Ask AZ: The F-word and “F-word”

Reader Adrian e-mailed me yesterday to ask about John McPhee’s reminiscence in the New Yorker‘s July 2nd issue (“The name of the subject shall not be the title”) in The Writing Life department, in which McPhee claimed that the expression F-word wasn’t in use in 1975. Adrian had tried, unsuccessfully, to get Google N-gram to track the expression (but reported a Google Books hit from 1969, alas an artifact of the screwiness of GB searches) and now was asking me what I knew about the matter.

First, McPhee’s account, coming in the middle of a history of fuck at the magazine. Then, some usage data.

From the abstract for the article on The New Yorker‘s site:

Discusses Gottlieb deciding, in 1990, whether to allow the word “motherfucker” to be published in the author’s piece, “Looking for a Ship.” In the family of recoiling words included in The New Yorker for the first time, “motherfucker” had yet to be born. “Fuck” was alive but barely. John Cheever had agreed to delete it from a story published in the nineteen-fifties, in a tradition of compliance that extended to and beyond Alice Munro in 1980. During all that time, the editor of The New Yorker was Shawn, who pluralized himself in the quiet expression “not for us.” If he thought a euphemism was possible, Shawn would ask for one. Mentions Calvin Trillin’s attempts to have profanity included in his reported pieces during Shawn’s editorship. Describes Gottlieb writing “MOTHERFUCKER” on a Post-It. Off and on that day, Gottlieb walked the halls of the magazine wearing his “MOTHERFUCKER” Post-it as if it were a nametag at a convention. He looked in at office after office and loitered in various departments. He drew a blush here, a laugh there, startled looks, coughs, frowns. He visited just about everybody whose viewpoint he might absorb without necessarily asking for an opinion. In the end, he said The New Yorker was not for “motherfucker.”

The Alice Munro story: what she had written in 1980 in “The Turkey Season” was

He said he had got sick of it, though, and quit.

What he said was, “Yeah, fuckin’ boats, I got sick of that.”

Language at the Turkey Barn was coarse and free, but this was one one word never heard there.

The New Yorker‘s version:

He said he had got sick of it, though, and quit.

Language at the Turkey Barn was coarse and free, but in telling us this Brian used an expression that is commonplace today but was not so then.

So, avoidance by indirect allusion, something the New York Times is still given to.

Then in 1987 Calvin Trillin got editor William Shawn to let “Goddam fuckin’ Jews!” (in a quote from a financially beleaguered Nebraska farmer) go into print. Shawn was succeeded by Gottlieb, and the battlefield slowly moved from fuck to motherfucker, as sketched above.

But back in 1975, fuck was still the issue. From p. 34 of McPhee’s article:

Well, maybe [saying “fuck”] in a car, but not in The New Yorker, not in 1975, and I didn’t need to be told. I had been writing for the magazine for a dozen years. There were no alternatives like “f—” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not a expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one. So Warren Elmer said “fucking” on Caucomgomoc Lake [in an episode McPhee had written about], but the quote in The New Yorker was “You God-damned lunatic, head for the shore!”

So, avoidance by substituting a weaker swear for the stronger one. Meanwhile, in there is McPhee’s claim about F-word. Well, this is checkable (and the famed New Yorker fact-checkers, if any are left, could have done so); we can consult Jesse Sheidlower’s triumph of demotic scholarship, The F-Word (3rd ed.) — where we find four cites before 1975:

1956: from the Swedish journal Moderna Språk, in an article about Lady Chatterly’s Lover;

1964: in a Labor Arbitration Board publication;

1970: in the Evergreen Review;

1973: in the New York Times Book Review.

These are just samplings from what’s out there; Sheidlower wasn’t trying to inventory all the occurrences. It’s clear that the expression was indeed in use in 1975, but McPhee either didn’t notice it at the time or (not surprisingly) doesn’t accurately recall what he was hearing and reading 37 years ago. And in any case, the expression was almost surely not very common then; at some point, it took off and became a popular taboo avoidance technique (though not in the New Yorker, which no longer avoids fuck but eschewed orthographically marked avoidance schemes when it did, and not in the New York Times, which avoids fuck except on very special occasion but continues to eschew orthographically marked avoidance schemes).

Memory is a tricky thing, as I often have occasion to remark.


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