What's With All The F-Bombs?

Michael Metzger

In the 1939 film Gone With The Wind, Clark Gable caused a stir by saying damn. On Chef’s Table, Ivan Orkin sprinkles the f-word like sea salt. What’s with all the f-bombs?

Chef’s Table is a sumptuous show based on a sacred rhythm: take and eat, what Leon Kass calls a “great paradox.”[1] To eat, we must take life, plant or animal. In fact, in scripture, take and eat is the deepest reality of God’s created order. It’s sacred.

You might miss that listening to Ivan Orkin, founder of the New York restaurant, Ivan Ramen. In season 4 of Chef’s Table, he starts off with “I’m a go f___ yourself kind of guy” and later adds, “I chose to do ramen because I can do whatever the f___ I want.”

We’ve come a long way since Clark Gable. Gary Oldham’s 1997 film Nil by Mouth featured 428 f-bombs. Martin Scorsese’s 1995 Casino had 398. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, with 269 and 265 f___s, respectively, only make the list at number 20 and 21. What’s with the rise of profanity, especially the f-bomb?

F___ originally had sexual meanings including “to move back and forth.”[2] It appears as far back as 1680 but became an acronym after the 1929 South African Law Journal wrote that Alfred Ayles was sentenced to seven years in prison for “unlawful carnal knowledge.” Add an “f” and f___ is an acronym for adulterers (“Found in Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”) and rapists (“Forced Unsolicited Carnal Knowledge”).

Carnal means fleshly. Profanity is our fleshly desire to push against the sacred. Mircea Eliade describes this dynamic in his book, The Sacred and the Profane. The sacred gives us fixed points. They form a religious canopy with boundaries against sin while binding us to the sacred (religion mean “to rebind”). Profanity—from the Latin profanus—is pushing against the sacred. For anything to be profaned, it must originally be sacred.

This explains the rise of profanity. In the late 17th century, the religious canopy began to recede. Profane language rose, according to historian Melissa Mohr, author of the 2013 book Holy (Expletive): A Brief History of Swearing. It rose further as the sacred canopy further receded. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mohr says profanity went mainstream in many parts of society, evident in the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

The f-word took off in the 20th century as the gospel of erotic love began to recede. Union with Christ, best told in sexual consummation with the male penetrating and moving back and forth inside the female, receded. As this picture ebbed, profanity—mostly the f-bomb—rolled in, seeking something transcendent to push against.

It wasn’t there. For many Americans, especially our cultural elites, the sacred canopy had receded out of sight.[3] F___ this and f___ that and f___ you took off, becoming common fare but lacking any context (i.e., canopy) to push against. Formerly vulgar or profane words became arbitrary according to comedian George Carlin (if you’re not easily offended, watch his 1972 sketch: the seven words you can’t say on TV).

You can’t push against a vacuum. Christians ought to recognize how f___ carries a punch because it’s one of many “signals of transcendence”—human experiences that seem to point to a greater reality. They are universal, instinctive; yet assume and require answers that lie beyond themselves.[4] The f-bomb reminds us there’s a ghost in the machine. That’s why Christians shouldn’t cringe when they hear it. If there was no canopy, and nothing to the erotic gospel, f___ would likely have never existed.

[1] Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[2] Jesse Shiedlower, The F-Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. ix.

[3] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 107.

[4] Peter L Berger, A Rumor of Angels (New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1990), pp. 59-65.


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  1. I note your line, Mike. However, corruption of the sacred has been around along time. Public exposure of intimacy also being a sign of abuse. Our spiritual relationship is one of mutuality not dominance.

  2. As you say, f___ is common fare and lacks context, much as “Jeez” and all its variations. I find it more distracting than offensive, the device of a lazy speaker who might also pepper his language with countless “uh”s and “you know”s. We used to challenge our son about his rap lyrics that contained f___, and he said audiences expect to hear it–that the rap would sound inauthentic without it. Still, it’s hard not to cringe on hearing it, over and over and over again.

  3. I think it is ok to cringe at a word that debases the sacred. Words matter. My teenage daughter was asked to use the “F” word on stage this week and asked me whether I thought she should decline the part – definitely a teachable moment. This word offends because its meaning is relational. As a female I would feel verbally violated if it was directed at me. (I do realize more common usage is along the lines of “WTF” etc. but the point remains.)

  4. I had the recent pleasure of reading “Martin Luther”, an almost brand new book by Eric Metaxas. In it I was more than surprised to find out that when Martin Luther was betrothed (described as the small wedding night before the big wedding celebration) he consummated his marriage with “Katie” Von Bora with a witness to that event in the room watching. Luther’s best friend was in the bed room when he f…..ed Katie for the first time. Being an older product of post-enlightenment “thinking” I was a bit stunned because this was so far from any human sexuality experience I knew of in 20th century thinking. I’m not sure what this has to do directly with this DHT but I feel it is worth noting. How times have changed. Even the consummation was a community event or so it seems. Mike, I’ll enjoy your thoughts on how this is relevant to today’s posting.

  5. Very interesting, Mike. Insightful and important observations.

    Related to your blog “Tango, Anyone?” you make the point in a more pithy way that I was trying to make in my comment to that blog post. You write, “The f-bomb reminds us there’s a ghost in the machine.” That was my point in that earlier note–that so many in our culture assume we are just machines (brains) without souls (minds). As believers we need to be vigilant to protect and defend the notion that we are more than just brains/bodies. Your blog this week is a great illustration of how important this is! Appreciate your work!

  6. Just this last week, at work, one of our few millennials said to us, “I don’t know why f___ is so offensive to people.” I thought of this post. It has caused my own attention to be redirected towards my choice of language.

  7. Reading this 6 months after original posting…
    I’ve noticed a sense of intellectual superiority with the ability to use of F___ in conversation. Put another way, a friend of mine sees F____ as part of common language, and would argue that people who are offended by it are not just stuck in moral irrelevance, but are actually weaker intellectually.
    As someone in his early 40s, I feel like F____ has a deep sexual reference…but I wonder if the younger generations don’t have that context or bias, and are more oriented to the common language use of it.

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