Last week a friend posted a Gawker video of consummate New York actress Elaine Stritch saying “fuck” while on the Today show to promote Shoot Me, the new documentary about her life.

I actually don’t understand why hosts Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford were so surprised, except to fain chagrin for anyone in the home audience who was offended by it. But I suspect most people would have been more surprised if Stritch had not said “fuck.” She has built a long career on being herself—a crusty New York broad who speaks her mind with unapologetic gusto and humor—and everyone knows it.

My comment on my friend’s post? “Everyone should say ‘fuck’ on the Today show.”

George Carlin on Fuck:
Champion of Dirty Words
Seven Dirty Words
Multiple uses of the word “fuck”

After nearly a quarter century in New York, I am no longer aware of or amused by how comfortable I have become with hearing the word “fuck” from everyone around me, or, quite frankly, even myself. It’s not that I was ever a prude about it or annoyed by others. The word was just never as commonplace anywhere else I’ve lived as it is here in New York. Despite that the word is used heavily in films and music today, New York has always been way ahead of everyone on applying it. New Yorkers are known for using the word as every part of speech (transitive verb, adjective, adverb, personal pronoun) and for any kind of occasion (happy, sad, angry, pleased) that George Carlin enumerated in his early standup routines. (If you don’t know the routines, and you enjoy some goodhearted bawdy humor, you’re in for a treat at the links at right.)

Of course the word “fuck” still isn’t acceptable on network television, even in New York. One of my all-time favorite local newscasters (and quintessential New Yorkers), former WNBC anchor Sue Simmons, used the word accidentally on air in 2008, thinking the brief “news-at-eleven” teaser she and coanchor Chuck Scarborough were flubbing was only a practice run.

It was not, however. It was actually live in primetime.

Bob and I, who were tuned to the station at the time, hit rewind to confirm what we couldn’t believe we’d heard, and then promptly hit rewind several more times just to laugh some more.

We of course loved it. Unfortunately, others must not have. Despite her long-time popularity as the straight-shooting, sassy counterpart to Scarborough’s straight-laced traditional anchor, her career never quite seemed to recover from that one slip of the tongue and she retired a few years later.

But Simmons, Carlin, and Stritch’s edgy urban upbringings were not my own. And growing up with six sisters in the Midwest of the 1960s, followed by thirteen years in a Catholic religious order, the most common exclamations that I heard were more like “dang-burn,” “crap and corruption,” or “gee-whiz.” The strongest curse was “shit.”

As a child, I only heard real “dirty” words outside of my home, and rarely. At my grade school, I was less intrigued by the words as I was scared of the kind of kids that used them, so I didn’t often hang around long enough to learn their meaning. I’d usually come home and ask my mother what a particular dirty word meant. From what she told me, they all meant the same thing. No matter what word I brought home, it always meant “dog poop.”

“Mom, what ‘crap’ mean?”

“Dog poop,” she’d reply.

“What does ‘dick’ mean?”

“Dog poop.”

“What’s ‘twat’ mean?”

“Dog poop!”

The day I asked, “what’s ‘fuck’ mean?” she replied once again, though cautiously, “dog poop,” adding “but, it’s not a very nice word, so don’t use it.”

The irony was that I was the kind of kid whose sneaker seemed always to find the shit in the yard, on the sidewalk, the driveway or the playground. My shoes were actual dog poop magnets.

Had my mother not warned me, I could have easily gone around the schoolyard saying, “look, I stepped in some fuck,” giving responses like “what the fuck?” and “get the fuck out of hear” different meanings, possibly leading to a prolonged, expletive-laden version of “whose on first?” —something my redneck, rural grade school classmates would not have suffered humorously.

Of course, as a teenager, I heard the word plenty in my all-boy’s high school, though at first, I secretly felt like a stranger to that all-boy’s world. I tried to act quietly cool and unfazed by the word, concealing that it was totally unfamiliar to me. But it was indeed strange, as strange as the first time a classmate from a family without sisters told me that his brothers and his dad walked around the house in their underwear. That was completely beyond my comprehension and imagination. My sisters didn’t leave the bathroom or bedroom without their floor-length nightgowns and robes buttoned all the way up to their sponge curlers. When I first grew armpit hair and wore a tank-top, my sisters protested, demanding my mother make me put on long sleeves or shave my pits. The thought of anyone in our family walking around in our underwear was disturbing. And, the thought of anyone in my family using any curse stronger than “daggummit” was just as unimaginable.

In more recent years, I’ve notice a lot of Midwestern people who would never say the word “fuck” using the word “friggin’.” It’s mostly women, church goers, soccer moms, the kind of women I work with in school offices, Bob’s sisters and mine. I want to say, “You know, everyone knows you mean ‘fuck.’ You’re not fooling anyone. You really want to say ‘fucking.’ It’s like saying ‘Jesus H. Christ.’ We know you don’t mean someone else.” I figure, use the word or don’t. But don’t just pretend your not.

That was the tactic I was already beginning to take by the time I was a young Jesuit seminarian teaching art at an all-boys high school in St. Louis. By then, I was a little more experienced with the word “fuck” and not as concerned with my own or anyone else’s reaction to it. However, school rules forbad students from using any kind of foul language, and as a teacher, I was expected to give demerits (five would earn a detention) to students who did so.

Remember, this was not New York. This wasn’t even Detroit. It was a Catholic prep school West of the Mississippi in the 1980s and, at least at that time, you could attempt to police the students’ language. I hated the idea of doing so, but it was required, so I found a way to amuse myself and defuse the situation.

One wouldn’t usually hear a student use a word like “fuck” in the classroom. Most often, it was said in the halls, cafeteria, or other common areas where the students lost track of the possibility of teachers being within earshot.

The student would most often yell a word like “fuck” in the midst of their normal cacophony, which would come to an abrupt silence, the eyes of his classmates directing the cursing student toward the teacher standing behind him.

I almost never had to ask the student for his demerit card in such situations. His eyes would shut tight, frustrated with himself, as his hand automatically went to his back pocket for his wallet, producing that little yellow card that all students were required to carry at all times and surrender to a faculty member or administrator immediately upon request.

“Now, why did you say, ‘fuck’?” I would ask.

If the student or his classmates had never witnessed my line of questioning before, they would usually be surprised by it. No other faculty members handled the curse-word issue this way. Most would act angry or disgusted, rip the demerit card from the students fingers, scribble little “x”s on it, and toss it back at him without a word. But I just couldn’t muster the drama, and frankly found it ineffective and silly.

“Why did you say, ‘fuck,’ Mr. Connolly?” I would usually have to ask a second time, with a calm smile.

“Oh, um,” the student would stutter something like, “my locker was stuck shut.”

“Now, wait,” I would respond professorially, “a stuck locker isn’t a ‘fuck.’ A stuck locker is an ‘oh, shoot,’ at best. Save ‘fuck’ for when something really serious happens, like a truck runs over your foot. Or you get expelled.”

Whether or not I scribbled a little demerit check on the card didn’t much matter at that point. The student usually stared, dumbfounded, either at the fact that I was using the very word repeatedly, or because he was trying to grasp the strange logic of my instructions. I’d usually slip the card back between the student’s stunned finger and thumb, still frozen in the gesture they were in when he handed it to me. Most often, I wouldn’t add a demerit, as the whole instructional scenario seemed sufficient, and I’d send them all off with a gentle, “Now…get the heck out of here.”

I rarely got much of a laugh from any of them. Fourteen-year-old boys often don’t comprehend a grownup’s humor, especially when it’s incongruous to context. I really said and did stuff like that to entertain myself when I was teaching, and if I was lucky, to get a befuddled puppy-dog turn of the head from students.

One time, a tall gangly freshman went to the painting supply cupboard for gesso, that thick white acrylic paste that artists layer onto raw canvas to create their painting surface. In liquid form it’s as viscous and white as primer paint and often comes in gallon jars with wide-mouth screw lids, the size of restaurant-supply mayonnaise jugs.

The student moved carefully across the art classroom holding the full gallon container by its lid, which of course was not screwed on tightly. And so, just as he reached the very center of the classroom, the jar slipped from the lid and hit the floor splattering its entire contents ten feet in all directions, and up the student’s pant legs and all over his shoes.


The student shouted automatically, his eyes squeezed shut, the dripping lid still clutched in his finger tips.

Every eye in the classroom darted in unison from him, to the floor, and then to me to see my reaction to both the mess and his exclamation.

I paused, raised a finger, and said carefully, “That—was a ‘fuck.'”

As the students exhaled and snickered, I sent one to get the garbage can and one for the mop, and told the gesso-coated student to stand very still so as not to track the, um, gesso everywhere.

You know I wanted to say “fucking gesso.” I know I did.

But I didn’t.

One must be careful with fourteen-year-old boys. They are all “1s” and “0s,” either “on” or “off.” No gray areas or in-betweens. Had I said the word just one time more than what I needed to make my point, there would have been no way to close and latch that hog pen again.

The point I was trying to make to them, and that I often need to remind myself today, is not only that there are appropriate times to use the word, but also, that there is more appropriate or evocative language for just about everything. There are times when it would be more accurate to say, “he is the rudest, most ignorant man who ever walked the face of the earth,” or “that hurt worse than giving birth to ten-pound quintuplets without an episiotomy,” or “I am so deliriously happy right now.”

Then again, there are moments that deserve a simple, solid, unadorned, unselfconscious “fuck.”

3 thoughts on “f*ck”

  1. Jim – you had me laughing to the point of tears over my morning coffee, The word has lost lot of it's power due to overuse, but you're right, sometimes it just is absolutely the correct verbal response to a situation.

    I remember the first time I used it in the uncontrolled rage way…I had spent a morning in the house on my own sewing a shirt for my Ken doll. Trying to pull it on over his outstretched muscle-bound arms I realised that the only way to get him to model it involved removing his head and arms and re-installing them onto his dismembered torso by inserting them into the various arms and neck holes. Unfortunately my loud f word expletive was heard by one of my disapproving sisters as she arrived home. Oops.


  2. Mary, I can actually visualize your attempt to force the homemade shirt on the Ken doll and it makes me giggle. My sisters would sew outfits for their Barbies that posed the same kind of problems. They basically were sleevless tube dresses because that's all you could get wrestle onto the dolls.


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