Drawing the Line at the Eff Word

We in higher education should set an example of professionalism and clean up our language, especially when it comes to the “queen mother of dirty words,” argues Brent Foster.

July 25, 2017

It’s amazing the power the “eff word” summons.

I’m a U.S. Army veteran; the word is not foreign to me. There were times in my life when I could weave a tapestry of obscenity that would make a prisoner blush. Likewise, I’m certain that in my younger professorial days, I too used that openly in class a few times -- perhaps to make a strong point or get the students’ attention. But as I matured and began to grow a family, the word was more and more reserved for only the rarest of occasions. In fact, I soon found myself rather put off by it.

Last year, I sat in the bleachers watching a football game with my wife and daughters on a chilly fall evening. Shortly after we found our seats, three teenage boys sat directly behind us. They were laughing and carrying on as you would expect from any lively youth. When I first heard what I thought was the eff word in their conversation, I stiffened and was suddenly transformed into a human radar, scoping the airwaves for a second strike. In that moment, I felt my blood pressure rise.

I thought to myself, “How dare these hooligans not have the sense to reserve that word for use in the shadows of society and certainly not in front of adults and mixed company.” Then it happened … and loudly! Laughter ensued and the word reverberated from the lips of the inexperienced linguists. Their shenanigans were cut short when I spun around with a glaring, all-knowing eye and said, “If you’re gonna keep using the eff word in front of my family, you’re gonna have to move!”

Slow motion followed. There was a stillness. Other adults were in the area and stared at me as if I were a lunatic. Upon looking at the boys, I saw they were much younger than I had expected -- probably around fourteen. The leader of their crew looked me square in the eye and said without a quiver, “Freedom of speech!”

When not serving as an administrator, I am a professor of communications -- journalism, to be exact. I’m a defender of free speech, but I’ve also studied desensitivity to things like media violence. It occurred to me that we, as a society, have become desensitized to a point of calamity. There is real fear today about how words can hurt people. We are more sensitive to words today than we ever have been in the history of humankind. We take careful precautions to be inclusive and debate over potential implications of this word or that. Yet “the queen mother of dirty words,” as Ralphie so eloquently put it in the movie A Christmas Story, has become commonplace and is often bandied about like a shuttlecock in a badminton match. Perhaps some people believe that the word doesn’t hurt anyone and therefore should be acceptable. Or that it can be like secondhand smoke -- you occasionally have to walk through it.

There certainly wasn’t a “village” of adults in the bleachers of that ball game that supported my alarm. If anything, the blasé reaction of those around me made me wonder if the word had so penetrated the universe that it is as common in most households as, “I’m going to the effing store to get some effing milk.”

My wife placed her hand on my knee. I needed that, and it calmed my resolve, allowing me to rebalance, and I asked the young man, “Really? That’s your answer?” I gestured for them to draw closer to me, and the boys leaned forward. I whispered, “Guys, if this were the U.S. Army, and you were recruits in my platoon, I might allow this. But you’re in front of my wife and daughters here, so you need to clean it up.”

I’ve worked at three vastly different campuses over my 18-year teaching career and have found the eff word in some of the strangest places. Yes, on stage, in art and literature. Certainly, in locker rooms, private conversations and hallway chatter. Videos, movies and documentaries we might show in class -- all have included the word at some point. It’s at cocktail parties and gatherings, but it was in a boardroom and with high-level administrators that the word sneaked into conversations and seemed to hang like an uncertain cloud. I recall it spilling out during a job candidate dinner. The break room with the paper-thin walls. The free speech space on the campus quad. I even remember talking with a student who was using the word aggressively to discuss sports on Facebook. My intention was to express to him that the overuse of the word in social media might not shed a positive light on his professional desires to be a sportscaster. He now works at ESPN, but I digress.

Although an article like this will have little impact on how the eff word is used and interpreted in greater society, my encouragement for higher education is a renewed focus on professionalism. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I still believe that a carefree use of the word places a melancholy miasma over professional environments. No word in the English language can more swiftly bring people to attention and, at the same time, lower the collective IQ of the room.

In the bleachers, the young men -- our future leaders -- rolled their eyes at me, shook their heads, dismissed my comments and quickly vacated the area. I was in no mood to be their mentor and certainly wasn’t ready to take them on a camping trip to show them how to be good citizens. Rather, I was flummoxed by their panache and disregard for their surroundings.

My hope is that our students -- past, present and future -- can know to carefully select the time and place by which they use the constellation of words at their disposal. Words can yield power, land jobs, affirm, deny, provide insight, distract, lift up or hurt. In a world where words have so much significance, I suggest we return to the old adage of choosing our words wisely -- and yes, that includes the eff word.


Brent Foster is interim director of undergraduate studies and general education and associate professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton.


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