Film: Word Play

Steve Anderson's documentary traces the evolution of the word 'fuck'


Fuck explores the history and various meanings of the mother of all swear words.

Fuck, a new film by Steve Anderson, is the latest documentary to humorously celebrate, defend and maybe even cash in on outrageousness in American popular culture by treating it as history rather than an ongoing battleground.

In a way, that's disingenuous and gives short shrift to those who believe the use of obscenity in everyday discourse has gotten out of hand. Anderson interviews some of them in Fuck — including clean-cut Pop singer Pat Boone and the conservative politician Alan Keyes — but they're outnumbered by those who are either supportive or just plain amused. Dick Cheney, by the way, who told U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to "go fuck yourself," is not one of the upset conservatives interviewed.

The liberal side includes Bill Maher, Drew Carey, Chuck D, Deadwood creator David Milch, Billy Connolly and Ice-T. (Strangely, not included is George Carlin, whose famous "Seven Dirty Words" monologue about words that can't be said on TV or radio, including "fuck," is a landmark in the culture wars.)

It's these guests, I might add, who come off as more comfortable since they seem to believe the movie is on their side. After all, they're free-speech advocates, aren't they?

The film is on their side, ultimately. Its irreverent, comic spirit — shown in its animation sequences by Bill Plympton — makes it akin to The Aristocrats, Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Chuck Workman's The Story of X.

But it would be a more interesting movie if it were more resolutely neutral. After all, Keyes makes a thought-provoking point when he says society has to back up parents when they teach their children not to use such discourse casually, or else what's the point? He compares it to a man who washes his car every day only to have others freely fling mud at it.

The sections dealing with the history of the word's usage are the most interesting aspect of the film. It turns out it's a war word — a fight word — more than a sex word. And that's despite the fact it has always supposedly referred to sexual intercourse, which is supposed to be about love not war.

Anderson and his interview subjects consider but reject some theories on "fuck's" origin. The most popular folk tale is that it's an acronym for "Fornication Under Consent of the King," which allowed subjects of a long-ago English monarch to have sex only for reproductive purposes. (That goes against common sense, since monarchs would want populations to increase for military and labor-force reasons, especially in an age when life expectancy was low.)

Whatever the origin, the word has been around. But it had been used secretively among men until the great military mobilizations and horrific violence of the world wars of the 20th century. Those wars, especially the latter, popularized "fuck," according to two of Anderson's interviewees, Geoffrey Nunberg of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information and Jesse Sheidlower, principal editor of Oxford English Dictionary (North America).

Men needed a strong word to shout out on and off the battleground.

"In the first two world wars, men in battle assumed that word as a strong, provocative angry word," Anderson says. "And it was a word of camaraderie — you use it to let people know you're serious. And that's what happened in war. That's what gave rise to the descriptive terms 'fuckin' this,' 'fuckin' that,' 'motherfucker.'

"They weren't messing around. They were brothers-in-arms. They needed a word that had attack value and that was dirty.

It's a word that has a shock value. It certainly puts the other person aback. They either have to use the word themselves or it puts them on defensive."

In short, it's metaphoric for war.

When those GIs returned from World War II, they put the open usage of the word aside for peace and prosperity. But while they could hide it, they couldn't erase it from their memory. It existed in the shadows as a "dirty word" that their kids heard about and whispered to each other.

And it started to appear in the arts — Norman Mailer's classic 1948 World War II novel The Naked and the Dead used it, only spelled as "fug." Blues and bawdy comedy songs, which already used euphemisms for sex such as "rock 'n' roll," always seemed one step away from using it. In the 1950s and early 1960s, more writers began using the word — especially the Beats — and comic Lenny Bruce came along.

The next revolution in the word's use came when the counterculture of the 1960s chose to "bring the war home" as part of a social/political revolt against Vietnam. "Fuck" became a word not just whispered but shouted in mixed company.

Anderson credits Country Joe McDonald's anti-war-related "Fish Cheer" from the 1969 Woodstock Festival as the breakthrough, at which some 500,000 fans spelled out and chanted the word as cameras and microphones recorded them for the ages. (The scene appears early in Fuck.)

From there, one hardly needs a movie to spell out the growing public usage of the word — including ever-more-aggressive examples like N.W.A.'s 1988 Rap song "Fuck Tha Police." When the L.A. riots happened in 1992, many saw that song — since the rappers were from L.A./Compton — as its precursor.

"That word signified anger coming out of the ghetto and bad things bound to happen," Anderson says.

One of the more intriguing questions about the word's evolving popularity is whether it had anything to do with the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. There was definitely overlap — and women used the word publicly, too. But it never has become an erotic word — at least not out from behind closed doors.

"When you mention 'fuck' with sex, it's not making love. It's almost animalistic; it's rough," Anderson says. "I think it's used as an actual word for the sex act less and less. Now it's used as an angry word. I still today hear myself say it when I drop my keys or do something, it's that word of frustration. You don't go to bar, saddle up to a girl and say, 'Do you want to fuck?' "

FUCK screens at UC's Main Street Cinema at 8 p.m. today, 4:30 p.m. Thursday, 6 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Tuesday.

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