In a word

When “Not Fucking Rocket Science” ended up on the “Journalism Is . . .” cover of CJR (September/October 2013), letters flew in from people who were aghast.

What is it about newspaper people and that word? One of the courses I delight in teaching is “Dirty Words,” a title we settled on when it became apparent the word fuck was just too hot for the catalogue. But fuck is at the heart of it.

By many measures, this is one of our most frequently used words, which is a tribute to its power because it has little or no sexual meaning in most modern usage. Despite debates across the universe of lexicography, no one can say for certain where fuck came from. That has not stopped people from inventing an origin. A favorite is “fornication under consent of the king,” which is wrong. Fuck is not an acronym.

One guess is it made its way from German. It was clearly controversial because it was not included in Samuel Johnson’s 1798 dictionary. Noah Webster excluded it from his dictionaries in 1806, 1807, 1817, 1828, and 1841, according to Christopher M. Fairman, the Ohio State professor who wrote Fuck: Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties, which is one of the texts for my course.

Fairman notes some scholars reach back to the 23rd Egyptian dynasty, when legal documents were “reinforced” with a three-level curse: “May you get fucked by a donkey. May your wife get fucked by a donkey. May your child fuck your wife.”

While interesting, this is not conclusive.

Fairman notes the first printed use of fuck may have been in a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in 1846 on a case involving a slander of carnal knowledge of a mare. “The unglamorous truth is that fuck trickled into the English language just like the rest of our vocabulary,” Fairman writes.

So it is a word with hidden roots. No surprise, because it has generally lost its meaning, too. Fuck was all about sex a long time ago, when D. H. Lawrence used it in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, causing a flap that lasted decades. Chatterly was published in 1928 in Florence and it didn’t hit the market in England until 1960, when Penguin defeated an obscenity charge. It was published by Grove Press in 1959 in the United States, scooped up by the US Post Office, then released when courts ruled it was not obscene.

Fairman argues that the meaning may have slipped from the word, but the taboo has not. This helps explain why people reacted the way they did to CJR’s cover.

If you plug the word into Google’s Ngram viewer, which measures usage of specific words in publishing over time, you will note right away that fuck creeps into the lexicon in the late 1950s, explodes about the time of the free-speech movement, and has rocketed in usage since.

Surprising, then, that it took so long to make CJR’s cover.

Although newspapers have been the frequent targets of critics who say they are too liberal, in this area, they are not. Fuck has popped up in The Washington Post and newsmagazines on occasion. But it is not common in the daily press, even though it is exceedingly common in daily life.

That’s all about risks in an era of declining circulation and revenues, I would argue. And it didn’t take fucking rocket science to figure that out.

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Charles M. Madigan is Presidential Writer in Residence at Roosevelt University. He worked for wire services and newspapers for forty years, the Tribune among them. Among his books is 30: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper.