In 1971, on February 16, Pierre Trudeau famously told two Conservative members of Parliament to fuck off. He didn’t voice it. He mouthed it. There was no mistaking it--the expression begins and ends with the letter F, easy to lip-read. But Trudeau denied saying it. Confronted by reporters, he admitted moving his lips. “What were you thinking when you moved your lips?" Trudeau was asked. He replied, "What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say 'fuddle duddle' or something like that?"
So Trudeau never really claimed to have said “fuddle duddle.” The newspapers were willing to run with it, though, because it solved the problem of how to report the incident. They couldn’t print fuck.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the same reticence is on display in a paperback “treasury of Canadian language” published by Oxford University Press. The first entry in Only in Canada, You Say, by Katherine Barber, is the legendary eh. Then there is the second entry:
euphemism go to hell; drop dead. ◊ Origin: what Prime
Minister Pierre Trudeau claimed he said in Parliament
rather than a profanity.
Where to start? Right off, a couple of nit-picks. Trudeau uttered an obscenity, not a profanity, and it wasn’t “said,” it was mouthed. Second, the very entry is wrong; there’s no such expression as fuddle duddle. Trudeau apparently invented it on the spot, blending fuddy-duddy and fuddle. His invention obtained no lasting currency. It didn’t make the Gage Canadian Dictionary, the Winston Dictionary of Canadian English, the Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary, the Canadian edition of Funk & Wagnalls, the Concise Dictionary of Canadianisms, or Mark Orkin’s Speaking Canadian English.
It did, however, get into the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. And here is the problem: Oxford’s definition in Only in Canada, You Say, is different from the one it offers in the dictionary:
interj. Cdn euphemism go to hell; drop dead [what
Prime Minister Trudeau claimed he said in Parliament
rather than ‘fuck off’]
Only in Canada, you will recall, uses the words “a profanity,” not “‘fuck off’.” The question is, why? The whole point of fuddle duddle--its only point--is that it was advanced by Pierre Trudeau as a variant of “fuck off.” If you aren’t told that, you don’t know anything.
Surprising though it is, fuck off seems to have been deemed too offensive to reproduce in Only in Canada, You Say, especially right at the beginning of the book. Elsewhere, explanatory notes appear in boxes below some of the entries; at the very least, such a note was required for the origins of “fuddle duddle.” But it would have meant printing fuck off.
There may have been friction between the author of Only in Canada, Kathleen Barber, and the president of the Canadian branch of Oxford University Press, David Stover. Barber was the award-winning editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. In October, not long after Only in Canada was published, Stover announced that the dictionary was being shut down–-even though it was a runaway bestseller when it appeared in 1996. Like its parent company, Oxford plans to move into online publishing; Stover said it will outsource production to freelance editors, but he didn’t mention Barber as one of those editors. She, in turn, declined to comment on the announcement.
An obscenity like fuck has always been a problem for dictionaries. They have to satisfy a broad market; while many people don’t like dirty words, others, more sophisticated, don’t like bowdlerization. Accordingly, fuck was slow to get into dictionaries. It didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, nor in Webster’s New International Dictionary. It didn’t get into the Concise Oxford until 1976, although it had appeared in the Atlantic and Harper’s as well as Playboy by the 1960s.
In 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary attempted to print four-letter words, but as Nat Hentoff complained, its editors lost their nerve and tried to sell an expurgated "Texas edition" to state school authorities. For David B. Guralnik, editor of the 1980 Webster’s New World Dictionary, the rise of political correctness presented a business opportunity. He omitted the like of fuck and shit (“vulgate terms”), and also nigger and kike (“those true obscenities”), arguing that the former were now encountered so often, and the latter now so seldom, that definitions were needed for neither.
Nowadays, fuck gets literary use. The poet Philip Larkin began one of his poems with the well-known line, “They fuck you up, your mom and dad.” A former Dartmouth dean used "fucked up" at a Harvard seminar; Lord Bingham of Hill, the senior British law lord, was quoted in the Spectator as saying, “I don’t give a fuck whether we’re peers or not.” Northrop Frye, in the notebooks he kept in his last five years, said that his book Words with Power was "a fucked-and-far-from-home mess."
The literary standing of fuck gets an amusing illustration in the movie Aliens IV: a character reaches for the idiom don’t fuck with me but carefully avoids ending a sentence with a preposition, saying, “Don’t push me, Nicole....you’ll find that I’m not a man with whom to fuck.”
Among the various idioms employing fuck, the most extravagant is surely “flying fuck at a rolling doughnut,” but the most expressive remains Pierre Trudeau’s fuck off. George Walden, a diplomat and politician, felt compelled to use it in the Nov. 28 Times Literary Supplement; for critics, he said, the lack of intellectual and economic independence go together: “‘F-k off money,’” as the unattractive phrase goes, is not widely distributed among commentators on the arts.” Fuck off received high praise from two novelists, Kingsley Amis and his son Martin. In Experience, his 2000 memoir, Martin Amis stated: "My father and I had occasion to agree that 'fuck off' was very funny. One naturally admired its brutality and brevity--but it was also terribly good."
Inhibitions in reproducing an obscenity vary with the medium and the mode. Books, deemed to be the most serious medium, enjoy the most permissiveness. Among modes, the least offensive use is mere citation, as in a dictionary. The most offensive use is authorial, in which a writer himself does the uttering. Quotation falls between the two, and offensiveness there varies according to whom is being quoted. A prime minister’s obscenity is more privileged than yours or mine.
Breadth of audience is perhaps the paramount consideration. The New Yorker, with a narrow range of readers who represent the epitome of sophistication, may have been slow to print fuck, waiting until 1985, but by 1993 it had shucked all its inhibitions; in that year, James Wolcott quoted this monologue by a black female comedian on Home Box Office television:
Do I look like a fuckin' lady or what? I like bein'
a fuckin' lady. Especially in the nineties, we get to
say what the fuck we want to, don't we, girls? That's
right. And still be a lady. That's right. 'Cause you
know in the old days they couldn't say the shit they
wanted to say. They had to fake orgasms and shit.
We can tell niggers today, 'I wanna come,
Intrinsically more vulgar, because its use of fuck descends into a dirty joke, straining and artificial, is Margaret Atwood’s sentence in her novel Oryx and Crake, quoted in the New Yorker of May 19, 2003: “A couple of the test subjects had literally fucked themselves to death, several had assaulted old ladies and household pets, and there had been a few unfortunate cases of priapism and split dicks.”
A quotation like that could never appear in a newspaper. In contrast to the New Yorker, newspapers must take into account the most prudish of readers, some of whom never look at dictionaries. But the day after I read Only in Canada, You Say, noticing the absence of fuck off, I picked up the Globe and Mail and saw the story about the foul-mouthed Illinois governor who wanted a payoff from whomever he appointed to the seat in the U.S. Senate vacated by Barack Obama. The Globe didn’t flinch:
“They’re not willing to give me anything except
appreciation,” Mr. Blagojevich said to his chief
of staff John Harris a week after Mr. Obama was
elected. “Fuck them.”◊