(this post originally appeared on Huffington Post on June 4, 2015)
One afternoon in early 1973, hearing what sounded like an auditorium full of laughter roaring out of my older sister Maryam’s room, I invited myself in — we weren’t big on manners, feral children that we were. She was alone, holding the cover to George Carlin’s Class Clown LP, wheezing, not just because she suffered from industrial grade asthma, but because she had been laughing uncontrollably for a number of minutes. I grabbed the cover from her, which was easy because she was weak from the hilarity. At the end of side two was the track, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing impudently to “Seven Words.” She motioned vaguely at the speakers, indicating that that was what we were listening to. At which point I heard – for the first time ever – the powerful and mysterious f-word (as well as some of the others cited by Mr. Carlin) in an electronic medium, and very possibly for the first time ever. When the needle hit the inner groove, I immediately slapped it down at the beginning of “Seven Words” again. And again. And again. Everything we loved, we loved all the more with extreme repetition.
No adults burst in to save us from the horrors of this foul language, as we were pretty much running the show at the house by then, and Maryam was the ring-leader, the trailblazer and the Minister of Culture. I had no idea how she knew of so many things outside of our little world, but I was in no position to question her sources, acolyte that I was.
That December, Maryam decided that we should go see a new movie, Serpico, which featured a young Al Pacino. It was rated R; Maryam was 15 and I had just turned 13. If it had been up to me, an aspirant American Golden Boy, I would never have considered thumbing my nose at something as inviolable as the standards of the Motion Picture Association of America. For Maryam, however, such an affront to the rules of civilization was de rigeur.
Serpico proved to be for me a riveting glimpse into realities I had only begun to suspect, particularly the truth that life is not fair. I identified intensely with this brave and morally indefatigable cop, who confronted the systemic corruption of New York City’s police force. Much as I had to confront the two-faced insincerity of some of my fellow seventh-graders. I developed, for a time, what Maryam told me was an excellent impression of Mr. Pacino’s Serpico, which I relished performing — usually for myself. It felt deeply affirming to inhabit the character, as if I were then inculcated with the same bravery and charisma.
Inevitably, my impression would involve delivery of the f-word, which was used a mere 58 times in the movie (I counted). Moderate, if not positively restrained, by today’s standards. To my nearly virgin ears, however, it seemed to be fired off at every other word. Thus, my impression was liberally populated with this wondrous profanity, and my mouth quickly developed an enduring affection for forming the sounds that make the word up – the pneumatic menace of the “f”, followed by nearly innocent vowels, slamming decisively into the precise, controlled violence of the hard “k” — which has stayed with me to this graying day.
We saw Serpico six times that December (at least a couple of these were back to back screenings) completely high not on drugs, but on the drama. Extreme, remorseless, rapturous repetition.
Add to the physical satisfaction of the f-word’s utterance the fact that it can be used to mean so many, many different things and what my 13-year old self had discovered was a word so attractively malleable that its incorporation into my day-to-day speech became inevitable. Why, to this very day, new uses of the word are revealed to me. For instance, today if I say, “go f*** yourself,” it is as likely as not that what I actually mean is “go, free yourself,” or “follow your bliss.”
So it was that I, a prematurely large, somewhat gawky, reflexively conformist teenager, progressed into high school with a fanatical commitment to a strict interpretation of any code of conduct I could invoke to crush the human spirit, including the absolute necessity of sobriety (I wouldn’t drink, let alone become a drunk until years later). Follow the rules! Fight corruption! – in all its insidious forms, in the hallways and gymnasiums throughout this…uh…midwestern farming community. Yet, my tongue, once it had acquired the taste, never lost its love of the f-word. Oh ye Puritans of filthy mouth, I am your brother.
Underneath the reflexive conformity lay, of course, the hopeless truth that I, Khalid Hanifi, was not of the midwestern world in which I found myself. The proof was as plain as the name on my birth certificate. A figurative chip grew to a distracting size on my also figurative shoulder, manifested as what was described by my Latin teacher, Mr. Darnbarnacle (sadly, not his real name), as a “bad attitude.” Which was a shame, really. Because I actually did enjoy looking through the window into language that Latin, and its agent, Mr. Darnbarnacle had opened for me.
As I was sitting in class one day, somewhere between affecting boredom and actually being bored, Mr. Darnbarnacle introduced the topic of verb conjugation, specifically the verb Facio. Facio, Facere, Feci, Factus. Meaning, as all with a passing familiarity with Latin know, to do, to make, to accomplish, and in the passive, to become. Holy facio! To do, to make. What could be more clear?
While others certainly have performed an etymological analysis of facio’s connection to the f-word, I have never felt the need to look into it. It was and remains, for me, as obvious as the most obvious thing that was ever obvious. If I am merely indulging in linguistic solipsism and am utterly incorrect, please don’t disabuse me of this, my most cherished teenage revelation.
As earlier notions of propriety boil slowly away, and WTF, FOAD, FIIN, FFS, FIGMO, FISHDO, etc. ad nauseum, are lustily deployed at every textual opportunity, we seem to be at a point with our dear English language where the glacial prohibition against the f-word has nearly fully calved into the warming waters of acceptable speech. Someday soon, perhaps, the FCC will officially render Mr. Carlin’s list a complete anachronism.
The illicit thrill of uttering this former profanity would then no doubt diminish. In another 2000 years, for whatever people speaking whatever language may descend from present day English, provided of course humans still trundle about the earth, the f-word may simply mean an innocent hug. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time to slow down and just f***ing relax and enjoy using this glorious wildcard of a word. Economically and in the proper context, of course.
Khalid Hanifi’s latest single, Go, F*** Yourself, is available wherever music is sold or streamed.