October 22, 2006


In the 10/14/06 issue of The Economist, the report from Russia (p. 55) is titled "The hardest word", with the summary:

A murder, a grudge, deportations and what they say about Russia's worrying political direction.  Is it time to use the f-word?

And which f-word would that be?

The word is revealed in the last paragraph (p. 56) of the story:

History also offers a term to describe the direction in which Russia sometimes seeems to be heading: a word that captures the paranoia and self-confidence, lawlessness and authoritarianism, populism and intolerance, and economic and political nationalism that now characterise Mr Putin's administration.  It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia.  It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism.

"F-word" (or "F word" or "f-word" or several other variants) has been in play for a while as an allusion to the word fascism -- in discussions of the use of "Islamic fascism" or "Islamofascism" to characterize terrorism associated with Islam (see Geoff Pullum's 8/11/06 take on this here) and in references to the Bush administration's policies, as in this 5/8/03 rant from Ben Tripp:

For a long time I couldn't quite slap the 'F' word, as fascism is coyly known among lefties, on Bush and his minions. No matter how naughty the Man Who Would be President might be, for my tastes he never hit that perfect Kafka note-- until recently. Him and his people weren't really fascists. Just execrable excrudescent assholes. But 2003 has changed all that.

These people are fascists, and they make Mussolini look like a mezzafinook. There is no component of American liberty of which they are unwilling to relieve us, and no aspect of American life upon which they are unwilling to relieve themselves.

"F-word" is designed to capture the status of fascism (and fascist) as a "bad word", specifically a word intended as, or perceived as, a slur -- a word some might be reluctant to say, a word like the pre-eminent F-word  fuck, or its little brother faggot/fag.

Also very common is "F-word" used to stand in for feminism (or feminist), largely, as far as I can see, by feminists defiantly confronting scornful uses of feminism, as on the British feminist site "the f-word".

Then we get small numbers of occurrences of "F-word" for other words (some) people might want to avoid: fat, for instance, or in specific contexts, finesse (in football, reported on by Ben Zimmer here), fossils (with regard to NASA's reluctance to talk about the possibility of fossils on Mars, noted here), forgiveness (in an exhibition mounted by the Forgiveness Project), even folk [music] (in an internet radio station devoted to folksy artists).  At some point it begins  to look like "F-word" has been chosen simply for its value as an eye-catcher.

That point has certainly been reached when we get to "The F-Word", a U.K. television show about cooking and eating hosted by Gordon Ramsay.  Yes, the F-word in question is food.

[Update.  David Denison supplies more context: "I've never watched his TV programmes, but Gordon Ramsay is famous for his foul-mouthed invective in the kitchen, unleashed routinely and lavishly on any hapless apprentice or fellow-chef (or even diner, I believe) who displeases him.  So it sounds to me as if the programme title is a perfectly appropriate piece of euphemism-play."]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 22, 2006 01:21 PM