In a Word

On 30 December, 2015, the French newspaper Libération had a huge word dominating its front page: Fuck!

The expletive was used to commemorate, lament, or celebrate the death at the age of 70 of a rock star called Lemmy Kilmister. The accompanying picture shows a middle-aged rebellious adolescent; inside there is a picture of him in old age, a kind of senile rebel who could never bear to leave his adolescence behind, proud of his degeneracy unto death. In this, he was an authentic representative of modern psychological development: a short period of precocity followed by a long one of arrested development.

The word fuck is not only a word, of course, but a philosophy, or at least an attitude to life. It used to be said that if you tied an Italian’s hands he could no longer speak; it might now be said that if you prohibited the use of the word fuck you would reduce half of British youth to silence, an eventuality that would increase marginally the average cultural level of the world’s population.

In the prison in which I worked until my retirement, I used not to allow the prisoners to employ the word—not that I had any means to prevent them from doing so other than suasion.

“I’ve got a fucking headache,” a prisoner-patient would say to me.

“Hang on a moment,” I would say. “Can you tell me what the difference is between a headache and a fucking headache?”

As it happens, there is a condition known as coital cephalgia, a headache that comes on during sexual intercourse, but that is not what he meant.

“That’s the way I talk,” he would say.

“Yes, I know,” I would reply. “That’s what I’m complaining of.”

The more intellectually curious would then ask why he should desist.

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