Before there was the A-Bomb, there was the F-Bomb. Everyone can recall that vivid memory of the acrid taste of soap in one's mouth after uttering the Abbadon of obscenities. Not that it wasn't liberally thrown about amongst friends, one simply had the rotten luck of getting caught saying it within earshot of a parental figure. Doh! It's the most delightful of awful words, fun to say, and one whose potency remains -- even in its absence -- because let's face it, we effin' love the f-word! So much so, that an entire book of usages has been edited by lexicographer and Oxford English Dictionary's (OED) North American Editor at Large, Jesse Sheidlower, aptly named, The F-Word. This Bird who is a lover of all words (especially the dirty ones), attended a midnight symposium at Seattle's Sorrento Hotel to partake in a discussion by The F-Word's editor about the power of words, the ambiguous evolution of languge, and an F-ton of other things.

The Sorrento currently plays host to several events showcasing figures in the culinary, musical, and literary worlds, in a series called Night School. Having enjoyed one of these sessons in September with a presentation by Robert Hess over the history of cocktails in America, a chance to sit, drink, and talk dirty for a night was too good to pass up. A small group of less than forty were treated to drinks and dinner on the seventh floor of the historic hotel, sitting in what had once been the Sorrento's original restaurant. Tufted high-backed chairs and loungers arranged in a circle, the group listened to Sheidlower discuss the wild and cah-razy life of a lexicographer and what it means to be involved in the historic record of the English language. A weekend of fashion eye candy was traded out for a night of brain candy.

Prior to the event, attendees were given a list of required reading, articles Sheidlower had written for Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. One in particular stood out (Word Count, Slate; Apr 10, 2006), about a website project called the Global Language Monitor (GLM) that claimed to keep a running tally of the number of words in the English language. Sheidlower is as much of a methodologist as he is a keeper of words, and in his article, he called malarkey on this word-counting site. The clinical answer was that it remained a subject too fraught with debate over what criteria would classify something as a single word, and to posit an accurate, expanding census of all words was too lofty a boast. "Run" can be both noun and verb, Sheidlower pointed out, so does this mean it's counted as two words? This was not something to be entrusted with HAL 9000 -- he had difficulty with pod bay doors. Unlike the GLM, the OED does not profess to categorize every word, merely possess a comprehensive history of their role in language. Words aren't meant to be data bits for an algorithm to process, they are measured by meaning and usage, which are too intagible a thing for numeric formulae.
A word's value is defined by its prevalence, and its frequency of use.

Thus enters the f-word: why shouldn't there be a catalog of its widespread use if so many other words -- albeit polite ones -- have a spot nestled on history's bookshelf? If the value of a word is measured by its prevalence, this naughty bon-mot has the mileage of a few centuries, but scarely a written record. What the F?! The power of this favorable obscenity reveals itself through its conspicuous absence. Flipping through Sheidlower's collection of f-word usage, it's a humorous and refreshing look at the creativity that pulled this word away from its original sexual connotation and practically made it into its own language. Be honest, don't say you've never used the f-word as both a noun, verb, and adjective -- you can make a whole sentence if you get mad enough. Anyone seen The Wire??

Because a symposium is a very free, open arena of discussion, topics flew about all night. Talking about the power of a naughty word having a Voldemort-like presence of That Which Can Not Be Named was an obvious thing to start with, but a meaningful theme emerged from the night: words are like art, composed of expression and transcending constraint. It would be a silly thing to write a program to count all the works of art in the world, because the Mona Lisa is as significant as the crayon drawing of someone's six year-old. The symposium touched on the particulars behind English, its willing acceptance of other languages, and the particulars of censorship and its troubled relationship with the potency of intent. For all the theatrics behind a dirty word, it's not the collection of letters that lead to corruption. Any word, even the most profane or obscene, are as inert as bullets. It takes a user to load and fire these with animus to cause harm, so much like the f-word itself, that an absence from printed history does not diminish its power.

The group was given copies of the book upon the symposium's close. The majority of obscenities in the key of F will not be included in the next edition of the OED, but sailor-mouths can find satisfaction that The F-Word's discursive collection is both an idiomatic record and effin' funny read. With the exception of an entertaining forward by Lewis Black, Sheidlower's book casts no value judgement over the explicit nature of this word, preferring responsibility of judicious practice over outright censorship. Language is expanding, usage divines value, so if you're going to express yourself, be smart and make it fucking count.

Wanting to experience more brain candy in the Seattle area? Contact the Sorrento Hotel and request more information about their Night School series of events. There's a new guest almost every week, and it's the best class you'll ever be in, because there's always liquor around.

Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Post a Comment

Merci buttercups! Your comments are appreciated! (hit the 'post comment' button twice, sometimes it's buggy)