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The Word

The eff factor

THE DEBATE that dare not speak its name (except on a recent episode of "South Park") began with last year's broadcast of the Golden Globes, when rock star Bono, accepting an award for U2, said -- unbleeped, in some time zones -- "This is really, really [effing] brilliant" (to substitute a common British euphemism). The Federal Communications Commission, after pondering the matter for months, decided not to fine NBC, noting that Bono hadn't been using the banned word in a sexual sense, just as an intensifier.

The FCC was making a distinction widely employed in actual human discourse. To take a milder example, plenty of people who would say "What a crappy movie!" or "My desk is covered with crap" -- both usages allowed, if sparingly, in journalism -- wouldn't dream of using crap in its excretory sense. (Crap, for the record, became "coarse slang," as the Oxford English Dictionary labels it, only a century ago; for 500 years before that it was an innocent synonym for "chaff, dregs, residue.")

But a vocal segment of the public disagreed with the FCC, and after three months of protests, chairman Michael Powell has scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to revisit the issue, hoping to reinstate the f-word ban.

The move will restore the simpler status quo, and the networks should probably be grateful. Their execs regularly moan that Tony Soprano and Larry David, over in the lawless territory of cable, get all the good lines, but while the f-word was in legal limbo, they didn't rush to get the word on the air. No doubt Stockard Channing, who plays first lady Abigail Bartlet on "The West Wing," could deploy a tooth-rattling string of expletives-not-deleted -- but would it really improve ratings?

Nonfictional politicians have also been testing the limits. In a Rolling Stone interview last fall, John Kerry answered a question about his Iraq war vote with "Did I expect George Bush to [eff] it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did." Wesley Clark, the Democrats' other war-veteran candidate, told a questioner that if anyone impugned his patriotism, "I'd beat the [crap] out of them." And before his election, candidate George Bush gave several salty quotes to Tucker Carlson in a Talk Magazine interview, declaring that his opponents were "out of their [effing] minds." But candidates, like TV networks, prefer not to offend, and it's unlikely they'll venture further down this particular campaign trail.

Once the FCC has reversed itself, will the recently popular freaking take over the airwaves instead? That depends on how euphemistic it sounds -- a question that isn't yet settled, at least for reader William Blackwell, who e-mailed to say he was surprised to hear it in TV commercials.

But freaking (or freakin'), an f-word stand-in since the 1920s, seems well on its way to acceptance, appearing in print about 10 times as often as its older cousin frigging. Freaking has the advantage here, since we already know it as a slangy but innocent verb, as in freak out; frigging, by contrast -- though it descends from a word meaning "rub, chafe" -- has been a synonym for masturbating, and later copulating, for so long that most of its euphemistic gloss has worn off.

Linguist John McWhorter, author of "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care," has a different solution: He says the f-word is ready for prime time. Last month, in a Washington Post op-ed, he argued that the FCC was right the first time, that Bono's language was colorful but not indecent -- and that, in any case, it's not a matter for the feds. "Public norms never leap far ahead of the majority's primal sense of propriety," wrote McWhorter. Besides, TV advertisers will put the brakes on: Our few remaining naughty words "will likely only hit the tube after having lost much of their sting through constant use."

But that argument misses one point: If all our cusswords are detoxified and domesticated, we'll have to invent new ones. Some cultures get along without much swearing, but our mobile melange has never been one of them, with its group bonding based on shocking language, on the one hand, and its many willing shockees on the other. The bad words can be chosen at random -- nobody's ever figured out, for example, how bloody acquired its taboo among the English -- but a future with no foul language at all? That seems, well, effing unlikely.