Editor’s note: Due to the author’s overarching desire to re-establish to the postmodern West such qualities as morality, civility and the classical modes of rhetoric, she has replaced in the following all quoted uses of the word under discussion with “eff,” with appropriate grammatical derivations thereof.
That “eff,” “effing,” “eff off,” “eff about” and “eff up” have entered the general lexicon through the popular entertainment media is disputed by no one. In the last 20 years, “eff” has entered every level of public discourse at such a pace that perhaps “deluge effect” is more descriptive than “trickle-down.”
Some years ago, the immensely popular film Three Weddings and a Funeral introduced the lives of modern upper-class English people to U.S. audiences perhaps more accustomed to the BBC’s pristine and meticulous productions of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie novels. North American viewers were shocked to hear the Oxbridge tones of Hugh Grant uttering the eff-word repeatedly in the opening scenes. The film was possibly a landmark of effable acceptability. If even the posh-accented could use it in such a cute and stylish way, how bad could it be?
The general flattening of the social order in England after the war may have contributed to the word’s climb to moderate respectability. Since Britain’s post-war socialist refurbishment, it has become fashionable for the upper classes to “identify” with the lower orders.
In the U.S., and consequently in Canada, the popularity of so-called “ghetto” or “gangsta” culture of poor urban blacks has contributed to the word being heard so commonly, especially among the young. Gangsta clothes, music and lingo have replaced the hippie iconography and the aggressive use of “eff” in public has taken its place along with giant running shoes, baggy pants and huge quilted jackets as the new rebellious cool. The grown-up culture, in its tireless pursuit of hipness, has perhaps adopted “eff” as a mark of solidarity with the kids.
On one weblog, NewYorkEtte, Carolita Johnson, a writer and cartoonist living in New York City, complains that it is difficult to surf the blogging world without noticing the unrestrained use of the eff-word. She writes, “You know what I’ve noticed while reading blogs lately? We all seem to think we have to effing say effall the time.” Her online research revealed that at least 19,000 blogs (out of possibly millions) contain the word “effing” – more than “breasts” (3,552), “cure for cancer” (738), or “world peace’ (17,562).
Another blogger asserts that “eff” is the new “hell,” an expression once frowned-upon but now softened into a mere verbal punctuation mark. There is even a popular clothing store named “Fcuk,” an acronym for “French Connection U.K.” and evidently considered the height of wit by ad executives and shoppers alike.
Others, somewhat less sanguine, have noted a connection between “eff” and a newly released social aggression. Popular British author Lynne Truss calls it the “Universal Eff-Off Reflex” (UEOR) in her book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. Truss, whose first enormously popular book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, lamented the loss of punctuation as an indicator of the impending downfall of civilization, links the UEOR with the post-hippie me-generation’s notion that anyone can and must be allowed to behave however they wish without restraint.
Truss writes, “The Universal Eff-Off Reflex is generally agreed to be something new in the world of manners … No one is in the wrong, it seems. If you point out to someone that he is in the wrong, you must be prepared for the consequences, which may include violence, but will automatically include Eff Off.”
The UEOR, Truss asserts, is the modern world’s idea of a witty riposte. “Abuse is becoming accepted as the quickest and smartest way of dealing with criticism in all areas of life.
“The state of manners is driving some of us to be direct,” a condition, she points out earlier in the book, utterly alien to the British soul. “And this directness is whacked straight back at us by people who are never in the wrong, who interpret directness as sheer hostility, and who say Eff Off so much in their normal conversations anyway that it springs automatically to their cherry-red lips.”
In general, however, it seems clear that the eff-word’s new-found acceptability is related in some way to the abrupt abandonment of Christian social foundations, including ordinary civility, during the last 40 years. One piece of evidence is shown by a website listing the films in English with the most uses of “eff.” None of them was made before 1983, with a distinct acceleration since the late 1990s.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the word’s definition straightforwardly as “to copulate.” It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the collapse of Christian-based social norms, with the rise of the vulgar, animalistic attitude towards sex, should correspond with general indifference towards a vulgar word describing it.