Silver Threads: The F bomb
When my best friend, Beth, and I were in seventh grade, the principal of our school decided to have our big gymnasium repainted, inside and out. So we took a tour, marching, giggling, into the temporarily open locker rooms on the boys’ side of the building, perhaps hoping to see something that would unlock the mysteries of the masculine psyche.
Boy, did we ever. To this day I remember every word of the four-line doggerel, scrawled on the side of a clothes locker and soon to be wiped out by the painter’s brush. We’d gotten there just in time. It contained the F-word, something neither Beth nor I had ever seen or heard.
We tried in vain to discover its meaning in several different dictionaries: it was unthinkable to ask an adult, much less an older sister or brother — which neither of us had — for a definition. Because we both knew full well that It. Was. Dirty.
Flash forward more years than I care to contemplate, and that word is almost unavoidable. “Defuse that —— bomb and put it on the —— table or I’ll blow your —— head off with my —— gun!” That was one of the lines used by Melissa McCarthy in her newest movie, Spy. Or something similar.
(I like Melissa and her films. But couldn’t she have said, “Defuse that cotton-pickin’ bomb” … yada, yada, yada? That might have been funnier.)
Lines such as the above don’t shock me. They bore me, when peppered throughout a performance. That’s a mistake young people make about their elders, thinking they’re morally opposed and thrown into hysterics by something when they are simply tired of it, don’t find it interesting. I thought the F-word very interesting when I was 12, but I’ve moved on.
The first time I became aware of its popularity in comedy was perhaps 30 years ago when my spouse and I bought tickets for a Robin Williams show at Lakefront Arena. He overdid it: I got tired.
Milton Berle and Gracie and George Burns and the great Bob Hope and Red Skelton — whom I mistakenly called Red “Skeleton” when very young — had performed for years in hilarious routines that didn’t use the word. In my heyday — and theirs — Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca did more than well without it. Then came Carol Burnet, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander, and the fabulous Mel Brooks, all of whom failed to give the F-word a mention as far as I heard.
I’ve seen a lot of changes in the language used in entertainment during my long years: From the first “damn” uttered in 1939 by Clark Gable at the conclusion of Gone With the Wind, to the film-world inauguration of the word “virgin” in The Moon is Blue, to the first time I heard the word “pee” on television — spoken by Ellen DeGeneres on her long-ago sit-com, to Roseanne Barr’s tiresome grousing about her problems with PMS.
Fortunately, nobody has spent as much time promoting any of these deviations from polite conversation as they have with the F-word, which was first used in a major movie, according to a Google search, in Robert Altman’s 1970 *M*A*S*H*. In television circles, comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin led the way, with Bruce getting in trouble with the word in court as early as 1963.
Surprisingly, that was only 15 years after Beth and I traipsed into the boys locker room. Times change quickly, don’t they?
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]