By Tim Hayes
As a professional writer, I place a special priority on the proper use of the King’s English. It’s how I’ve made my living for more than three decades, raising a family on it.
Most words we all use in life float by, unremarkable, unnoticed, serving their purpose and quickly forgotten, tossed down one’s mental rabbit hole into oblivion. Some words, however, crackle and spark. They won’t – they can’t – just slide by without notice. They demand attention. They generate reaction. They won’t be denied their unique shock value.
There’s one word in particular that had reigned supreme atop this mountain of verbal valedictory. Its supremacy had been long established. Its record of high-impact use unsullied and untouched for generations. You know which one I mean. Come on, don’t play coy with me.
Just to prove it, let’s revisit the holiday movie classic, “A Christmas Story.” One snowy night, Ralphie and his family are driving in the car when one of the tires blows out. As his Old Man works feverishly to fix the flat, he accidentally knocks the hubcap-cum-bowl out of Ralphie’s hands, sending lug nuts flying into the night’s inky blackness.
To which 11-year-old Ralphie says, “Oh, fudgggggge.”
Adult Ralphie, narrating the scene off-camera, then explains, “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’ I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!”
Yeah. That word. And I wonder whether its impact – as played to hilarious results for Ralphie in that movie – remains quite as forceful as it once had been. In other words, has “fudge” (wink-wink) been so overused and watered down, to the point where it has entered into acceptable polite conversation today? Has what had once felt like a verbal punch in the mouth now been worn down as smooth and harmless as an image in a stained-glass window?
That notion may not be as crazy as it sounds. When I was in third or fourth grade, the dad of a classmate who lived down the block from me rode the two of us home one day after school. Sitting in the back seat, I couldn’t tell what happened, but the car suddenly came to a screeching stop. Whether a careless driver or a dumb kid running out into the road caused my friend’s dad to slam on the brakes, it didn’t really matter.
What I most remember about that episode is how the dad shouted, “Fudge!” (wink-wink). He immediately realized his incredible faux pas, a churchgoing Catholic father cussing so vehemently with two impressionable young gentlemen riding along. He turned around and said, “Don’t you boys ever say that word!”
“Oh, no, we won’t,” we replied, sniggering like crazy as soon as he faced forward again and continued driving.
We knew that word represented the Hope Diamond, the Mona Lisa, the Lunar Landing of swear words. That’s what made it so surprising, so forbidden, so irresistible, so dangerous. It stood alone. It stood apart. It was just absolutely infamous.
My, how times have changed. If you watch any show on HBO today, you’re guaranteed to hear that word five times in 10 minutes. Movies used to get rated “R” if that word got uttered even one time during the picture. Now “PG”-rated films can get the f-bomb dropped into them with regularity. It’s in magazine articles, popular music, and in mainstream TV shows covered up by a ubiquitous “beep.” But we know what’s being said. We’re not stupid. We’ve been around the block. This ain’t our first rodeo, Cowboy.
My concern rises because, in the process of this mainstreaming of what had been a uniquely nasty and powerful word, two things happen. We lose even more of our ability to be shocked. And society becomes just a little bit coarser.
Call me old school. Call me a traditionalist. But some things should always retain their original purpose, their original function. When someone speaks that word, other people should still stop in their tracks and either be offended or guiltily amused.
I don’t see either of those happening much anymore. The world keeps changing despite my best quixotic efforts to slow it down or stop it altogether. It’s a tough pill to swallow, let me tell you.
Or, stated another way, “Oh, fudgggggge.”
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes