Do we still swear? Analysing the f-word and its abbreviations
Please note: this blog post discusses language that some readers may find offensive.
Swear words occupy a unique role in language: the same word can often be used to express anger, to offend, to emphasize, and even for comedic effect. Although all words have a register dictating how appropriate they are for a given situation, swear words have perhaps the most limited range of circumstances in which they are considered acceptable. This range can be stretched using euphemisms or, in written form, with a few trusty asterisks. Are recent initialisms that feature swear words considered to be as offensive as the swear words they include, or are they suitable for use in the same contexts as euphemisms?
Finding a similar word
A lot of earlier euphemisms were used for terms considered to be blasphemous—golly and gosh for God, Dickens and deuce for devil, crikey and crumbs for Christ, and heck for hell. One word that has been particularly productive in inspiring euphemism, however, is fuck and its derivatives. This word is the F-word or even the explosive F-bomb, and rather than deploy it in polite company, we might prefer feck, or frack, or eff, or naff; for fucking we might say fracking, freaking, fricking, or frigging. These alternatives are generally considered merely informal rather than vulgar. They are far enough removed from the offending word that often the audience does not make much of a conscious connection between the two.
The F letter
But what about when the word is reduced down to a single letter in a string? Recent communication has seen a rise in informal initialisms, and swear words have not been left out of this equation. Our ever-productive fuck has found its way into DTF (down to fuck), FML (fuck my life), GTFO (get the fuck out), WT[A]F (what the [actual] fuck), STFU (shut the fuck up), and af (as fuck; used as a modifier: This movie was boring af).
When you use one of these abbreviations, does it carry the force of fuck or is it like the gentler feck et al?
Certainly, the abbreviations are more common than their spelt out counterparts: FML has 939 hits in our new words corpus, compared to only 34 for fuck my life. Similarly, STFU has 3555 hits in contrast to less than half that at 1505 for shut the fuck up. Does our willingness to drop these abbreviations twice as much as their longer equivalents mean that we consider them to be appropriate in a wider range of contexts? This doesn’t seem to be it: OMG occurs 31,397 times in our new words corpus and, in the same pattern as we’ve seen with our profanities, this drops to less than half for the fuller form, with only 14,475 hits for oh my god. Perhaps it could be argued that widespread use of OMG rather than oh my god is motivated by the censoring of blasphemy.
The last laugh
Looking at terms that have no possibility of causing offence in either form, we still see a vast difference in frequency: LOL is found 208,616 in our new words corpus compared to laugh out loud‘s 6,049, a greater disparity than that of any of the initialisms we’ve investigated so far. The same high disparity is also true for ROFL when compared to rolling on the floor laughing: ROFL scores a respectable 964 hits in contrast with rolling on the floor laughing’s quite pitiful 116. In both of these cases, we are offence-free, so the discrepancy in frequency here cannot be pinned on censorship. The difference in frequency is likely in part motivated by time-saving (and space-saving) rather than a result of viewing these abbreviations as more widely acceptable.
This could equally apply to the initialisms that are concealing offensive terms, meaning the relative frequency of the initialism as compared with the full phrase does not tell us everything about the offence of the different forms. Rather, the strength of the connection to what the letters stand for determines the offence caused.
ROFLcopter and other arrivals
Certain initialisms and acronyms seem to become almost entirely divorced from the phrases they stand for. For example, LOL is so distinct from laughing out loud that it has given rise to the plural noun lolz (meaning ‘fun, laughter, or amusement’). Part of the reason this is possible for LOL is that it can be uttered as a word (that is, lol can be an acronym or an initialism): many people will say /lɒl/ rather than spelling out the letters L O L, which creates an extra step in linking it to laughing out loud.
We also see verbal creativity with ROFL, with the humorous word ROFLcopter (a combination of ROFL and -copter used in roughly the same contexts as ROFL) occurring 15 times in our new words corpus; not enough to qualify it for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries, but certainly a sign that ROFL is thought of as fairly separate from rolling on the floor laughing. Though used more in written communications, when spoken, the ROFL in ROFLcopter has the potential to be pronounced as /rɒf(ə)l/ rather than pronouncing each letter independently, again increasing its potential as a building block for new coinages and creating distance between ROFL and rolling on the floor laughing. This weakening of the connection between the initialism or acronym and the spelt-out form may be another factor in their disparate frequencies.
As there is not (as yet) widespread evidence of such coinages for our F-word initialisms, it is not so obvious that they are considered as discrete entities that are more or less utterly disconnected from those words that make them up. We might expect to hear these terms given a pronunciation before such a development occurs. While these new initialisms settle into place in our language, it is safer to treat them with the same caution as you would a fully spelt swear word. On a continuum of offensiveness it seems that, for now at least, STFU sits much closer to shut the fuck up than the many euphemisms for fuck.