The F Word

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Comedian George Carlin performing his infamous 1973 monologue "Filthy Words"

It's "one of the most graphic, explicit and vulgar words in the English language," U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre proclaimed last fall, when the Supreme Court launched hearings on Federal Communications Commission v. Fox. If TV networks have their way, Garre argued in his opening statement on behalf of the FCC, it won't be long before Americans hear "Big Bird dropping the F-bomb on Sesame Street."

Looks like Garre needn't worry about puppet profanity. On April 28, the Supreme Court upheld the FCC policy of fining "fleeting expletives" like the one used by U2 front man Bono during his acceptance speech at the 2003 Golden Globes ("This is really, really bleeping brilliant"), to which the agency will no longer turn a blind eye — or deaf ear. Henceforth, stations both big and small can be fined as much as $325,000 for airing a single accidental (or deliberate) slip of the tongue during live prime-time broadcasts.

The court's 5-4 ruling, however, did not address whether the FCC's "safe haven" crackdown violates First Amendment rights. The Justices — who heard arguments for several months without ever uttering the controversial expression — instead referred that question to a New York federal appeals court. Seems the F word was too powerful, even for them.

First printed in a Scottish poem in 1503, the ancient and awesomely powerful F-bomb continues to mystify lexicographers. Rumors persist that legal acronyms spawned the obscenity in question ("Fornication Under Consent of the King" or the Irish police-blotter inscription "booked For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge"), though the modern-day phrase has been traced to a number of etymological origins: Middle Dutch (fokken), Germanic (ficken), English (firk), Scottish (fukkit). Even the Latin terms futuerre ("to copulate") and pungo ("to prick") bear a striking resemblance to the four-letter word. Of course, its original definition linking sex with violence and pleasure with pain has broadened considerably in the past 500 years.

Comedians, perhaps not surprisingly, have led the way in broadcasting profanity. "Four-letter comedian" Lenny Bruce took part in some of the nation's first indecency trials by saying things like "Take away the right to say 'f___' and you take away the right to say 'f___ the government.' " Such adult language has tongue-tied even the most articulate attorneys. In 1963, one Chicago prosecutor opened his case against Bruce with, "I don't think I have to tell you the term. I think that you recall it ... as a word that started with f and ended with k and sounded like truck." Another judge in Maine declared during a 1981 indecency trial that "no obscene words should be uttered in court," stipulating instead that the sexually charged phrase should be referred to as "the word," lending the entire trial, according to the New Yorker, a sort of biblical ring.

The late comedian George Carlin played a memorable role in the last major Supreme Court ruling on broadcast indecency with his famously playful ode to cussing, "Filthy Words," which doted on one word in particular: "Cute word. Kind of ... One syllable, short u. You know, it's easy. Starts with a nice, soft sound — 'fuh' — and ends with a 'kuh.' Right? A little something for everyone." In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 against the Pacifica radio station that had played the monologue in all its profane glory, calling Carlin's sketch "verbal shock treatment."

A series of court decisions in the 1990s established "safe harbors" for indecent language — party hours, so to speak, are from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — but battles continue. In 2005, the rock band Mötley Crüe sued NBC, claiming the network blackballed the group after lead singer Vince Neil used the F word during an appearance on the Tonight Show. That same year, producers at PBS complained about having to scrub expletives from their war documentary Return of the Taliban; one producer called it "Disney-fying combat." In 2006, the FCC fined a California TV station for including the word when it aired Martin Scorsese's 2003 documentary series on blues musicians. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is particularly fond of testing the FCC, especially through song. Less than a week after the 2008 presidential election, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough blurted the obscenity while discussing Barack Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a notorious potty mouth.

As Justice Antonin Scalia noted during the case's first hearings last fall, few words have the kind of zing that the F word has. Most alternatives just seem lame by comparison. In 1991, a TV station replaced the word motherf___er with mikifiki when it aired Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing, with predictably ridiculous results. The sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica has creatively settled on frack as the obscenity of choice among fighter-jocks of the future.

Scalia and Justice John Paul Stevens — the last remaining Supreme Court judge from the landmark Pacifica decision — seem to be the only ones with a sense of humor about the whole affair. During the proceedings, Stevens wondered aloud if it mattered whether the use of the F word, in context, was "hilarious." Scalia's response: "Bawdy jokes are O.K., if they're really good."