Sometime in the mid-’90s, I was sitting in a spa chair for my weekly mani pedi when a milky-pale woman settled into the chair beside me. Her existence hardly registered until she held up three bottles of nail polish, all variations of nude pink. “Which for my fingers and which for my toes?” she asked.
Slightly annoyed that a stranger was talking to me, I looked at the three bottles of seashell nude held in the stranger’s pink, pale hand. Then I looked at her face. It was Gwyneth Paltrow.
“Most people match their fingers and toes,” I said, meeting Paltrow’s sad, slow, loris gaze, “but I think you can do whatever the fuck you want.” And I returned to reading my New Yorker.
You might consider me rude for dropping the F-bomb on Gwyneth Paltrow. You might be right. But some people would look at my shiny, naked “fuck” and see something other than mere gutter talk. They might, for example, read my fuck as a sign of my intelligence, a coping mechanism, a marker of my identity as a New Yorker or proof of my honesty. Neuroscientists, sociologists, and cognitive scientists love to research why humans swear, and however disparate their copious studies, these researchers seem to have reached one unassailable conclusion: humans swear because, on some very primal levels, bad words are good for us.
Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t, a history of human cursing, explains that when children learn about swearing, they learn from other people’s reactions. “If a child says a swear word, all of the adults gasp, and the child internalizes it, like, ‘Oh that’s a powerful word.’ That’s how it gets wired and encoded in your brain.” It’s this gasp that teaches children that bad words are different, and this difference is etched deeply in our brains.
Unlike most other language — which is stored in cerebral cortex, the brain’s center for higher learning — curse words are stored in the limbic system, our most basic, lizard brain level. This storage explains why people with neurological issues like Tourette’s Syndrome, or who have lost language function from strokes or dementia will use swear words.
Humans swear because, on some very primal levels, bad words are good for us.
Apart from learned taboo, there’s no reason why fuck, motherfucker or fuckin’ A are bad. In a strange circularity, swear words are bad because our thinking makes it so; and because our thinking makes these words bad, they are not always under our control. “When you swear, on some level you’re not thinking about it, and on some level you are.” Mohr says. Using profanity, then, is both a conscious and an unconscious act.
Profanity grows yet more protean in our mouths: the same word does not hold the same potential to offend in all situations. Just as beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, a word may be an obscenity coming from one person’s mouth, but it’s just an intensifying adverb coming from another’s. And, of course, not all swear words are equal. I myself am fond of the flexible, labile, and formidable fuck.
While its denotatively meaning is “to copulate,” fuck is bigger than sex. In sheer number, fuck doesn’t rival set (about 460 dictionary meanings), put (the high 300s), or run (more than 600), but fuck is unique in its elasticity. In The Stuff of Thought, psychologist Steven Pinker outlines five ways that humans use fuck: “descriptively (Let’s fuck), idiomatically (It’s fucked up), abusively (Fuck you…!), emphatically (This is fucking amazing), and cathartically (Fuck!!!).” Love it or hate it, fuck is mighty.
You can count more than 300 entries for fuck in lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower’s book, The F-Word, a dictionary of fuck. Beginning with “absofuckinglutely”, an adverb meaning absolutely, and ending with “zipless fuck”, a noun meaning “intercourse without emotion,” Sheidlower’s book illustrates the malleable ability of fuck, a word that has been with English speakers since at least the early sixteenth century.
While Sheidlower acknowledges that fuck draws its power from its societal taboo, he also sees a shift in the status of the word. “Forty years ago you couldn’t have used [fuck] in an ad, except the most extreme underground newspapers, but you wouldn’t use it in anything mainstream — it was too much. And in recent decades it’s become increasingly less offensive.” When you consider that terms like WTF, GTFO, DTF, FFS, and af have gone so mainstream that they appear in Adidas ads, you can see that Sheidlower has a point.”
Yet for all its prevalence, fuck is holding onto its power. Recently, author Chuck Wendig invited his 119K Twitter followers to “focus your thoughts and your stress into the ancient incantation: ‘fuck it’.” Wendig continued, “It has power. It has magic. Congrats you’re a wizard now.” Holding both power and magic, fuck can conjure raw, naked sex; pure, unadulterated fury; black, damning scorn; or purging release. It’s a shape-shifting word, morphing to fill the emotional hole where cognitive thought dares not go.
Consider for a moment that fuck is just one letter away from duck or muck. Yet, had Rex Tillerson (allegedly) called President Trump either a ducking or a mucking moron, the New York Times, whose editorial policy is to avoid profanity, would have printed it. (NBC, who broke the “fucking moron” story, also refused to print the complete phrase.) Such is the power of the F-bomb, making hallowed news outlets quake before it. Fuck is powerful because we agree that it holds power. Powered by taboo, the word functions like paper currency; utterly meaningless unto itself, it’s a collective fiction backed by ancient capital hidden in a dark cave that we can never see.
Fuck is powerful because we agree that it holds power. Powered by taboo, the word functions like paper currency.
While its taboo may unite us, fuck can also divide us. Jonathon Green, the world’s leading lexicographer of Anglophone slang, recalls telling a cellphone-abusing fellow train traveler to “shut the fuck up.” The traveler’s friend blanched and shouted, “Swearing! Swearing! You’re swearing!” Reflecting on the episode, Green says, “Here we are in mid-to-late 2018, and somebody — no doubt a representative of tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of English-speaking people — finds this word, fuck, terrifying.” A word that silences newspapers, but not train passengers, fuck makes people afraid — but of what? Rudeness, hostility, social chaos, or the murky depths of their own unfathomable unconscious?
This point returns us to Gwyneth Paltrow and my casual fuck in the nail salon, two decades ago. When I swore, Paltrow flinched. Her muscles tightened. Her eyes winced. She turned away. And I felt bad. Twenty years later, I still wonder at why I pitched that fuck at Paltrow. Was I insecure? Did my unconscious need some swagger? Did my fuck indicate to Paltrow that I knew who she was without showing that I knew who she was? Or was I simply in a bad mood?
Turning that stale, star-struck fuck over in my head, I see a mille feuille of power, layers of learned language and cognitive air, of meanings and history, of magic and might. Thinking about my Paltrow F-bomb, I feel my antediluvian lizard brain at odds with my waking mind, and no clear idea about which summoned that epithet to my lips. I am, however, certain about one thing: when it comes to your nail polish, you really should do whatever the fuck you want.