The F Word

Some time ago a friend gave me The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower.  Published by the Oxford University Press, of all places, the book is both a history of the Queen Mother of Curses and a dictionary of its many uses.  It’s a fascinating read.

IMG_3084The origin of the f word is muddled by urban legend.  It’s not an acronym (sorry, Van Halen!) nor does it have anything to do with the French taunting English archers by encouraging them to pluck their yew bows.  Instead, the word is related to terms found in German, Dutch, Swedish, and Flemish with meanings like “to strike,” to “move back and forth,” and “to cheat.”  Although the precise source of the word is shrouded in the mists of time, it entered the English language (pun intended) in the fifteenth century.  It immediately became taboo — and also replaced the Middle English vulgarity for sexual intercourse, which was “swive.”  Powerless against the curtness and bluntness of the f word, “swive” fell into total disuse.  The f word went on to become the most obscene word in the English language, banned during the Victorian era and the most reviled of the “seven dirty words” George Carlin addressed.  Recently, as barriers to indecent speech have fallen and even Vice Presidents have lapsed into regrettable coarseness when congratulating Presidents, the use of the word in American society has become much more common.

The F Word provides an exhaustive listing of the many different uses of the f word.  As someone who tries to avoid casual obscenity — and fails utterly when referees make a bad call against my team in a big game — I was amazed by the broad utility of the word.  In addition to adding emphasis by being dropped, in its gerund form, into various parts of sentences (consider the different meanings conveyed by the question “When are you going to move your car?” if the f word is placed before “when,” “going,” “move,” and “car”) the word has been used to convey hundreds of different connotations, always with that shocking edge.

As the dictionary component of The F Word demonstrates, the versatility of this vulgar word is astonishing.  How many other words have been combined with “bum” to refer to a remote location, “cluster” to denote a disorganized mess, “flying” to signify a minimal amount, “holy” to indicate surprise, and “off” to tell someone to get away?  And, of course, those are only a few of the inventive applications of this powerful word.

The F Word is worth reading.  Just be sure to keep it away from your teenagers.

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The Best American Band: Poll Results

It’s time to declare winners in our “best American rock ‘n’ roll band” poll, and it ends in a three-way tie between Aerosmith, the Beach Boys, and the Doors.  Other bands receiving votes were the Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Van Halen.

In terms of hits on the blog, the most popular best American band posts have been, in descending order, Steely Dan, Pearl Jam, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, the Allman Brothers, the Doors, Rage Against the Machine, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the White Stripes, and R.E.M.

Thanks to everyone for voting on this crucial cultural question!

The Best American Band: Time To Vote!

We’ve published a number of posts with our thoughts on the Best American Band, and we’ve given everyone time to think about that extraordinarily weighty issue. Now, it’s time for you to vote. We’ll check back in a week and declare a winner. Please, vote for just one of the candidates.

The Best American Band: Van Halen

Van Halen

Van Halen

Ah, Van Halen. The heavy metal, power guitar chords. The guitar stud and the strutting lead singer. The songs about sex, and sex, and sex. The personality conflicts and break-ups. The hair! Van Halen helped to define both the sound and the look of the ’80s American heavy metal band. Is there any doubt that This Is Spinal Tap made more than a nod or two in the direction of Van Halen, circa 1984?

Still, the now somewhat stereotypical nature of the Van Halen act shouldn’t detract from the classic nature of the Van Halen music. Eddie Van Halen was an exceptionally good, creative guitarist, and the rhythm section kept the beat moving. I was less impressed with David Lee Roth — his squawks and squeals wore thin on me, which is why I wasn’t heartbroken when he left the band and was replaced by Sammy Hagar — but the band unquestionably produced some classic, definitive rock ‘n’ roll. Their songs focused with laser-like precision on the musical tastes and sensibilities of adolescent males, with heavy and catchy guitar riffs and lyrics about sex and girls and ne’er-do-wells, usually with a dose of humor added. Songs like Hot for Teacher, Black and Blue, Beautiful Girls and Finish What Ya Started can trace their roots back to the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and songs like Chuck Berry’s Maybelline and Reelin’ and Rockin’.

Van Halen is well represented on the Ipod, which includes Eruption, Finish What Ya Started, Jump, Panama, Hot for Teacher, Black and Blue, Beautiful Girls, Best of Both Worlds, Runnin’ With the Devil, and Everybody Wants Some, among others. Any band that can produce that body of work, and at the same time help to create an entire genre of music, merits serious consideration.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!