Friday, November 26, 2010


Evolution has unpredictable effects on words, sending them into an upward spiral of choice or a downward spiral of outright neglect.

At one point in the not-too-recent past, the word gross meant primarily the large amount of something, its second meaning tipping particularly in adverbial form toward something meaning patently evident, as grossly unfair.  With the passage of time, the lesser usage, patently or inexcusably awful took prominence to the point where the single word, gross, formed a summary judgement on persons, places, things.

As such things evolve, the word fuck has morphed from a disrespectful and utilitarian way of looking at love making into a curse that carries with it increased degrees of malevolence from the cursor to the cursed.  It may also mean affection by irony, in that one urging it on another is not upset with or bears any ill will toward him or her to whom the suggestion is addressed.  It may be used for something as simple as a disagreement about which among a series of choices is ventured, as in "Let's take in a flick."

The word also has come to mean a state somewhere in between bewilderment and a recognition of utter, catastrophic chaos, as in we're fucked or how the fuck should I know?  Although it still has a sexual connotation, the word, alone and unto itself or as a part of an epithet, has suffered a kind of rhetorical deflation where it is applied as an adjective to even the most innocuous appliance or event.  Pass the fucking butter.  Let's watch the fucking "Law and Order."

Describing a thing as no fucking good comes forth still as not particularly polite, received standard American English, nor does it convey more than mild annoyance unless delivered with suitable body English and timbre to express greater degrees of malevolent intent.  That is no fucking way to read a book, or That is no fucking way to write a book, both of which are surely negative in their intent are nonetheless only a degree or two under mild disapproval.

You remember the first time you saw the word used in what you will describe as a major publishing house book, The Farmer's Hotel, a short novel written by John O'Hara, published by Random House.  There it was, the elephant in the living room now given recognition to the point where it would be no surprise to see the word appear in any given issue of The New Yorker magazine or such literary journals in the U.S. as The Georgia Review, The Sewanee Review, Tin House.

In some cases, you have used the word in classrooms and have heard students use it in their fiction.  You have urged friends to join you in getting the fuck out of a particular venue, comfortable in the assumption that your intent was merely a mild irritation with a current situation or place.  In one lecture, you discoursed on the affinity of fuck for prepositions, thus fuck around, fuck over, fuck with, fuck about, out, and perhaps even aside.

At one point, it was gross to go on about the variations on a theme of fuck.  Norman Mailer attempted to use it in his breakthrough novel, The Naked and the Dead, but ultimately rendered it as fug, whether on his own plan or under pressure from his publisher.  This produced one of those glorious moments in which Mailer met for the first time the remarkable writer, Dorothy Parker, to whom the word and its multifarious meanings were no mystery. "Ah,"  she said upon the introduction, "You're that young man who can't spell fuck." Many of us, you included, think of this story when we think of Norman Mailer--not at all what he would have wished, to be sure.

In some social and professional landscapes, it is still gross to speak of it, leaving us to wonder aloud what those individuals use at moments of being sorely vexed or apparently.  Oh, dear, simply won't do it.  Probably because it is too fucking lame.

Gross, you say.


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