An unspeakable word gets around -- at least euphemistically


April 25, 2004|By Lynn Smith | Lynn Smith,Los Angeles Times

Get Folked" reads the billboard for Showtime's Queer as Folk. "I'm so effing hungry," sighs the busy job hunter on NBC's Starting Over.

"Imagine," says the movie poster for 50 First Dates, "having to win over the girl of your dreams ... every friggin' day."

With cable television liberally salting shows with the four-letter word that starts with F and government regulators effectively banning the same word from broadcast airwaves, a new middle ground has opened where euphemistic substitutes for the term flourish. In fact, popular culture in general is taking a shine to the sound-alike cousins of the expletive, which are popping up in ads and offices, on playgrounds and at home.

Unlike your grandparents' "fudge" and "phooey," the new euphemisms clearly represent the common vulgarity they replace. "The word itself is taboo, yet you can refer to it in hundreds of ways so that even children get an idea of what you're talking about," says writer-director Steve Anderson, whose latest project is a film about the word.

Even toddlers are picking up the lingo. "A woman told me her 2-year-old told her to 'Shut the frickin' door,' " said Timothy Jay, author of Cursing in America.

After a few decades in which once obscene or profane exclamations have seeped into the common vernacular, euphemisms open the door for some safe cursing.

"We're in a climate where people are calling cursing into question and want to use this kind of substitute," says Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

In some places -- corporate offices or a family reunion, for instance -- even the euphemisms for the vulgar term won't fly. Dorothea Johnson, founder and director of the Protocol School of Washington, says her granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler, is careful around her. "I have heard her use 'freaking.' She was talking to someone else, but she knew I was around. She turned and apologized," she says.

Corporations such as Boeing and IMG, eager to clean up the language of their younger employees, have hired the school's graduates as consultants. Picking up on the trend, Esquire magazine this month offers a guide to "working clean." Instead of "What the [expletive]?" it suggests "What the stink?"

Euphemisms for the word, of course, are nothing new. They go back as far as the obscenity itself, at least to the 17th century and possibly before, says Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F Word (Random House, 1995).

Some oddball substitutes for it have developed over the centuries, he says. " 'Fork you,' that's not very common, and 'firk.' "

In the middle of last century, writers tried with varying degrees of success to bring the word to their pages.

"In his 1948 book The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer was forced by his publisher to use 'fug,' " Sheidlower says. "There's a famous story told about Dorothy Parker who, when she met him, said, 'Oh, so you're the young man who can't spell f---.' "

Among Mormon students at Brigham Young, "fetch" is one substitute for the curse word, but not as popular as "flippin', freakin' and freak," says Kay Ushijima, a BYU student preparing a senior thesis on the topic.

In the world of entertainment, euphemisms can be part of the cat-and-mouse game played by writers and in-house censors. Some networks have multipage lists of substitutes directors can use when they dub their movies for broadcast on television. But lately, some writers have taken to using "fake euphemisms" -- words that no one actually uses but sound like they could be obscene, linguists say.

Euphemisms for the forbidden word are counted by media analysts at the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that publishes reports on TV sex, violence and foul language. Among the 500 pages of examples, the more creative include a Scrubs episode in which Dr. Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke) exclaims: "Frick! Double frick!" and a Dharma and Greg show where Dharma says of Greg's dad, "Oh, he's definitely flinking somebody."

"These euphemisms, especially in the public context, are more humorous now than strictly euphemistic," Sheidlower says.

Other writers, however, shun such efforts as false and way too mild for certain characters, especially cops. "No one says 'friggin' in real life," says Nicholas Wootton, executive producer and co-head writer for NYPD Blue, a show known for its envelope-pushing curses and euphemisms.

In real life, the problem with euphemisms is that they don't provide psychological release, Jay says. While out-of-control road rage isn't healthy, cursing can be a helpful coping mechanism to let off steam, he says.

It takes the genuine article, he says, to "get the point across much faster and clearer."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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