When I first heard of the death of reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who was 91, the news reminded me of the first time I used the F-word.
The year was 1956. I was 8 years old. One of the Masterson brothers told me a joke, and he thought it was so funny I ran home to tell my mother. She didn’t laugh and made me repeat it to my father. Things did not go well.
I know exactly where I first encountered the F-word in print. I was a freshman in high school, and the book was called “The Catcher in the Rye,” a work still on many banned-books lists, not just because of the F-word. I now own six copies of the book, including my high school edition in which I underlined each use of the F-word and other obscenities.
I consider “Catcher” a true gift from Salinger, a literary legacy I can still savor, in spite of my subsequent disillusionment with the author’s eccentric isolationism, disdain for his readers, and weird attraction to girls a fraction of his age.
Salinger used the F-word in a perfect literary context for me at that time of my first reading, about 1963. During his pilgrimage around New York City, young Holden Caulfield bumps into the word as graffiti in the stairwell of his little sister’s school and again in the Egyptian tombs of the Museum of Natural History.
Its presence troubles Holden to points of obsession and depression. He imagines how all the little kids would see it and how they would start talking to each other about it, and how one of the nastier kids would explain to the little ones what it meant, but only in a way that made the world look brutal and dangerous. He imagined the word scribbled on his gravestone.
More than 40 years later, I would encounter the F-word in a much less authentic way in the controversial memoir “A Million Little Pieces” by James Frey. (I say controversial because the best-selling book about addiction was revealed to be a highly exaggerated rendering of the author’s life. Three hours in jail in real life became three months in the book.) Here’s a scene from group therapy:
He steps forward….
It’s no good being the way you are. It’s no good at all.
I am what I am.
That’s not what’s inside of you.
You can’t fool me.
You can’t fool me.
Salinger uses the word five times in “Catcher” with great power and specificity. As an expression of Frey’s phony bravado, the word appears over and over again. Look, he says, what a down-and-out badass I really am. I can use the F-word. Over and over.
I remember the teachers who tried to persuade me that the main problem with the F-word was not its power to offend, but the evidence it gave of your limited vocabulary. I blew it off back then, but when I read Frey, I began to think they were on to something. His indiscriminate use of the word leaves his reader numb.
Karl Shaw has even created a metric for overuse of the F-word in American films. By his count, the F-word appeared 206 times in the 1983 movie “Scarface,” a record that was broken in 1995 when Martin Scorsese made use of the word in “Casino” 442 times — “2.4 times per minute on average.”
Surely, the temptation to overuse the F-word derives not just from a permissive culture, but from its exquisite versatility, a virtue made manifest in “The F-word,” a 270-page lexicon of the various uses of the word, undertaken by Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. His study reveals uses of the word as noun, verb, modifier, gerund, participle, interjection, and, even in that rare function of infix in which the word settles in the middle of another word or phrase: “The Dallas F-ing Cowboys.”
Perhaps the ultimate expression of the F-word’s versatility comes in a scene from David Simon’s HBO series “The Wire” in which two detectives, Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland, explore a crime scene. The scene takes less than four minutes, during which the cops use versions of the F-word, by my count, 34 times. It is the only word used in the scene. As they look at crime scene photos of a naked, murdered woman, the word expresses disgust. As they examine the conflicting evidence, the word describes frustration. As they begin to piece things together, it describes mounting excitement. When they find a key piece of evidence, it is a word of celebration.
I could make a case that, given its ubiquity and versatility, the “F-word” is one of the most important words of the 21st century — which is why we should pay close attention to how it, and other explosive words, should be used well, if at all. Salinger revealed to me one strong literary context in which to use a taboo word — as evidence of social decay. Here are others I’ve learned since:
- As an authentic expression of realistic human speech
- As a single, shocking, almost-out-of context blow to the solar plexus
- As a neutralizer to the poison of piety, fastidiousness, and erudition
- As a way of defining character
The key is to use the F-word infrequently so that each use is purposeful, so that it still has a chance to shock, surprise, and even illuminate, as it does in Holden Caulfield’s world.
Perhaps the most moving use of the F-word I ever encountered came in a documentary by two French brothers of a firehouse in New York. During the filming, two jetliners flew into the Twin Towers, changing the way Americans look at the world. Even though the show ran on commercial television, we were given a chance to hear, uncensored, the rough emotion language of a fraternity of brave men facing their greatest challenge. Real language, real life.