A Pretty F---ing Complete History Of The F-Word In Movies & Television

Photo: Kevin Winter/ GettyImages.
When trailers for Tina Fey's new movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, began to air on TV, we were, of course, intrigued by the idea of the comedian playing a war correspondent. Then another question popped up: Since when did the F-word get so acceptable that we can see it referred to casually (albeit as "WTF" spelled out in military alphabet) without the Parents Television Council blowing a gasket? Are we possibly done clutching our pearls about a little word? To answer that question, we decided to give ourselves — and you — a little history of the word "fuck" and its place on our screens.
1475 — The first known publication of the word, which had been in use long before, in the poem "Flen flyys," written in Latin and Middle English. The poem skewers some monks "because they fuck the wives of [the town of] Ely." No one is quite certain of the origins of the word (nope, it's not an acronym for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" or anything else), but it's thought to be related to German.

— The U.S. Constitution is ratified, followed by the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech. Never to be argued about again. JK.

1873 — The Comstock Laws — a collection of federal and state laws — ban birth control and the distribution of "obscene" materials in the U.S.

1921 — The invention of the first "bleep" machine, actually a switch that would play a phonograph instead of live broadcast, is invented after Vaudeville actress Olga Petrova appears on Newark radio station WJZ. She scared them into coming up with the idea after making an oblique reference to the need for birth control, which violated the Comstock Laws.

1930 — The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, a trade organization, adopts the Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code), banning such things as scenes of adultery, acts of revenge in modern times, and profanity in word, gesture, or suggestion. In 1934, under pressure from the Catholic Church, the MPPDA creates the Production Code Administration to enforce the code. Movies that violate the code cannot be shown in American theaters.

1934 — The Communications Act of 1934 dismantles the Federal Radio Commission and replaces it with the Federal Communications Commission.

— The use of swear words among young soldiers in World Wars I and II expands considerably, and, for better or worse, is brought back home.

Two British films use the word "fuck": Ulysses (an adaptation of the James Joyce book that had on occasion been banned for its use of profanity) and I'll Never Forget What's'isname.

1968 — The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, formerly the MPPDA), under the guidance of President Jack Valenti, ditches the Production Code in favor of a voluntary system that consisted of the ratings: G, M, R, and X. To this day, many accuse the MPAA of bias toward the major studios, especially since its specific guidelines are not available to the public.

1970M*A*S*H is the first American movie to use the word, and it comes just once, not even during battle but in the midst of a football game.

1972 — Influenced by the late, oft-banned comic Lenny Bruce, George Carlin releases the album Class Clown, featuring his famous stand-up routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

— Carlin releases Occupation: Foole, which contains the track "Filthy Words," a continuation of the "Seven Words" theme. New York radio station WBAI plays it unedited, leading to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation (the station's owner).

1977 — Carlin's stand-up airs on the revolutionary new pay cable channel, Home Box Office, basically redefining the "Seven Words" as ones you can't say on broadcast television. Meanwhile, all those worried watchdogs do have a point about the impact of the routine: An entire generation of comedians and writers cite him as an inspiration for their careers.

— The Supreme Court rules in favor of the FCC in FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, solidifying the commission's right to fine broadcast radio and TV stations for "indecent" content, despite the First Amendment, because: children. It also establishes the so-called "safe harbor" hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when indecency can run rampant, as long as advertisers want to pay for it.

The original Battlestar Galactica series airs on ABC, introducing the world to the fake expletive "frak," which became much more popular with the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) show from 2004 to 2009. This was long before "fracking" became a legit bad word to environmental activists.

1984 — After being criticized for the fact that PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins were inappropriate for younger children, Steven Spielberg suggests the invention of a PG-13 rating. Though there are exceptions, the use of one "fuck" in a nonsexual context is okay for PG-13, but any more can raise it to an R, unless filmmakers appeal. Some PG-13 movies make really good use of their one instance, though.


— The Seinfeld episode "Non-Fat Yogurt" uses the bleeped F-word, overheard by a young boy, as a central joke. Bleeping becomes a frequent comic tool from now on.

1995 — The Parents Television Council is formed. Because the FCC doesn't actually have people sitting around watching every hour of TV every day, it's up to conservative watchdog groups like this to watch all that filth and call in their complaints, so networks can be punished for profanity or obscenity. By 2003, the PTC is responsible for 99.9% of complaints received by the FCC. Um, thanks for your service?

1996-98 — TV networks agree to develop their own ratings system to be used by parents and eventually in the V-chip devices that would allow parents to block channels. These ratings range from TV-Y to TV-MA. Amazingly, though they're not beholden to the FCC, cable networks still use the ratings, too.
2001 — ABC airs Saving Private Ryan on prime time for Veterans Day, despite its R rating for violence and frequent use of expletives.

2002 — While receiving the Artist Achievement Award at the Billboard Music Awards (which air live on Fox), Cher becomes one of the first to drop an F-bomb during an awards show telecast, and certainly not the last. Her exact offensive phrasing is: "I’ve also had my critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So fuck ’em."
2003 — "This is really, really fucking brilliant," Bono says in response to winning the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Nicole Richie also drops an F-bomb at the Billboard Awards. The FCC initially rules Bono's slip as okay, because it's "fleeting." Until...

2004 — When the whole uproar over Janet Jackson's nipple at the Super Bowl makes the FCC decide to crack down on all levels of indecency. They warn broadcasters that future "fleeting" expletives will, in fact, be fined. This means war! It also means a lot more live television events have begun using a time delay.

Meanwhile, screenwriters and filmmakers are running wild:

On that censorship-free haven of HBO, David Milch (co-creator with Stephen Bochco of the profanity-laden NYPD Blue) introduces us to the lawless Wild West town of Deadwood, where the word "fuck" is uttered (somewhat anachronistically) 43 times in the first episode.

Over on Fox, in the "Afternoon Delight" episode of Arrested Development, a scene in which G.O.B. curses out a helpful employee is split and aired out of order, so you see him yell, "-king 63-hundred-dollar suit. Come on!" awhile before the beginning of the sentence, "No, Al. I want to spill booze all over my fu—…" Watch it edited in order here.
Despite all this rebellion, the new FCC threat of "sanctions" scares many ABC affiliates away from airing Saving Private Ryan until 2005, when the commission actually admits that when depicting the violence of World War II, everyone needs the outlet of a few fucks. (We may be paraphrasing.)

In December, Meet the Fockers (rated PG-13) becomes the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year.

2005 Fuck, a documentary about the word, premieres at the American Film Institute Film Festival in Los Angeles. Theaters, media outlets, and anyone else trying to explain the movie to a general audience bend over backwards to refer to it without using the full word. The movie uses the word "fuck" 857 times (according to Wikipedia, at least), making it the record-holder until 2014.

2006 — President Bush signs the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, increasing the maximum fine the FCC can impose from $32,500 to $325,000.

2008 — Praising Diane Sawyer's lips during an interview on Good Morning America, Diane Keaton says, "I would like to have lips like that. Then I wouldn’t have worked on my fucking personality."

2009FCC vs. Fox Television Stations, the network's attempt to fight fines imposed after Cher's and Richie's fleeting expletives, goes to the Supreme Court, which rules 5-4 to send the thing back to the lower courts. (No word on how many expletives are uttered when the announcement is made.)

Britney Spears releases the single "If You Seek Amy," and someone tells the PTC what that means. Radio stations play an edit replacing "Seek" with "See," but no one bothers to change the video, because no one watches videos on TV anymore.

2012FCC vs. Fox returns to the Supreme Court, which finally decides that the FCC can't fine Fox or ABC for those fleeting expletives from 2002 and 2003, because it hadn't made any rules about those before and only decided they were bad after the fact. But since the court doesn't say one way or another whether the ban on fleeting expletives violates the First Amendment, the FCC's current rule stands.

2013The Wolf of Wall Street sets a new record for number of F-bombs in a feature film. Some counts say it has 506, but a highly determined investigative reporter at Vulture reports that it's 569. Director Martin Scorsese, who'd previously brought us the cursing masterpiece Casino, is clearly an artist with the word.

2014 — Little-seen Canadian feature Swearnet: The Movie sets the new record, with 935 fucks, according to the movie's site. The Guinness Book of World Records reports it as 858 fucks.

2016 — FX's The People Vs. O.J. Simpson breaks new ground with the word "motherfucker," as in, "Cochran...motherfucker," uttered by Sarah Paulson's Marcia Clarke when she realizes the famous attorney is on Simpson's team. According to Entertainment Weekly, Comedy Central has aired the word after 1 a.m., but this is likely the first prime-time instance of the word on basic cable.

Where does that leave us now? Well, if you can show us someone, child or otherwise, who's never heard the F-word from a parent, then he or she is pretty likely to have heard it from the street, TV, or movies at this point. There's reason to mourn that fact. No, not the loss of innocence, necessarily — that takes more than language to destroy. What's kind of, sort of disappointing about the prevalence of "fuck," and the softening of the public's attitude about it, is that the word thereby loses its power. It's not a strong expression of, well, everything, if everyone's uttering it. Maybe it's time to dig up some other insult once slung at 15th century monks?

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