Monday, May 26, 2014

Frakking Expletives

A casual friend, who never has demonstrated any penchant for science fiction, last night expressed to me his lack of interest in a local political issue (which he himself raised as a topic for discussion) by saying, “Why should I give a frak?”

I had no good answer (I live in another town anyway), so I responded only to his vocabulary.

“I wasn’t aware you were a Battlestar Galactica fan,” I said.

“I’m not,” he answered with a puzzled expression. It turned out he had heard the term on The Big Bang Theory (whose main male characters are scifi fans) and had assumed it derived from the technique for extracting shale gas. “Frak” (alternate spelling “frack”), in the sense he used it, is, of course, actually an expletive invented for the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica in order to get past the censors on broadcast TV. When the series was reimagined in 2004, the writers kept the term largely as an homage to the original.

I’m afraid my discussion of the word dissuaded him from using it again (perhaps permanently), which was not my intention, especially since he reverted to the similar but far older Anglo-Saxon expression instead.

Lots of familiar words have entered English as neologisms from fiction: yahoo (Swift), chortle (Carroll), grok (Heinlein), robotics (Asimov, but derived from Capek’s “robot”), utopia (More), and thoughtcrime (Orwell), to cherry-pick a handful. Burgess, a linguist as well as a novelist, invented Nadsat, a Russian-influenced slang for his teenage gangs in A Clockwork Orange, some of which made it onto Kubrick’s screen version (spatchka, yarbles, ultraviolence, et al) and to a limited extent into common speech. Science fiction is especially rich in neologisms that have made it into colloquial English, and many are rudely insulting in a way my interlocutor would find useful given the usual nature of his conversation.

Mutie (a person odd in appearance or character)
Space cadet (unrealistic and airheaded person)
Fembot (most commonly applied to an attractive woman with whom one disagrees politically)
Pod People (unfeeling people, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers)
Eloi (from The Time Machine, useless pampered rich people)
Redshirt (someone likely to be killed)
Smeghead (jerk)
Bastich (bastard/bitch, from Judge Dredd)
and the old standby
Martian (someone whose way of thinking is not down to earth)
to name but a few.

Nor is there a shortage of expletives, which might be more useful still:
Zarking fardwarks! (Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
Twonk (Red Dwarf)
Tanj (“there ain’t no justice” Heinlein, but popularized by Niven)
Cagal (Harry Harrison)
Kvark (Ewoks)
Welnitz (Farscape)
and so on.

Perhaps I should make a fuller list and pass it along. It’s possible I thereby simply would entrench Anglo-Saxon further in the recipient, and perhaps even evoke some of it. But then again maybe he’ll take up a few of the samples, and I’ll have done my bit to help enrich the common tongue.

From Battlestar Galactica (2004)


  1. There's a program on NPR that address words and their origins, I think it's called: A Way With Words. I occasionally listen.

    What I find amazing in some younger people is that they don't even use an euphemism like frak, they just go ahead cuss in public like fuck or shit is perfectly okay to use in pubic gatherings--and I've heard young women speak that way too. I'm not sure where this social demeanor comes from, maybe it is a part of youth, and they grow out of it. I know I wasn't brought up that way, though I'd speak that way around close friends (mostly other males at work), just not out in the open.

    1. I noted much the same thing last year in On Being an Ass . Today, the primary difference in speech between Marines and high school girls is that Marines are more polite.

  2. English is such a moldable and flexible language. It is one of the reasons it has hung around as long as it has. It really can take words from so many origins and just incorporate them with ease. Japanese is very similar in a lot of ways. So many of their words are essentially taken from other languages and molded to suit the Japanese tongue. My favorite is still kurisumasu for Christmas. :)

    Yeah, I'm a bit younger then you gents (late gen Xer here) and starting around highschool cursing was pretty much the norm. We all sounded like we where in a Tarantino flick. This continued all the way through college and even beyond. Hell my wife swears quite a bit. But as you mentioned the big difference is that we can switch this off in public or at the work place. The filters all fall in place, and I'm hardly aware of them. I even avoid saying "damn" as an expression of surprise on work calls with team members I've worked with for years.

    As you say, I'm noticing more and more that younger and younger folks just don't seem to have those filters. But I wonder if that will end up diluting the expletives until they are just normal speech and we'll get a whole new host of Frakking words to use.

    1. Modern movies set in the 40s, 50s or 60s often make the mistake of updating the cusses on the assumption that people really talked like that even if the films of the era don't show it. No, they really didn't talk like that. There were exceptions, of course, the big one being the military, which some films of the time try to capture with the euphemistic participles "lovin'" or "everlovin'" as in the "everlovin' politicians."

      You're probably right about the force of words diminishing with use. I noticed "frak" enough upon which to comment, but wouldn't have thought twice about what it replaced.