Frakking Flyting: Chasing the Neophemism
5 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2016
Date Written: October 18, 2016
A survey of “bad language” study reveals that power lies not in bad words themselves, but in their meaning, or the ideas with which they are associated. Put simply, words are not taboo; ideas are. Fuck is not taboo per se; its vulgar sexual connotation is. The fluid capacity of words to associate or dissociate with ideas is made manifest in contemporary media with the proliferation of “the near swear,” or “fake swear.”
Our pantheon of terminology for the linguistic expression of taboo ideas presently includes dysphemisms, which are offensive renditions (fucking); euphemisms, which are inoffensive, often metaphorical renditions (making love); and orthophemisms, which are sober renditions (having sexual intercourse).
This paper posits a fourth category: the neophemism. A neophemism is a new word associated with taboo expression, usually for the purpose of evading censorship or reinforcing constructs in fiction. Frakking is a neophemism for fucking.
Neophemisms are experiencing a profound proliferation at present because of the explosive growth of electronic media. But the neophemism is not a new device. Fuck has neophemisms in many variations, form from firk (arguably) in Shakespeare to fug in Norman Mailer to frak in Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica. Other variants form from truncation, heterographs, homophones, metathesis, rhyming slang, and other word play.
Neophemisms can be tools to effect social change because they offer an alternative manner of expression about taboo ideas. Accordingly, neophemisms present a curious problem for the regulator, who would resist social change. If a neophemism affords a speaker access to taboo subject matter, then the regulator has incentive to censor.
Censorship of neophemisms points down a dangerous road, because free expression ultimately is jeopardized by unbridled regulatory discretion. In the end, neophemisms demonstrate the inevitability of social change and the futility of enforcing social taboo by speech regulation.
Keywords: bad language, swearing, profanity, obscenity, indecency, taboo, fuck, frak, neophemism, popular culture, fiction, censorship, speech, expression, First Amendment, regulation, communication, social change
JEL Classification: K13, K19, K23, K42, L82, L97, O35
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation