Controversy: a four-letter word

Researching the Dictionary of American Slang, the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower came to the letter F... By Mark Jolly
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The Independent Culture
The vocation of dictionary editing usually affords little beyond the rigour of studious research, and certainly little in the way of stirring controversy. But while labouring over the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, Jesse Sheidlower found himself face-to-face with the letter F and realised he'd unearthed a linguistic tinderbox. The fun was about to begin.

For nearly a year, he kept his aspirations for a separate volume close to his chest. "I didn't mention it to anyone because I thought it was just too ridiculous an idea," says the 27-year-old writer from Long Island. But no sooner had he timorously hatched his brainchild during an editorial meeting than it was being shuffled off for the personal approval of S I Newhouse, Random House's chief.

Now, having spent nine months combing through all manner of military memoirs, student journals, sports diaries, gangsta rap, television talk shows, underground fanzines, common speech, not to mention a prodigious amount of adult literature, Sheidlower has produced the first scholarly tome devoted to the most malleable expletive in the English language. Naturally enough, The F-Word is New York's publishing sensation of the moment.

Sheidlower has chosen to meet me at Grand Central's Oyster Bar, one of 42nd Street's more genteel hideaways, to discuss his less-than-genteel compendium. "It's not just funny words," he says earnestly. "It's actually based on citations. You know, it is the OED of 'fuck'. And for every word, it's not in there because we think it's cool, it's in there because we have evidence for it being used."

After a foreword by the humorist Roy Blount Jr, which reminds us that the word is "one of the best things we can do with someone, one of the worst to someone", the book opens with a brief, historical overview of our four-letter friend. Disproving a common misconception that it is an acronym derived from "for unlawful carnal knowledge", Sheidlower traces the profanity back to its 15th-century Germanic roots, where its meaning extends to thrusting and striking as well as to the act of copulation.

The main reference section, which spans nearly 200 pages, defines thousands of colourful uses of the word and draws as freely from such literary lions as Robert Burns, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller as it does from pop cultural staples like Playboy, Lenny Bruce and the Internet. Among the more illuminating citations are "dutch fuck noun: an act of lighting one cigarette from another".

It's hard to imagine how a straight-laced lexicographer like Sheidlower could have crammed more obscenities between two covers than James Kelman. But by some strange twist of fate, you might say it was Sheidlower's calling. Never one to loaf about (see "fiddlefuck"; "futz around"), he started reading the New York Times at the age of three. After enrolling at the University of Chicago at 16 and graduating with special honours, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge to concentrate on Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

One day, during his graduate studies there, he was reading some of Byron's letters "for fun, more or less" and spotted a use of the word "tool" as a verb pertaining to sexual intercourse. It antedated the OED's first citation by 13 years and he told them so. "Back then I thought it was a big deal," he says, "but it happens all the time." He continued sending the dictionary his further findings until they hired him as a citation reader. In 1990 he returned to New York and started work at Knopf, also under Random House, as a general dogsbody (see "fuckboy"). Within a year he had moved over to the Random House reference department, where he has been scouring slang terms and new words ever since.

Random House knows all about kicking up a literary ruckus by now. It was, after all, the first American publisher of Ulysses, which in 1933 (11 years after its British publication) was one of only a handful of books in the US legally allowed to print the word. Sheidlower says his book "neither approves nor disapproves of the word" and, unlike James Joyce or DH Lawrence, his work hasn't been the subject of any court orders. The F-Word has, however, run into the resistance of New York's de facto arbiters of decency.

Barnes & Noble, the McDonald's of booksellers, which has driven out every other bookstore in town (think of WH Smith, Dillons and Waterstones all rolled into one, flashy mall), refuses to display the dictionary on the grounds of good taste. Which would be almost believable had not its superstores opened up at 6am the same week to trumpet the new book by radio "shock- jock" Howard Stern, who makes a career out of cracking jokes about child molestation. The book will be published in this country tomorrow, so far to no signs of public outrage.

While most newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic are restricted to spelling the f-word with a combination of asterisks or dashes, the New York Times will only print "expletive deleted" in parentheses. But when it suddenly killed a scheduled story on The F-Word, its explanation - that the very term "the f-word" was unfit for a family newspaper - left the publishers puzzled. Random House put Sheidlower into action; he searched the archives and discovered that New York's only broadsheet had already polluted itself with over a dozen cases of "the f-word." These were, said the paper when confronted, editorial oversights.

The irony of such local opposition, in a town regarded by middle America as the epicentre of expletives, seems lost on Sheidlower. "That New York is the capital of cursing is, well, silly at the very least," he balks, "perhaps even total nonsense. Believe me, they use it a lot in Chicago, Los Angeles and everywhere else, too."

If the f-word is slipping from the top of the blacklist, it is only following the pattern of earlier language taboos. In the Middle Ages, for example, religious profanity constituted the most incendiary type of language. During the Renaissance, derogatory references to people's parentage were strictly off-limits. "Bastard was the absolute worst curse you could say," Sheidlower observes. "It was a real fight-to-the-death curse."

Only in the past couple of hundred years did sexual vocabulary come to eclipse all other profanities. "The word 'leg' in mid-19th-century America was considered so obscene, you had to use the word 'limb' instead." Even as late as 1948, Norman Mailer had to resort to the substitute "fug" in his war novel The Naked and the Dead (which prompted Dorothy Parker's greeting at a party: "So you're the young man who can't spell 'fuck' ").

But as sensitivity increases towards racial epithets, The F-Word's creator believes his subject is already losing its edge. "Thirty years ago, a cop saying 'nigger' would not be anything remarkable. Now, of course, it's the centre of a big national trial."

Such shifts in what we perceive as shocking language are likely to keep Sheidlower busy for a good time to come. "I could do a longer book about 'shit'," he muses. "It's much more widely used, but it's not as interesting. I mean, it is just not as big a deal."

n 'The F-Word' is published tomorrow (Random House, pounds 7.99)