Calling Dr. Roget
A very short essay on a very short word.
I’m tired of saying it. I’m tired of seeing it. I’m tired of typing it.
F#@! that is.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. People who work in professions with a 98% unemployment rate shouldn’t throw tantrums.
I do, so I don’t.
I’m an actor. I kill people (or make them wish I had) pretty often in movies and sometimes on TV. My face plays menacing on camera, so I play menacing onscreen. A good gig. Other people write words. I say them. There are bagels. It’s nice.
A well-written script is a sacred thing. The writer has presumably given birth to, and then killed, his darlings in painful edits. She has lost sleep over each word choice. My job is to make their choices work.
But these F#@!s. These profligate F#@!s. These proliferating F#@!s. They task me. Are they a choice? All of them? What is the intention behind their ubiquitous repetition in written dialogue? To make the character especially badass? Or especially conformist? (if one character speaks this way, usually everyone else in the movie does too.)
As a modifier, I mean. Lord knows I’ve no objection to F#@! as a verb or as an exclamation. It has that satisfying hard “k” sound. God bless F#@! when it lives where it belongs, coiled up behind the teeth, waiting for the moment of truest need to ride out into the world on the breath of an unrepentant sinner, preferably within earshot of the Decency League’s quarterly meeting. Spoken so, F#@!s is a right proper joy. As the humorist Lewis Grizzard said, speaking of the Southern pronunciation of ‘naked,’ “It just feels good to say it.” When Twain wrote “Under certain desperate and trying circumstances, profanity offers a relief denied even to prayer” he surely had F#@! in mind. Hammer on the thumb? Ghost in the machine? Endocrine rush? Reach for F#@! and know sweet sweaty satisfaction.
As a modifier F#@! is a frayed and shoddy thing. It’s the wasted prom date who throws up on you in the car. It’s milk gone sour. It’s cable news. The dark circles around F#@!s eyes are a cry for help. Let the poor thing rest.
On set, F#@! is an orphan. Nobody fights for it. On the over 100 film sets I’ve worked on, never has a director, faced with shooting a scripted speech like…
“What the F#@! do you mean you’re F#@!ing walking? Listen motherF#@!er nobody walks away from this F#@!ing sh_t, nobody! Now shut the F#@! up and sit the F#@! down before I F#@! you up beyond your wildest F#@!ing dreams”
…not been eager to trim the F#@!ing fat.
The modifying F#@! is a linguistic muffin top. It has no champions.
Granted, I may see more of this usage because I work primarily in genres not known for restraint. Horror/Thriller projects give investors the highest return in the business because these movies and shows and games scream a universal scream about the elephant in the room of life - death - and ole Mr. Dark is no fussy grammarian. I’m likely to sigh a plaintive “F#@!” myself when I meet him. But I doubt I’ll say “You F#@!ing F#@!er! I knew you’d F#@!ing F#@! me up before I was F#@!ing ready to F#@! off.” One hopes.
With what, then, should we replace our tiresome modifying F#@!s?
The space between is where everything interesting goes to live. Between people. Between words. Don’t fill it. Let it be. Trust it.
Is “Where the F#@! do you think you’re going?” really stronger screen dialogue than “Where do you think you’re going?” And is either stronger than a terse and truthful look? On a rare fine set you’ll still hear the words “Can we say this with a look?” Can we? Bloody hell! Ask your wife or lover or husband or boyfriend or girlfriend that question (you know that look.) Ask any old character actor. A grand one once told me “You say yours with the mouth. I’ll say mine with the eyes. We’ll see who ends up in the edit.” You’d be surprised. I was.
Of course, indies need their length if they’re going to get distribution. If you have a tight 70-minute story that has to be told in a marketable 90 minutes, and you lack the budget to add length non-verbally, you need words. I’m just suggesting that those words can be purposeful, precise, even profane if need be, and copious, all at the same time. I’ve seen it happen. A few lucky times, I’ve been in that movie.
In life and in fantasy life, tension builds. It must. One-syllable words ending in hard consonant sounds are fine escape valves. But if the escape valve is wide open and hissing all the time, well, there’s no need to have one at all.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bang my thumb with a hammer.
(The author is a working actor based in Los Angeles)