Why ‘F*ck’ Is the Word of the Year

How the word became a virtue signal in 2018

Meghan Daum
Dec 11, 2018 · 4 min read
Illustration by Justin Sloane

AAh, fuck! What an indispensable, multitasker of a word it has become! No longer relegated to that marginalized category once known as profanity, fuck now wears many syntactical hats and is a staple of Trump-era vocabulary. In addition to being a fun way to embed a little malediction into words that otherwise might be chalked up as run-of-the-mill resistance jargon (“inter-fucking-sectional,” “patri-fucking-archy”), fuck is enjoying a long tenure as a synonym for shit. Not giving a shit (which sounds downright 1980s) has now evolved into “not giving a fuck.” By extension, you can now describe something as “[adjective] as fuck” (abbreviated for tweeting purposes to “AF”) You can be tired as fuck, sick as fuck, angry as fuck, and so on. I guess if you find yourself in an especially tragic situation (for instance, banned from Twitter), you can be fucked as fuck.

Can you imagine if Rhett Butler had said to Scarlet O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a fuck”? Instead of embodying the essence of male privilege, he’d come across as someone with a top-rated podcast. Or a person with a lot of Instagram followers — a fuck-ton of followers, even.

There’s a linguistic satisfaction to saying fuck. The word has nice consonants. The feeling of curling your lower lip around your lower teeth to make the “f” sound is a reliably good one. There’s a deeper visceral satisfaction, too. Because the word was so long verboten, because it’s still technically R-rated language even though no one really thinks about such ratings anymore, it still feels a little dangerous. It feels adult, at least insofar as children under 12 are the only people from whom it would be shocking to hear the word.

In other words, saying fuck gives you the feeling of being a teenager trying to feel like an adult. Given the degree to which this sensation is in many ways preferable to the feeling of actually being an adult, is it any wonder fuck is now as commonly used as those perennial teenage favorites, such as “like” and “you know?”

Fuck is filler. It is unimaginative. It is the verbal equivalent of cuff tattoos and plug earrings. It gestures at being a badass while belying the deeper truth that you run with the pack. It is the colloquy of the proverbial basic, the pumpkin spice latte of speech.

So why does everyone use it? For the same reasons rich old men date young, beautiful women: Because they can.

Once upon a time, FCC regulations and corporate standards and practices policies kept four-letter words out of the public sphere. There were essentially two modes of expression: the way people talked on TV and in print, and the way people talked in private (and in R-rated movies). Even though Tupac Shakur might have coined the “I Don’t Give a Fuck” usage back in 1991 with the track of the same name from his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse, it took a solid two decades for fuck to find its way into the water of mainstream discourse.

Now we have books like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, and Fuck Love: One Shrink’s Advice for Finding a Lasting Relationship. We see liberals wearing T-shirts that say “Fuck Trump” and conservatives wearing T-shirts that say “Fuck Your Feelings.” We see high-level media professionals — mainly left-leaning journalists and commentators — dropping the F-bomb on Twitter as though it were nothing more than a punctuation mark. We see utterly prosaic sentiments that, dressed up with fuck, are instantly transformed into the kind of deep thoughts that show up in text boxes on your friends’ Facebook feeds: “If You Can Dream It, You Can Fucking Do It.” “It’s About the Fucking Journey, Not the Destination.” “The Future Is Fucking Female.” (That last one seems particularly open to interpretation.)

We saw, at the Tony Awards last summer, Robert De Niro raising his fists in the air and proclaiming, “It’s no longer ‘down with Trump.’ It’s ‘fuck Trump!’” This was bleeped out on the network broadcast but met with a euphonious standing ovation in the theater and was trending on Twitter before De Niro even left the stage.

Fuck overuse has been going on for a long time now, but I’m declaring 2018 the official year of fuck. As De Niro demonstrated, fuck is no longer just filler. It’s now a standalone deal. De Niro felt no obligation to tell us why — or in what manner — we should fuck Trump. There was no onus upon him to elaborate on his sentiment or to explain how his thinking had evolved from Trump as someone we should merely be “down with” to someone deserving of the nation’s collective fucking. It was enough to just yell “fuck” and bask in the reflected glow of his own virtue signal.

To quote film critic Anthony Lane mocking Yoda’s blathering New Age syntax in his classic review of Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, “break me a fucking give.”

Dropping “fuck” into your argument doesn’t strengthen your point. It blunts it. It reveals you not as a badass but a lazy ass. And before you tell me that 2018 sucked so fucking much that there’s no choice but to let the fucks fly, consider what would happen if we admitted this year just plain sucked. Consider what would happen if we literally gave no fucks about the current situation and let the whole mess speak for itself in plain language. Consider what would happen if we could no longer wrap ourselves in the warm linguistic blanket of fuck and had to face the world in boring, G-rated terms.

Feels pretty cold out there, doesn’t it? Well, guess what? It is.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

Meghan Daum

Written by

Columnist for Medium. Author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion and My Misspent Youth among other books. www.meghandaum.com

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.