At a 2010 White House signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act, Vice President Joe Biden, as he introduced and embraced President Obama at the podium, said in his ear, "This is a big fucking deal."
He must have forgotten that his microphone was on, or that it was there in the first place. But who cares? He said more in those three words that he did in the 700-word speech he’d just given.
Of course, it caused a stir. "Fuck" and anything in the "fuck" family usually does. It shouldn’t. It’s just a word. Its strength, though, is undeniable, and the power that surrounds it is perplexing and if anything, a little absurd.
Famed scientist and writer Steven Pinker wrote a piece titled "What the F***?" (A perfectly reasonable question.) "When used judiciously," he wrote, "swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable."
He goes on, "It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, 'You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse.'"
According to Jonathon Green, author of Green's Dictionary of Slang, the etymology of the word is not completely clear. A common misconception is that it's an acronym for "fornication under consent of the king." But in reality, it is probably cognate with Dutch fokken meaning to mock (15th century), to strike (1591), to fool, gull (1623), to beget children (1637), to have sexual intercourse with (1657), to grow, cultivate (1772); the Norwegian regional fukka and Swedish regional fokka both mean to copulate (compare Swedish regional fock for penis). As for "fuck" simply referring to sexual intercourse, Green found about 30 citations in print that pre-date 1900.
Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word and president of the American Dialect Society, said that most of the common usage is extremely recent, starting in the late 19th century. Although the word is etymologically sexual, the majority of its use today is not.
"Why do we love it?" Green pondered. "Because, perhaps, of what it describes. Slang has come up with 1750 synonyms. There will be more."
The word "fuck" is dynamic, fabulous, and unique. It has conviction and communicates authority. Perhaps its most impressive quality is its versatility. It can be a noun (even a holy one, or a flying one), an adjective ("I’m fucked"), an adverb ("I’m fucking hungry"), a transitive verb ("She fucked him"), an intransitive verb ("He got fucked"), or just as an expression:
"Fuck." "Fuck it." "Fuck this." "Fuck you." "Fuck off." "Fuckin' A."
It can also be conveniently in-fucking-serted into words and not only produce a legitimate result, but also a better one. It’s a linguistic phenomenon, really.
The word has such a range of offshoots that the variations alone can nearly compose a full sentence.
And there seems to be no end in sight to the creative variations stemming from the F-bomb. "Oh, thank fuck," my friend said the other day. My colleague Chris Miles frequently asks me, "What in the actual fuck?" In Amy Winehouse’s song "Me and Mr. Jones," she sings, "What kind of fuckery is this?"
Green said, "I have 165 variations on the theme, including compounds, derivatives, phrases and exclamations, from ass-fucker to zybo-fucker." He said of these, "fuck" as a noun (unadorned) has 60 senses and subsenses; "fuck" as a verb has 76; "fucked," 21; "fucked up," 11; "fucker," 10; "fucking" as an adjective, nine; "fuck off" as a verb, 11; and "fuck up" as a verb, 11.
But beyond the linguistic and cultural aspects, what is the science behind it?
In 2009, researchers found that swearing helps pain. "How swearing achieves its physical effects is unclear, but the researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved." Regular language relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas swear words come from evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half. "One such structure is the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain."
Pinker also ventures into the mammalian brain — both ancient and modern — to examine the sections that regulate motivation, emotion, perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. He found that a certain section of the brain lights up when a person sees a taboo word.
On actual legal status, Green said, "It was included by the FCC among the 13 words officially considered 'obscene' and not permitted on U.S. airwaves. The BBC, surprise surprise, was definitely not using it back in the day, and may well still steer clear. Newspapers seem anomalous. The UK broadsheets will use it, at least in context and quotes, while the tabloids play prude."
"Where the internet stands," he said, "fuck knows."