The Pulse: The word that's bleeping everywhere
The publisher of a novel I've written for release in 2014 called me in a quandary 10 days ago. He wanted to talk out whether the F-bomb should appear on the jacket flap. Ever since, I've been living with a heightened awareness of where I hear and see it.
New England quarterback Tom Brady dropped it last week. A CNN anchor did likewise recently. The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) printed it on its cover. And, according to the hottest political book in the country, the Obama administration uses it like "please" and "thank you."
The word is so ubiquitous that it has lost its sting.
Brady barked it at a referee while running off the gridiron after a 24-20 Patriots loss to the Panthers on Monday Night Football. A day later, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said it was investigating the propriety of a license plate on a Jeep that says "F RG3." Mitigating against any other interpretation is a Dallas Cowboys helmet on the rear of the same SUV.
CNN's John Berman was caught saying it while coming back from a commercial break. To his credit, he and his coanchor just rolled into the next story with no hint of what had happened. When he later tweeted an apology, he made reference to Big Papi, the Red Sox's David Ortiz, who uttered the word to a packed Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombing last spring. (Perhaps Ortiz was channeling Chase Utley, who used it during the World Series victory parade in 2008.)
So much have things changed with regard to the word that the Federal Communications Commission, once notorious for fining radio stations that carried Howard Stern, gave Big Papi a pass. Then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski tweeted at the time: "David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today's Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston - Julius."
CJR, arguably the most influential media publication in the country, asked in a September-October cover story, "What Is Journalism For?" It featured responses from dozens of journalists. The cover is composed of short, handwritten responses, including, "Not F-ing Rocket Science." Complaints quickly inundated the editor, including questions as to whether CJR can be placed on a living-room coffee table or bedside stand.
Well, if it's the latter, it'd be in good company next to Double Down, the sequel to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's bestseller, Game Change. Their chronicling of the 2012 presidential election is littered with the word's usage in the upper levels of government. David Plouffe drops the bomb in the midst of debate prep after President Obama's poor showing in Denver. Chief of staff Bill Daley uses it in reference to having a beer the night of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama himself uses it to emphasize his displeasure after a meeting with George Soros.
Former press secretary Robert Gibbs, nervously anticipating the release of Jodi Kantor's book about the Obamas, rattles it off six times in a one-paragraph rant. Not to be left out, Vice President Biden, at a weekly lunch with the president in 2011, uses it after Obama tells him he's surprised "we've become friends."
And that's just in the first 50 pages!
Use of the word is perhaps the only nonpartisan thing left in Washington. Time magazine reported that, before the Iraq invasion, President George W. Bush was heard to use it in reference to Saddam Hussein. Two years later, Vice President Dick Cheney famously dropped it in an encounter with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) on the Senate floor.
When I asked Heilemann whether the word has lost its sting, he told me he himself can sound like a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
"The truth is, in the realm of politics, among candidates, among staffers, it is just another piece of English," he said. "No one thinks of it as profanity, but it's really just another emphasis word, as Donald Trump would put it."
Jesse Sheidlower is president of the American Dialect Society and author of The F-Word, a detailed history of the term. He told me the mainstream use of the word has accelerated because open discussions of sexual matters are no longer as taboo as they once were. Thus everything connected to this, including nonsexual uses of sexual terms, becomes increasingly acceptable.
"I haven't read Double Down, but vulgar language has always been part of political discourse," he said. "It's just that now, politicians are always miked, and reporters or writers feel that they can openly quote this kind of language."
Sheidlower sees both World Wars as important to the history of this language for several reasons.
"You have people thrown together from many different cultures or parts of society, so that uses that were once restricted to one group can spread to others," he said. "More important, you have a military culture where certain behaviors, such as aggressiveness, sexual bragging, and hostility, are condoned if not encouraged."
While the use is now common, Sheidlower sees no word on the horizon to replace it, largely because other offensive words lack its flexibility.
My publisher and I compromised. We left it off the jacket flap. But we make up for it inside the cover.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.