June 1, 2010

One word – such power. Love it or hate it, those four letters captivate us especially when senior executives say it in a public forum. Such was the case in New York at TechCrunch Disrupt where Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz told Michael Arrington to Fuck Off after he belittled her about the limited success of Yahoo! under her leadership. Not surprisingly this one very quick event made headlines over many of the substantive discussions that took place during Disrupt. So why was this news? Because she’s a CEO? Because she’s a woman? Or maybe because she’s a female CEO. Still – what’s the big deal? After all, many CEOs have said it: Steve Ballmer said “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy” – Disney’s top Mouse Robert Iger dropped a “Fuck you” during an annual shareholder meeting, and even Dick Cheney got in on the action when he told Democratic senator Patrick Leahy “Go fuck yourself” – and the list goes on and on. I am fascinated by this topic and thought I’d spend a few minutes with you looking at fuck.

We all use the word – some of us more often than others. If you’re one of the few who can honestly claim you never say it – than I suspect an occasional “fuck them/fucker/fuck it/oh fuck/no fucking way” has silently made its way through your brain. What other word can move so many people, in so many ways, and work as a verb, adverb, conjunction, interjection, noun and pronoun? Fuck dates back well beyond 1475 however this date marks the first usage of the word as a verb. And fuck is very resilient. Despite the millions of people who’ve tried to kill it, it bounces back – or as some may say “it takes a fucking beating“. Throughout history this word has been banned, burned (in the case of Catcher in the Rye), and bleeped but somehow it has managed to survive – even thrive. Now people use WTF or STFU to describe emotion or show a sense of disbelief. Books have been written on Fuck – my favorite being The F Word.

Beyond the history and hysteria, I’m curious why this word has such power that when used in a public forum it becomes the news? There are other words – words created to serve as disparaging, insults for describing a particular race or religion and I completely understand why those words should never be used. But fuck? Why do we as a society both love it and hate it at the same time? Is it like the age-old marijuana debate; legalize it and it won’t be a big deal? If our teachers told us to “do our fucking homework” when we were in elementary school, and our parents reminded us to “button our fucking coats” when we headed out to play in the snow, and the drivers-ed teacher told us to “fucking parallel park” – would it cease to be considered newsworthy now? I’m not sure. But I know as PR person and someone who thinks about and loves words, this one has me stumped. We continue to give this word such adoration and yet, we find ways to not say it by still kind of saying it. Example: “he dropped an F bomb” or “she flipped me the bird”. We want to say it but sometimes we just can’t, so we wrap it up as something else – but we all know what it is: a good old f-u-c-k.

So did Carol Bartz say it because she wanted the spotlight? I don’t think so. She probably just “felt it” and no other word would do. That’s what makes Fuck so useful – it’s like a verbal Swiss Army knife; dozens of uses. I’m curious what her PR people said: “good job” or “wow that was off message”. Either way it isn’t the first time a CEO has used fuck when talking about a reporter, or a reporter talking about a CEO. Somehow fuck makes its way into most situations at some point – good or bad.

I think the lesson here is this: while we may never know how it became such a powerhouse word, it should be used only in the right circumstances to prevent diluting its effectiveness. True – a press release with “ACME CO ANNOUNCES GREAT FUCKING SOLUTION FOR iPHONE” would likely get more attention than “ACME CO LAUNCHES CHARGING TOOL FOR IPHONE USERS ON THE GO” – but that would be cheating. I hope today’s chat has at least stirred some thoughts about what role those four letters play in your life. Are you a heavy user, or more on the low to medium range? Wherever you fall on the usage scale and however you use it, take good care of the word so it’ll be around for future generations. That way they can look back on us and ask “what the fuck were they thinking?”.


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