Our overused F-word: A broken-window theory for civil language

     (<a hrfef='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-34083898/stock-photo-teenage-girl-wearing-bathrobe-eating-bar-of-soap.html'>Wash your mouth out with soap</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    (Wash your mouth out with soap image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    The F-word. This vulgar term for the act of sexual intercourse, which dates back to the early 16th century, was once limited to locker-room language. Now it shatters standards of civility everywhere.

    The small-town sounds of Narberth’s main street rise and come through my third-floor apartment window with clarity. Most of these noises are pleasing to the ear.  

    At dawn, the broom bristles in the hands of the energetic little man who sweeps away remnants of the past night’s revelry from the sidewalks outside of the Great American Pub. And the borough’s street sweeper and his giant machine whir along nearby. Later, feet crunch through leaves as youngsters chat with parents or schoolmates. Workers whistle happy tunes. Joggers pound the pavement. Bicyclists whiz by. The No. 44 bus scoops up passengers.  

    Yet, even in this pleasant setting, I hear one of the foulest of sounds — the F-word.   

    Last week, a woman yakking on her cell phone went by and let it loose without a thought. She’s not the only or even the first person who has polluted the air by dropping F-bombs in my neighborhood.

    As I dined recently with a friend in a wonderful, family-owned Narberth restaurant, a woman seated with a man at the next table did environmental damage when she declared not once, but twice: “There’s no way she’s coming to the f—ing wedding. There’s no way she’s coming to the f—ing wedding.”

    What a hideous word to connect to a wedding!

    Shattering standards

    Breaking this sound barrier reminds me of the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention that professors George L. Kelling and the late James Q. Wilson introduced in The Atlantic in 1982.  They wrote

    “… at the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones.”

    That’s what has happened with the F-word. This vulgar term for the act of sexual intercourse, which dates back to the early 16th century, was once limited to locker-room language. Now it shatters standards of civility everywhere.

    Just last week, a company that markets T-shirts took F-word usage to new lows by releasing an obnoxious Internet video, “F-bombs for feminism: Potty-mouthed princesses use bad word for good cause.” These costumed F-word-focused princesses are children, ages 6 to 13. The “good cause” is selling T-shirts.

    I abhor the F-word.  It’s so ugly.

    I will admit to allowing it to slip from my own lips on rare occasions when I was infuriated. But that’s one reason why I find the term to be so repulsive. The F-word is an angry — sometimes even a violent — word. If it was personified, he or she would be one nasty character.  

    I’ll never forget the first time that I heard the F-word used with abandon in a public place in the early 1990s. My children were elementary-school age at the time. As we strolled to the ice cream parlor one evening in the lovely seashore town of Stone Harbor, N.J., a well-dressed teenaged member of the summer set repeatedly let the F-bomb fly as he entertained his buddies. There were a lot of other families there, too.

    So I looked this wise guy in the eyes and said, “Watch your mouth. There are children around.” Stunned, he did not reply.          

    Try harder

    I kept my opinion to myself on another occasion when the F-word was prominently featured by a younger classmate of mine some seven years later. We were both students in a short-story writing class at Temple University. During an exercise in which we read our short stories out loud for group critique, my classmate read her F-word-laden story with gusto.  

    Ugh! I thought. My negative response was more than a generational one. In past exercises, this young woman seemed to take pleasure in trying to shock. Still, her story was a snoozer, in part due to her many uses of the F-word. She wasn’t using it ironically or repeatedly to create some effect. This was just lazy writing. She could have found much better words to use if she’d applied some creativity and originality.

    Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned for all of us here.  Surely we can do better.

    As an ardent fan of First Amendment rights, I’m not advocating the institution of speech police to stamp out the F-word. But we could police ourselves by biting our tongues and finding less jaded and more creative ways to express our frustrations.

    Our well-being as a society depends upon such seemingly small acts of civility.  

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.