor of management at University of East Anglia that swearing at work helps build teamwork. And Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, finds that using taboo words is a good stress reliever. In his paper, Ubiquity and Utility of Taboo Words, surveys show that when we are upset, instead of restraining our language to vent, we actually do feel better when we swear.

(I told this to the farmer, and he made me realize that since I say fuck every day, I’d have to say something like god fucking dammit in order to release tension.)

William Safire helps me to understand that the farmer’s intolerance for fuck is not provincial. Well, maybe provincial, but also interesting.

The farmer also says things like “Whaddyou got goin?” as opposed to “What are you doing today?” And he uses double negatives like, “I’m not doin nothin about that,” which he did not start using until we had been dating a while, so clearly he knows when to shut it off. But I don’t like him shutting down his dialect.

It’s dialect, right? Or vernacular. I am not sure I know how to use either of these words, but I’m sure that it’s interesting to hear people use my language in new ways.

There is vernacular for photos, as well. My friends come to the farm and take pictures of cuteness, like the one at the top of this post from Caitlin.

But when the farmer takes pictures of pigs, he shows clinical details, that non-farmers don’t necessarily see.

I did not notice the difference in visual language until I started looking closely at photos for posting on my blog. But it was a pleasant surprise.

I told the farmer I was going to write this post. Mostly to give him warning that he was going to go nuts that I wrote a post with ten fucks in it. But I said, “I’m a little nervous about writing about William Safire,” which was also true.

The farmer said, “Why?”

I said, “He’s so old. I mean, he’s not old. He’s dead. And he’s really from an older era. I want people to think I’m young and fun.”

“What do you mean, young and fun?”

“I guess I mean fuckable.”

“What? Why do you have to use that word?”

“Because sometimes fuck is just the right word. Think about it. Tell me when you think of a word you can use to replace fuckable.”

And I think he’s still thinking.

118 replies
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  1. Casey
    Casey says:

    This post is exactly why I love to read your stuff. You take the judgment out of provocative topics so that the reader can just think about them without all the baggage that has attached itself to them.

    I also like that you’re not critical about how people use language. It makes it easier for someone like me, who is not a professional writer, to feel comfortable posting a comment.

    The second pig picture made me laugh because I saw it while I was pumping breastmilk at work and thought, “I’m sure glad I only have two breasts. I can’t imagine how difficult pumping would be with more than two”.

  2. Mary Budge
    Mary Budge says:

    All I can say is that I love swearing. I get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of it. I seem to be swearing more now that I am working from home by myself, maybe it is the freedom to let out a string of profanity without having to worry about offending anyone, I don’t know, but I love it!

    BTW – I reading the comments are often almost as good as your post!

  3. chris
    chris says:

    The other day I was crossing the street with my geriatric dog and two kids. A speeding BMW (I have a well-supported prejudice against BMWs) swerved around us without even slowing down and I reacted by throwing the bag of dog poop I was carrying at his car. He stopped, backed up, and started yelling at me. Until reading this post, I was proud of myself that I managed to reign in my F-bombs in my response to him. ‘Cause I figured throwing dog poop was better mommy-modeling than telling the guy that he almost fucking killed my kids and that if I ever saw him fucking speeding again I’d fucking kill him first.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Kudos to you Chris for picking up your dog’s poop.
      There’s a town ordinance in my town where dog owners are required to scoop up their dog’s poop. I’ve been in town meetings where this subject has been brought up and it has been written about in the town newsletter. Basically it’s ignored for the most part. So every time before I mow the lawn I’m out there near the edge of the road checking for any new poop, flicking it out into the street when I find it, and occasionally using the f word depending on my mood. Unfortunately I’m not around to catch the perpetrators. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to rant here about dog poop.

  4. Heather
    Heather says:

    I rarely use the word “Fuck”, principally because I’m saving it up for the really spectacularly bad moments – but screw an alternative word for “fuckable”, is there an equal alternative for a “cluster-fuck”?

  5. Thiago Martins
    Thiago Martins says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I am a big fan of you in Brazil. I really like the word “motherfucker”. It is amazing how it can describe all of my feelings in a certaing moment. I’ve been checking and it can be used in such different meanings. I am actually thinking about buying this book: The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words.

    However, there are some problems. I tend to use it close to my 10-year old cousin when we he is winning some soccer matches in playstation. He started asking what MF meant in Portuguese. I just answered: It means nice guy. However, because of Google he knows.
    The other risk is in my job, since I work to a British company. They certainlly would know what I mean.

    Have a nice day!


  6. Clarke Broome
    Clarke Broome says:

    It’s never appropriate to use the F-word.

    What is gained by it? Does it clarify communication? Does it uplift and encourage?

    Everytime I watch a movie and the word is used, I asked myself if there was any value at all in using the word. I don’t think so.

    Do we teach our children to use the word? In general, we think it’s best if they don’t.

    The odds of offending someone is pretty high. And for what benefit? There are certainly times when we mean to offend and we need to offend. But there are certainly better ways than throwing out profanities.

    And of course, there is the “harassment on the job” lawsuits that should keep us in check. Those cases where the environment is considered hostile because of the language an sexual nature of the word. Make using the word a habit and you may find yourself involved in a lawsuit you didn’t want. Wow, then you’d have reason to want to use the word.

    Sorry, I for one don’t appreciate the use of the word and think it would be best if we had some concerns for the folks around us.

  7. Anne Erasmus
    Anne Erasmus says:

    I swear often, regularly and consistently. My 19 year old started using swear words in regular conversation at the same time as his firends – many of whom have parents who have never been heard to say hell, never mind fuck. I did have to back pedal a little when my youngest – at the age of two – threw a puzzle she was struggling with into the air with an exasperated ‘for fuck’s sakes!’ Solution? Explaining that she was saying it wrong – it’s ‘four five six’! Now she’s old enough to know better, she knows she has to wait until she’s old enough to swear at her discretion. Billy Connolly has a wonderful take on swearing titled ‘A Wee Sweary’ that describes how his parents used to swear ‘in disguise’ – excellent! My husband – not a farmer – thinks I swear too much. He’s right, but I’ve yet to find an alternative that works – especially in the traffic! Here in South Africa, the Afrikaans version of some swear words are really quite expressive – ‘fok’ for example somehow just works better in certain circumstances! The Afrikaans word for shit is ‘kak’ – also very expressive. I don’t swear in front of my in-laws, clients or people I don’t know, but anywhere else, it’s a free-for-fucking-all!

  8. MH Williams
    MH Williams says:

    Jim- I described my school as Title 1 because that’s what it is. Our school is an Excelling school were we have few drop outs. 90% go on to Community College or University. Don’t know where you got that my kids are ignorant. I don’t believe I even said the word ignorant.. That’s your own interpretation.. Saying a word that is inappropriate sometimes is not necessarily bad..Nor, do I think its a poor reflection on me as a teacher. It shows I’m human as we all are.. I can think of many a parent who uses “that word” in every sentence does that mean they are bad parents?
    I will say that in the one instance I did say that word which I shared here was effective in that circumstance.
    Also, saying “that word” has nothing to do with understanding the curriculum, practicing that curriculum and teaching that curriculum in a way that all students will learn. I do that very, very well. We do have portfolio assessments in art in which my students have scored 96-100% consistently from year to year. Many of my students have gone on to extremely successful art careers. I do my job very well Jim, shame on you for inferring that I don’t, making a judgement based on a “word”, and makig a broad assumption on how I do my job.

    • Jim C.
      Jim C. says:

      Sorry, but it was a natural mistake. You were talking about potty-mouth children. You prefaced it with “I am an art teacher at a Title 1 public school,” rather than “I am an art teacher.” This implied that you believed there was a causal relationship between poverty and crudeness/filthy speech/bad upbringing. (After all, the kid used a curse on you, wishing you to be raped. That is what “Fuck you!” means, isn’t it?)

      • Jens Fiederer
        Jens Fiederer says:

        No, that it not what “fuck you” means. It generally means “I am angry at you” or “I dismiss your concerns.”

        “Fuck you” uses a word that etymologically was used to refer to intercourse. Even nowadays, “I would love to fuck you, my dear” or “I hope you get fucked hard in some alley just when you least expect it” are unambiguously sexually references. However, there is little more reason to associate “fuck you” with “i hope you get raped” than “I hope you are soon engaged in sweet, rapturous lovemaking.”

        When some dude says “It’s 7:45, my plane leaves at 8:00, and I haven’t reached the airport yet – I am truly fucked!” no sensible English speaker would conclude that the speaker is at that moment engaging in sexual intercourse, with or without his consent.

        When a word has multiple meanings, you have to use your head a little to choose the right one in your interpretation.

  9. sheltie mama
    sheltie mama says:

    When I hear someone repeatedly using the same curse word I think they are sloppy and undisciplined. To me, it says “I have developed the use of this word as a habit, I have no control over it, it just slips out.” Then you become someone that has to work to control the habit (i.e around the farmer or around kids). Supressing the habitual use of a word takes up mental resources that would be freed up by developing better habits. It’s like lying about something, once you lie about something then some amount of your current and future resources will always go towards the care and feeding of the lie.

  10. Mark E
    Mark E says:

    1. Fuck is appropriate in some contexts; inappropriate in others. In my case, I have a cousin who really hates swearing. I make a point not to swear around him, because it doesn’t help my communication.

    2. I swear too much. Now I have a boss that swears too much, and hearing him makes me think, “If I sound like that, I need to cut back.” So I am.

    3. Sometimes, “fuck” is just the right word. In a discussion with my boss (see above) and his admin, I pointed out: “If someone does something really fucking stupid, and you have to tell them they did something really fucking stupid, there really isn’t a better way to say it.”

    4. You are accomplishing your goal of being perceived as young, fun, and fuckable. Unfortunately, I did not start reading your blog until right after you started your relationship with the farmer. Otherwise, I would have made every effort to get a mention in a followup to this post:

    Keep the f-bombs coming.

  11. Veronica Ludwig
    Veronica Ludwig says:

    In 2007 I started working for myself as a recruiter after only a year and a half in the business. When people asked me what made me decide to go out on my own so quickly, my first reply was “because I wanted to be able to say ‘fuck’ whenever I want”. And that is partly true. I also use that word quite often. I love that word. In fact, I find myself wanted to use it during my presentations at events and conferences.

    I love this post from you. It made me think about how I use the word and how other people may react to it. This post has actually changed my opinion of using this word so often.

    This is why:

    Just because I’m successful and self employed I feel like it’s okay to step over other people’s lines because I make my own lines. But…when I’m working, there are other people involved. People that I’m trying to help through communication. Whether I’m presenting to a crowd of 300 or sitting with a job seeker one-on-one, I’m trying to convey a message. I’m not a mind reader, and not everyone is comfortable expressing their opinions of the use of certain types of language. The use of the word fuck during any form of verbal communication could in fact, be so distracting that my overall message could get completely lost. And I may never know it. And I just wasted my time and their time! Wow.

    I still love the word, and I’ll still use it often. But I will definitely be more aware of what situations I’m in before letting it fly out of my mouth in the future.

    Thank you for posting this!

  12. B
    B says:

    I love the word “dippable”, instead of fuckable. At a poker game, we recently discussed, “What percentage of the female American population is “dippable.”

    It’s cleaner and more visual.

  13. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    I think FUCK is now ingrained into our English vocab and our brains, it’s apart or all our lives and some times it just feels so good to say it when you need to : )

    But it’s foul hearing it too often, so choose the time to use it wisely.

  14. Storm
    Storm says:

    I use the word fuck in my writing because I write like I think/talk…and I think/talk pretty crass. I was raised hearing it and I came from a pretty hard core working poor background. It’s how everyone spoke. So, you know, fuck it.

  15. TwistedByKnaves
    TwistedByKnaves says:

    Great post.

    “Bluckalumph” works just fine in almost every situation.

    “Motherfucking cocksucker” covers the rest.

    Not sure what you mean by “fuckable”, or why you wouldn’t settle for “adorable”.

  16. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    I’m so repressed in my writing. I love to say fuck fuck fuckety fuck in life on special occasions but definitely not on my blog. One day I will though. I’m saving it for a very special occasion and when I unleash it that on my blog it will be fucking marvelous.

  17. Kim
    Kim says:

    I, too, cut my teeth on William Safire, trying to be “all that” by reading the New York Times right out of college (you beat me) and realizing that while I cared nothing about real estate or the stock market, I did care about language. I loved that he could write about it without sounding like an English teacher. And that maybe the same things bothered him that bothered me when reading poorly written letters (and now emails), articles, ads, whatever. But I also loved his anthropological way of looking at English and how it was evolving. A After all, isn’t that how it has become English, through all those invasions, be they Saxons or the Internet?

    A friend, another writer, actually broke up with a guy whose emails were riddled with bad grammar. Sadly, I can relate to her sensibility. The F bomb, however? Purge of the mind and magical, when used with flair. But I do agree with the farmer: you have to know your audience.

  18. Irina Issakova
    Irina Issakova says:

    I like this. This is very true:
    “I also learned from his column that it's interesting to watch language evolve, because language is the visible result of underlying changes in our society.”

    In fact, there are many Russians who’ve been in America for years without going back and you can hear it by their language. It’s stale.

  19. john b
    john b says:

    I feel the same about the word “cunt”. Calling a woman that is the worst thing you can say, imo.
    I do believe, however, that repetitious use of any word that offends makes it less offensive. My favorite is “Jesus Fucking Christ”. Don’t use it often, but it gets attention when i use it, no matter where i use it.
    One of my favorite words, that sounds nasty as hell, but isn’t is “sheboygan”. It just sounds like bodily fluids are involved.

  20. Page 48
    Page 48 says:

    Whether or not I sprinkle F-Bombs in my conversation is entirely dependent on whose company I’m in. Around family and relatives, it’s a no-go. On the golf course or at work, it’s a necessity until someone invents a better word.

    One of the funniest videos I’ve seen in some time is “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (fuck, I hope that link works). I can’t possibly be offended by something so awesome, but I wouldn’t show it to my Mom.

  21. MJ
    MJ says:

    Sorry – the day I quit violin lessons at age 16 was the day life got a lot better! I love to go to chamber music concerts, but I sure wasn’t working out as a musician (and the dead horse had been beaten enough by that point).

  22. Sonia W
    Sonia W says:

    It’s funny when I am around my friends and they use the F word so loosely, but in the work place its almost “taboo” for some! I say almost because I am lucky enough in my “day job” to work in an environment where saying Fuck is the “norm”. When I started I have to say I was taken back by how brutally honest everyone was, but in the end, I find working there enjoyable. People can be free with their thinking and really express themselves when we work on projects or just letting loose. Either way, I consider myself lucky!

    There is a place and time for everything and knowing when to say it and when not to is the real trick. Everyone should always be themselves and just let loose sometimes. You think “rich people” don’t say it? Please! I don’t have time to be proper or “BS” around, so if your going to be around me, you either better get use to it or “DEAL WITH IT”.

  23. Brad
    Brad says:

    Hey great article. I think that “F” word don’t have any chance to be okay. I never use that word ever since, even how angry and disappointed I am.

  24. Oscar Baltazar
    Oscar Baltazar says:

    Hilarious, Interesting, and Educational. I do learn something every time I read your posts. Even if it’s aboyt the F-word. Thank you.

  25. justamouse
    justamouse says:

    HA! it’s the NYer in you that says fuck like tweens say like. When my friends from Westchester come out the fucks fly all over. And I hate the language police, so I’m so happy you posted about William Safire. I think there is nothing more pretentious than correcting someone’s dialect. My husband -a Staten Island Italian-uses double negatives when he’s pissed beyond words-other wise they never slip out. “Don’t do dat no more.”

  26. Edith
    Edith says:

    Love your blog! My daughter-in-law turned me on to you as an example of a good blog when I told my kids I started a blog.
    I grew up in a family where calling someone “stupid” was considered bad. We got spanked for “saying bad words.” I got into a fight in school and was shaking with anger, and only felt better when I managed to sputter “You, you Hunchback of Notre Dame,” sure that my adversary would have no clue what that really meant and would react to the tone. I also managed to make my sister cry by calling her the name of a magazine cover girl – it was foreign-sounding and again said in a very insulting tone. (Of course, you can’t do that do adults.) As soon as I got away from my parent’s sphere of influence, I went into a phase where I cussed at every turn just for the fun of it.

  27. Farmer Vincent
    Farmer Vincent says:

    A word is just a word is just a word. But some words pick up meaning over the years. Fuck is one of those words. While you might argue that it just means having sex, there is ugly sex (aka, sex without love, or even debased sex) and meaningful sex. Fuck rarely is attributed to the latter. In fact, the reason is raises eyebrows is becomes it references the former. It has shock value. Much like rape. Think about it. Which word/phrase would seem more appropriate to describe the act of sex in rape? “Sex”, “Make love”, or “Fuck”. Fuck has the connotation of being an empty and meaningless act of using another human being for the sole purpose of getting off. I won’t get into whether it’s right or wrong, but in most eyes, it’s ugly. And to want to describe yourself as “Fuckable” is, well, sad.

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