Bill Cotterell: The unmentionable is now mentionable

The startling syllable has become almost mainstreamed in political discourse, our Capitol Columnist writes.

Photo by Yevhen Rozhylo on Unsplash

Well, this is going to be kind of different: Writing a column about a word without using the word.

The F-word, that is. 

The startling syllable that used to pop up accidentally in an offhand comment or an angry retort has become almost mainstreamed in political discourse. 

Related story – WTF? Florida Democrats getting attention with bad language

At its “Leadership Blue” gala in Miami Beach this month, the Florida Democratic Party put out a video of what Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislators are doing, with the tagline “Not On Our F—ing Watch.”

And keynote speaker Bradley Whitford called DeSantis “a f—king coward,” to loud applause.

Only they spelled out the word and said it loudly, which was odd sometimes. A 70-second video included a quick clip of FDP Chairwoman Nikki Fried in a t-shirt emblazoned “Just F**king Vote,” with the middle word blurred in the photograph. 

The actual T-shirt had two asterisks, not the letters U and C, but the Democrats chose a photo with the already-bowdlerized word further obscured.

(And hey, why are middle letters dirtier than first and last letters? Why isn’t the euphemism “-uc-” rather than “f—k”?)

In more than a half-century of scribbling down what politicians say, I’ve been proudly old-fashioned, except when dirty words slip into a candidate’s speech or some protest signs. 

I’ve always felt, as a 1960s song said, “Let it all hang out.” Sometimes the news media and readers/viewers ought to just grit our teeth, brace for it, and see reality unfiltered.

If it’s news, if it’s accurate. If it says something about the speaker, then it’s necessary. But it’s almost never all three. 

To spare the squeamish, editors can always write around some details (how often have you seen “perform a sex act” in a news story?) or just use hyphens.

It’s infantile, like Victorians using little skirts to obscure the legs (such a suggestive word) of piano benches. 

We all know what f—k means, so the epithet is conveyed anyway. If there are several words in a phrase, we can figure out what was said, like when transcripts of Nixon’s Watergate tapes used “(expletive deleted).”

Really, if we’re worried about offense, why not just delete the word? 

Then-Vice President Joe Biden was caught on a live microphone muttering to President Obama, “This is a big f—ing deal,” at the 2010 bill signing for the Affordable Care Act. Would people be misled if Biden was quoted as “This is a big deal” — or even “This is a big … deal”?

Another vice president, John Nance Garner, famously said the office “ain’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Or maybe he cited another four-letter bodily fluid. History is not sure because reporters of the 1930s politely recorded what they thought readers preferred. Garner was a tough Texan called “Cactus Jack,” so everyone just assumed he wouldn’t say “spit.”

Yet today, “pissed off” raises nary an eyebrow among the cable commentariat.

And it’s not just in politics. Comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce got arrested several times for saying the F-word, among others. Years later, George Carlin had a bit called “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV.” (You can say at least three of them now.)

Maybe the Democrats, who’ve always had a weaker image than the GOP, thought it would be more two-fisted to drop that F-word into their “not on our watch” theme, but I’ve never thought profanity looks so tough. 

In the Marine Corps, we had a company gunnery sergeant who’d quickly rebuke anyone using foul language, so I developed a general rule: If it offends a Marine gunny, don’t say it.

Norman Mailer had a palliative, “fug,” for his soldiers in The Naked and the Dead. In another World War II novel, The Caine Mutiny, author Herman Wouk said in a foreword he skipped the common billingsgate of shipboard life because it added nothing to his narrative and offended many readers. Some readers will recall the 1970s sci-fi series “Battlestar Galactica” and its early 2000s reboot popularizing “frak” as an expletive. 

Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz scored a hat trick of racism, sexism and obscenity in 1976, saying Black voters were only interested in three things. It’s offensive enough that my editor made me link to it instead of repeating it here. 

It was indisputably news, so some media went with the hideous sentence, usually with a warning in italics at the top of the story. Others used hyphens, as I just did.

Butz was fired, of course. But Donald Trump not only survived egregiously using one of those words, he went on to give editors so much more to wrestle with. But can Florida Democrats out-crude Donald Trump? 

You bet your a—.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at bcotterell@cityandstatefl.com

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