The Gentrification of the Expletive

“For the times they are a’changin.”

– Bob Dylan (1963)

It is rare that this column addresses issues of a non-political nature, but a recent trip to Texas, the state that is home to two of the most obnoxious politicians in the country, Gregg Abbott, and Ted Cruz, prompts this observation.  It is inspired by a large billboard on one of  Austin’s busiest streets.  The message on the billboard demonstrates the transmogrification of the inquiry and the gentrification of the expletive.

Those of advanced age will remember the days when one person, inquiring of another person, what that person intended by a comment made by that person,  would simply inquire “what do you mean by what you just said.”   A  parent inquiring of a child what a seemingly impertinent remark by the child was intended to convey would ask “what did you mean by that” with extra emphasis on the word “that.”  In more extenuating circumstances the inquiring parent, or in an adult conversation, one of the participants in the conversation might inquire in a slightly hostile manner “WHAT did you mean by THAT,” the emphasis being on the capitalized words.

As time went on, the inquiry was aided by the addition of three other words to express the inquirer’s displeasure with the other person’s utterance. The displeasure or exasperation was demonstrated by the addition of the words “in the world” following the word “what.” Eventually, as the elderly among us will recall, the word “hell,” used as an expletive, and not as a destination, could be added to the inquiry so that the question would be “what in the hell did you mean by that.” Today, thanks to the gentrification of an expletive, the inquiry has become more forceful.

The expletive in question is a word that in the writer’s youth was rarely, if ever, heard in conversation among either the young or the old, at least in this writer’s experience.  The word in question is a four letter word used to describe the act of procreation otherwise known as “sexual intercourse.”  The origin of its use is, according to at least one source, difficult to find.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “fuck” was “difficult to trace in usage, in part because it was omitted as taboo by the editors of the original OED when the “F” entries were compiled (1893-1897.) The “F” word was, according to the writer, “not in a single English language dictionary from 1795 to 1965. The Penguin Dictionary broke the taboo in 1965.  Houghton Mifflin followed in 1969 with ‘The American Heritage Dictionary.’”  According to the writer, however, Houghton Mifflin also published a “Clean Green” edition without the word, to assure itself that the dictionary would have access to the public high school market.”

Those wondering why the authorities would fear inclusion of that word in texts used by students in school need only consider the reaction  of many parents to the teaching of what is known as Critical Race Theory.   Critical Race Theory has a set of ‘basic tenets’ among which is that race is socially constructed, not biologically natural, racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational, and legal advances or setbacks for people of color tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups.   It is a concept that inflames the millions of parents who are concerned that their children are being taught about what life in a white America has been like for people of color and other minorities. Objections to its inclusion in the curriculum has led to the recalls of local school boards, and other elected officials by the parents who live in the bubble of ignorance.  Those same parents, of course, would today not hesitate to use the F word if doing so would fairly express their outrage at the inclusion of Critical Race Theory in the curriculum. Had the offending word appeared in high school text books many years ago it is a virtual certainty those very same parents would be making the same demands of educators that they are now making of those including “Critical Race Theory” in their schools: get the word out of the classroom.

The transmogrification of the inquiry is demonstrated by the Texas billboard . The billboard leaves the completion of the word to the reader. No one driving by will be distracted by going to a device to see what letters might follow the “F”,  proof, if proof is needed,  that the word is now fully gentrified. And its use in posing an inquiry to someone to determine what he or she may have meant by posing a question, demonstrates how the art of asking a question has been transmogrified.  A pity, some older people might say, that.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney based in Boulder, Colorado.