Michael Herrick

Frigging: From the obscene to the vulgar

I was surprised to see in the Sunday comics recently the word frigging. Maybe it was friggin’. My son also read the comics and found a new word, ergo, which he asked me about. I’m glad he didn’t ask about friggin’, because when I was growing up, only a couple decades ago, that word was among the unspeakably obscene words that were never, ever used in polite company.

Now I am not a prude and I use, to my regret, pretty foul language pretty frequently, but this slide from the dreadfully obscene to the mildly vulgar worries me, not so much as a moralist but as a linguist. As Michael Flanders said, “If all these so-called four-letter words come into general use, we’ll have nothing left for special occasions.”

I gather that the word frigging (I have also heard and seen fricking as a variant) is primarily used today as an intensifier, a semi-refined alternative to the second naughtiest word. I don’t know, but I’d guess it is used as a code word on television and PG-13 movies and that regular viewers know to substitute the naughty word in thought when they hear the safe one on the soundtrack.1

The now-safe word was used as an intensifier in my middle- and high-school days also, but then it was no safer than the still-naughty word. At that time, the literal meaning of the word was still foremost in everyone’s mind. I find that literal meaning documented precisely on the Urban Dictionary. If you follow that link, you’ll see why either f-word could get you detention back then. I doubt either could do it today, but certainly it will be some time before we see the bad f-word in the Sunday funnies, if we ever do.

It is interesting to note that of the top ten results in a Google search for this word, only one appears to involve the literal definition. But Google also delivers two paid advertisements for pornography, showing that the transition to vulgar is almost—but not quite—complete. (Note to self: Google as a tool in natural language research still needs to be written.)

Some may not believe this, but suck—as in “Man, this class sucks” —was also in the raw obscenity category when I was a teenager. It was used plenty in the school hallways but not in front of your teacher and never in front of your mother. I remember some agitation by certain culturally-advanced youngsters who tried to railroad their elders into accepting sucks as a safe and harmless substitute for stinks. The elders weren’t having any of it, last I checked, but the liberalizing linguists seem to have carried the day. I have always assumed—rightly or wrongly, I do not know—that the word was originally intended to carry sexual overtones, which was the reason for its suppression. Today, the sexual overtones are either forgotten or are now acceptable in mixed company. I’m not sure which explanation disturbs me more.

There is another word that has made a complete transition from the obscene, with only a brief stay in the vulgar, and now finds itself safe and sound in the slang column. I believe the transition was complete—or nearly so—before my teenage years. The word is dork, originally a slang term for the male sexual organ, now a harmless synonym for dummy, dope and dufus. I remember Gary Larson writing in a book about how he once had a run-in with an editor over this word. I guess this must have been in the early 1980s. Perhaps you remember the panel showing a crocodile on the witness stand. He shouts at the prosecutor, “Of course I did it in cold-blood, you idiot! I’m a reptile!” In Larson’s original version, the prosecutor was called a dork but the editor objected to the sexual epithet. Larson assumed the editor had a dirty mind and refused to believe his explanation of the etymology, but a trip through an unabridged dictionary proved that the four-letter word really did have a bad reputation. Dork has been in rehabilitation for years and today most editors and almost all speakers are probably unaware of its shady past.

These are just three examples that come to mind because I personally witnessed their transformation. Older observers could no doubt compile lists of words that were rehabilitated in their lifetimes. Flanders and Swann, in the ’50s, documented some such words in their song, Pee, Poo, Belly, Bum, Drawers (which gets printed on the CD insert as P**, P**, B****, B**, D******). Younger observers may be in a position to predict which dirty words today will shock them on the lips of the respectable twenty years hence.

1 On the subject of the sanitizing techniques of television, I was appalled recently to learn that the spectacle of a man and woman scrabbling all over one another while clad only in boxers and lingerie (respectively) is intended on television to be an actual representation of fully consummated sexual intercourse. I suspect that actual, honest use of the word frigging might be about as common as the actual performance by adults (teenagers are another story) of the supposedly sexual antics shown on television.

  • I am not that much older than you, and sucks very much had a sexual connotation when I was younger. You say the f-word is the second naughtiest word. What is the naughtiest?

  • The C-word is the dirtiest , right ?

  • Yes, the C-word is still the worst. I have trouble deciding where the N-word fits. For certain speakers, it ranks above the F-word, but for others, it's not even on the list, so I'm not sure what to do with it. People are lobbying now to get a second F-word put on the list. This is odd for a few reasons. It's pretty unusual to see any kind of coordinated PR campaign against a word, but most remarkable is the population where, if my data is accurate, the campaigners are meeting with the greatest initial success: high school students.

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