At the HT summit last month, one of my tasks was to moderate a session with Bob Geldof. As the only one of Geldof’s many pearls of wisdom that will be remembered in the coming decades occurred during Live Aid in the 1980s when he shouted to a TV audience of millions to “just send your fockin money”, we wondered what the F-word count of Geldof’s speech would be. Matters were not helped by Geldof’s response when I met him briefly before the session to ask what he would be talking about. “I don’t know”, he announced. “I just fockin make this bullshit up as I go along.”
Wash your mouth: Cher (left) and Bono have both had language trouble.
At the event, Geldof was on his best behaviour. He did say at one stage during his speech that he was “shitting” himself, but apart from the odd “crap”, there were no expletives of consequence. At the dinner that followed the summit, however, Geldof was back in form, cheerfully using the F-word as he chatted to India’s famous and powerful. At least one person told me afterwards that he couldn’t believe it when Geldof, in the middle of telling a story about the Irish, loudly declared: “And we told the British, you can just fock off…” (here, he helpfully raised two fingers to assist those who might not have penetrated that now famous Irish accent). Of the two really important people at the table, neither seemed terribly shocked (though at least one clearly had no idea who he was, judging by her attitude) but others thought he should have been more careful while speaking to a lady.
I don’t know. I think our attitude to the F-word has changed over time. Even so, it remains inconsistent and full of contradictions. When I was editor of the Hindustan Times, I would not allow the use of two four-letter words beginning with F and C. But this was more difficult than it seemed. Already, at Sunday, in the early 1990s, I had bent the rule to allow the C-word on one occasion because a) the context did not seem abusive or anti-woman; b) the piece in which it appeared—an attack on Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen—was of extraordinary merit and the word seemed to fit with the style of the article and c) because the writer, though then largely unknown, struck me as being a major talent and I was inclined to accept her view that she needed to use the word to shock (it was a pre-God of Small Things Arundhati Roy).
Even with the F-word at HT, I was never really sure. Okay, it may have offended our readers if we had used the word gratuitously. But did “fockin” (as in the Geldof usage) count? Should we alter the rules to suit the context? Was it okay to use it in reports of other people’s speech?
I was not the only one to face these dilemmas. Some years after Geldof did his “fockin money” routine, the respected comedian Dave Allen told a joke on British TV about how office workers had to live in fear of the clock. “And then, when you retire,” he ended, “what do they give you? A fucking clock.”
This seemingly innocuous use of the F-word led to an outcry (whereas Geldof’s F-words had got him canonized) and poor Allen was pulled off TV for weeks as a punishment. I thought that was a bit harsh.
On American TV, there’s a clear distinction. You can say pretty much what you like on subscription TV—on channels such as HBO—but the use of the F-word is more or less banned on terrestrial TV. So what happens when they show a movie where characters use the F-word? Well, that’s why most movies have a cleaned-up-for-TV- version in which the nudity is deleted and the actors are made to dub those lines where expletives were used with tamer language.
This breaks down in the case of Live TV though. The biggest problem facing networks is how to censor celebrities who use expletives while receiving awards. At the Billboard awards in 2002, Cher said: “People have been telling me I’m on the way out every year, right? So, fuck ’em.” Bono accepted a Golden Globe in 2003, saying, “This is really, really fucking brilliant.”
Part of the problem is that the F-word no longer means fornication. It has passed into the language as an all-purpose expletive. Of course, there is a case for deleting it if the context is obviously sexual or anti-women. But what do you do in an era where it is used as a synonym for “very” (“this is fucking brilliant”)? Or where it replaces “damn” (“oh fuck!”)? Or when it means “I’m in trouble” (“I’m really fucked”)?
In the 1980s Playboy magazine (remember it?) ran a joke on the many uses of the F-word, drawing attention to its all-purpose character. This joke was then plagiarized by Bhagwan Rajneesh (who we now barely remember) and used in one of his morning sermons. While the Playboy version has never got the credit it deserves, the bearded fraud’s rip-off is often cited as an example of his unconventional wit and wisdom (was Rajneesh just Hugh Hefner with a beard? It’s worth thinking about).
Fortunately, I no longer have to edit anything and invent style sheets and rules on usage. But if I did, then I think I would follow the example of such British newspapers as The Guardian or The Observer or The Independent, which are happy to carry the F-word when they’re reporting its usage in a significant context. Sometimes they will allow columnists to use it to make a point. But they will discourage reporters from using it in their copy when they’re not quoting somebody.
Is that terribly shocking? I don’t think so. I think we need to accept that as times move on, so does the manner in which we use words. There was an era when “damn” was considered a blasphemous and unacceptable word. Now, few newspapers would have any hesitation in allowing it into their pages.
Something similar has happened with the F-word. It has lost the loaded sexual baggage of old and is well on its way to becoming just another all-purpose expletive like damn.
For those of you who are wondering, Mint’s style book recommends avoiding this word in the newspaper unless it is pivotal to the story (as in the case of this column) or is in a direct quote where deleting it would significantly alter the meaning and context of that quote.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org