The clothing brand FUCT has been denied federal protection of trademark by the Supreme Court, The New York Times reported last week. According to the Times piece, no one in the courtroom could even bring themselves to say the word out loud. Why do we get so squeamish about certain words?
Erik Brunetti, the company’s owner, has often said that the clothing brand is an acronym standing for “Friends U Can’t Trust,” but Section 1052 under Title 15 of the U.S. Code states that trademarks may be refused if the item being registered “consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter.” Even more surprising than the brand name or the court decision is the overall conduct of the proceedings. As reported in the Times, the refusal of any party in the room to state the acronym of the clothing brand resulted in federal attorney Malcolm L. Stewart to call it “the equivalent of the past participle form of the paradigmatic profane word in our culture.” How do words become taboo and gain such power?
FUCT Lawsuit – A Word on Anger and Frustration
One of the most common uses of taboo words—often called curse words or swear words—is in anger or frustration. But why? “Profanity, obscenities, and vulgarities seem to be as old as language itself, and part of the reason may be that they perform a physiological function,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. Citing a 2009 study at Keele University in the UK, Dr. Curzan explained that Keele researchers tasked students with holding their hands in a bucket of ice water as long as they could. “The students who could swear reported less pain and could keep their hand in the water on average 40 seconds longer than the students who weren’t allowed to swear; those other students could chant a neutral word, but they weren’t allowed to swear,” Dr. Curzan said.
Expletives are stored in a different part of the brain than the rest of the words we use—other words are stored in the left hemisphere of the brain and expletives are on the right. “What may happen is that expletives activate the amygdala, and the amygdala triggers the fight or flight response, which dulls pain, hence the fact that those students can hold their hand in the ice water longer,” Dr. Curzan said.
FUCT – Changing Ideas of Vulgarity
Over time, in the court of public opinion, taboo words can either become less taboo or even more taboo. Words that used to make people bristle may not cause us to bat an eyelash now. “Some profanity has weakened over time; ‘devil’ used to be a much stronger term, as did ‘damn,'” Dr. Curzan said. “‘Leg’ was seen as an impolite, if not a bad, word in the 19th century; ‘limb’ was the polite term. Speakers used ‘bosom’ for ‘breast;’ and now ‘breast’ is the polite term compared with other options—one of which isn’t allowed on TV.” Even the terms “light meat” and “dark meat” are used to avoid uttering out loud chicken parts like breasts, legs, and thighs.
Conversely, the public has increasingly shunned other words. Usually, these are racial epithets. In the 18th and 19th centuries, far fewer people empathized with those who were the targets of racial slurs than they have since the Civil Rights era. Some epithets based on ethnicity have become so widely recognized as harmful and racist that some groups have called for the total eradication of the words.
Erik Brunetti’s clothing brand was denied its trademark based on its similar sound to “the f-word,” a word that’s taboo enough to have made members of the Supreme Court skirt around it. Sometimes we say it in response to pain, frustration, or anger. Sometimes the overall response to certain taboo words changes over time. It’s unlikely that “the f-word” will ever be fully accepted as a completely inoffensive word, but Brunetti can always hope.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article.
Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. She has won several awards for teaching, including the University of Michigan’s Henry Russel Award and the John Dewey Award.