Why the “F-bomb” is more popular than “TY”.

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Fricative, in phonetics, a consonant sound, such as English f or v, produced by bringing the mouth into position to block the passage of the airstream, but not making complete closure, so that air moving through the mouth generates audible friction.

When I was studying Linguistics at UCLA, we learned about ‘fricatives’.

Our professor demonstrated how a word that begins with “V” looks and sounds similar to a word that begins with “F”.   Your mouth makes the same moves to say both. We broke into groups to dream up interchangeable ‘F’ and ‘V’ words.

I turned to our team captain. “Ever notice “VACUUM” sounds like “FUCK YOU?” I asked. He gulped.

My impulse control goes out of whack in group situations.   My team giggled nervously, not sure where I was going. I was on fire.

“ Watch my lips. When I whisper, you can’t tell the difference.”   I bit my unsuspecting lower mouth and did the “V” sound’. “Vvvvv.”

“Now I’ll do the “F” sound.” My teeth pushed down at a different angle, hitting a slightly different spot. “Fffff-“.  “They’re almost the same.”

My team was convinced. We went on to sibilants, hissing words that started with “S”.
For years later, I reflected on similar-sounding words in the English language. I got obsessed with how “FUCK YOU” is not that different from “THANK YOU”. Both are highly-charged. Both are messages we use to get through to someone. Problem is, we blast “Fuck you” more often than we bless each other with “Thank You”.

The “F-bomb” slips out of everyone’s mouths these days. Norman Lear, the 94-year old producer of “Maude” and “All in the Family” used it repeatedly in a Los Angeles Magazine article that just interviewed him. (To the magazine’s credit they published every instance.)   In October 2016, Michael Moore said of the Presidential candidate, “Trump’s Election will be the biggest Fuck You ever” and got major press coverage for it. Madonna punched it so many times in the Women’s March in January of 2017 that the CNN censors couldn’t bleep her fast enough. Dramatic, but I wonder– will she alienate her general audience by going for shock? (What am I saying? Madonna is the original ‘shock jock’).

Like Madonna and Norman Lear, I love dropping the F-bomb. As the fricative slithers off my lips its ugly entrails hang in the air behind it. Give me words with impact. A baby repeats whatever is said with emphasis. When I say the F-word, it’s powerful and punchy and nothing is more satisfying.

We weren’t allowed to swear as kids. My mother wasn’t strict except when it came to language and writing ‘thank you notes’ – then she was a tiger. Saying “Shut Up” would land us a “time out” in the narrow bathroom. It was ‘potty language’ and punished as such.   Problem was, bathroom banishment didn’t stop us from swearing. If anything, it made using the forbidden word even more exciting.

There are 26 uses of the “F” word. It’s one of the most interchangeable, varying words in the English language. It can be used in almost every informal situation. It can express almost any emotion.  “Thank You” is more refined.  It doesn’t slip as easily off the tongue.  It too has lasting effect, but it doesn’t leave a cloud behind it. Stop for a moment today.  Ask yourself, “Have I said “Thank you” more than F-You?”  You can always re-balance the scales.  In this scary new era where everything is unpredictable, let’s do something remarkable.  Let’s bring back “THANK YOU” and put “F-YOU” in the rearview mirror.  I’ll try if you will.

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