All that “F#€king” Gray Area

A commentary on the “F-Bomb,” with diagrammed sentences.

Editorial Disclaimer Number One: This piece uses the dreaded “F-word” a LOT.  And sure, several of us have used it for stylistic effect to appease the sophisticated sensibilities of our readers, but we’ve never used it quite to this degree in both frequency and gratuitousness.  Consider yourself warned.

Editorial Disclaimer Number Two: The views and opinions (and words) expressed on this web site are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of National Road Magazine, the NRM staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Cool with all of that?  Okay.  Here we go…

Are you sure you’re cool with it…?  Okay, then…

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]onight, while I sat in the den re-reading Christian Shuck’s Winter House, I repeatedly overheard my two, college-aged step-daughters utter a distinct phrase while speaking to each other in the kitchen:

“What the fuck?”

I’ve always been puzzled by this particular usage of the notorious “F-bomb.”  And this is something I have thought a good deal more about in the last couple of days since the news that fashion designer Erik Brunetti is releasing a new line of attire dubbed “Fuct.”  I can already see throngs of impulsive high schoolers wearing Brunetti hoodies and tee-shirts into my school.  I can hear the free-speech arguments in office session after office session.

Growing up I’d heard my dad …and my grandfather …and my grandmother (though she always denied it) …and all of my friends use a more mundane version of “What the…?” The one with the word “hell” at the end of it.  “Hell” works best as a noun, but “fuck”…? Not so much I think. It’s true, as Bobby Knight famously noted in Season on the Brink, that “fuck” can be used as a noun. But as the example below illustrates, it’s a little bit awkward:

“That asshole is a fuck.”

Most of the time, everyone from my generation, and folks older than me, use the word as a straight-up adjective, such as this example—a statement my father often said to me when I was a teenager:

“Are you fucking stupid?”

My late grandfather, an entrepreneur who built his own golf course, often used the word as a verb:

“Fuck you.”

And, of course, everyone from every generation uses the word as an interjection, as illustrated in the following example:


I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about “What the fuck?” that annoys the absolute hell out of me (or is it the “absolute fuck out of me”?), but that phrase simply and completely irritates me.

And when I really start to think about it, I think the primary reason it bothers me is because I still come from the “videotape” generation.  When I was a little kid in the 1970’s I almost never heard that word.  I never heard it on TV (Broadcast. Network.), and my parents and their friends went to great lengths to avoid saying it if we happened to be ramming their euchre table with our Big Wheels.  The only people who heard it went to the cinema, and there was no way any of us young types were going to sneak our way into The Blue Lagoon.

Then the VCR’s showed up.  Then Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte and Annette O’Toole were saying “Fuck that” and “Fuck you” and “Fucking [whatever]” through all two hours of 48 Hours.

Gradually, “shit” appeared on basic cable and “bitch” and “bastard” worked their way into over-the-air broadcast nomenclature.  Now I find myself feeling uncomfortably old fashioned, and I don’t really know why because I think my issue has less to do with the word itself.  Honestly, when used well, it’s a fabulous word that adds a sort of spicy jalapeno effect on an otherwise ho-hum sentence.  For example:

This ho-hum sentence is pretty fucking tight.

And now Brunetti is bringing the word, albeit spelled differently, to American classrooms.  My job description as a classroom teacher dictates that I’m supposed to care about this.  But my understanding about how language changes and evolves tells me not give a f…  …not to give it much thought.  Most of the time, when I hear the word, I don’t gasp because it carries some “bulged-out-eyeballs” sense of shock to it–I used to gasp in that aforementioned childhood.  I used to gasp often.  What offends me the most about the word when I hear it today is that it’s lazy.  Last night, as I watched an episode of Amazon Prime’s Hanna, one of the teen aged protagonists (Sophie) dropped the bomb some dozen times in less than three minutes.  The very sight of those letters in the captions irritated me.

Is the show reflecting life?  Is Sophie’s profane rant cool because we all use the word 300 times in one afternoon on the golf course?  Or have we become so comfortable using it because Hollywood has mainstreamed it into our lives?

Whatever those answers may be, I think what this tells me is that my real problem is that I’m finally getting old.  I turned 50 last week, and time–the rapid heaving passage of it–has been on my mind quite a bit.  I think that by holding onto some vestige of taboo, I can allow myself to pretend that it’s still the ’80’s–back when hearing dirty words and seeing dirty images required a lot of creative planning and effort on the part of the average teenager.

I envy the people who see this in black-and-white terms.  I live in an enormous, linguistic, and (yes) fucking gray area.  And soon, a bunch of teenagers are going to storm into my workplace, donning crappy clothing bearing embroidered, full-throated “F-Bombs.”  And I’m going to have to deal with it.  It doesn’t fucking make sense to me…

Oh… “Fuck” can be an adverb, too.


Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it. Sometimes, when he misses a chord, he mutters “fuck” to himself, too.

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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