F the lexicon

For more information about (and a list of the upcoming) classes at the Davis People’s Free School, check out the Davis Wiki (www.daviswiki.org). Or call (530) 754-1310 or e-mail davispeoplesfreeschool@gmail.com.

It’s our Miss America of taboo words, he announced, but is there anything above “fuck” on the one-to-10 taboo-o-meter?

It’s a legitimate question, and one from which Eric Russell, Ph.D., a professor of French and Italian and a practicing theoretical linguist at UC Davis, derives great pleasure. Russell, a lanky tri-athlete (and a “fag,” as he calls himself) is unafraid (actually, delighted) to open the rusty tin can of unsavory language and take a hearty whiff—no matter how repugnant the effects may be.

His class, “Getting The Fuck Beyond This Shit: A Closer Look at Taboos and Language,” was held on November 8, as part of the Davis People’s Free School—a co-operative effort to bring free and accessible education to the masses.

In the “living room” at the Tri Co-ops on the UC Davis campus, a small group of students slouched on couches and chairs, as Russell introduced his class with a warning.

“We will brandish about words and expressions that the FCC label offensive and that many others view as crass, insulting, immoral, racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted, anti-clerical, jingoist, ungentlemanly/unladylike/un-Christian, etc.,” he said.

Then Russell got right down to “fuck”—arguably the most useful word in the English language. It’s invincible, he said, scoring points for productivity (“How the fucking fucker fucktastically fucked fuckall the fuck up”), for creativity (“This is absofrigginglutely f’ed”) and for what he calls marking (as in, “No-one wants to copulate, but we all want to fuck”).

Lest you think he’s crude, Russell’s discussion wasn’t meant solely to conjure up bad words for the sake of conjuring up bad words—it was to conjure the worst, most offensive bad words. And seriously, what’s more offensive than fuck?


After a few moments of quiet shrugs and blank stares from the audience, he offered a suggestion. “Do we all agree cunt is pretty high up there?”

Uh huh.

The point (and the conclusion at which Russell finally arrived) was that our current top-10 taboo words correlate directly with hot-button issues—which now happen to be race and gender.

“If we were to look at this [list of taboo words] 100 years ago, we would have discovered that the 10s would have been religious and excretory,” he said.

Sorry, God, but now we can damn you all we want.

In a final (and somewhat sad) note, Russell suggested that many of our heftier curses just aren’t what they used to be.

“Sorry, motherfucker,” he announced, “you’re slippin’.”