F-Bomb: A Short History of F-Word Controversies

A professor's email retort to campus Republicans set off a scandal in Iowa this week. John Leo on the latest in America's long line of f-bomb detonations.

Ellen Lewin, a professor of anthropology and gender at the University of Iowa, touched off a national scandal this week in the simplest of ways: She sent out an email bearing the vehement but hopelessly unoriginal phrase, “Fuck you, Republicans.” As Lewin tells it, she was sorely provoked—she had received an unsolicited email from the campus chapter of the College Republicans. Talk about shock. Besides, the email urged students to “come out” as conservatives, which Lewin, author of books on gays and lesbians, considered a gross misappropriation of gay terminology.

One columnist hailed her as a “hero,” a level of achievement apparently reached easily in and around Iowa City. The rest of the script in these matters was dutifully followed. Lewin published two non-apologies, one of which admitted that her comment was very offensive, “nearly rising to the level of obscenity.” The president of the university, Sally Mason, issued the conventional content-free statement favoring both free speech and civility, while the College Republicans raised the irrelevant issue of whether Lewin, by attaching her academic credentials at the end of her note, had implicated the entire university in saying “fuck you” to a major political party, though one practically invisible on campus and quite accustomed to being told to f-word off.

Alas, f-word controversies are becoming rare. The first big one I recall happened in the 1960s, when some interloper charged onto the set of a live PBS broadcast shouting “Fuck.” The New York Times, which I had just joined as a reporter, put the story on page one but could not bring itself to mention or even indicate the offending word. This confounded readers, particularly when the Times reported that Channel 13 could lose its license over the matter. What could the word be? The second day, the newspaper told readers the word was “f__k”. The third-day story, as I recall, fell to John Kifner, then a waggish youngster, later a great foreign correspondent. Kifner filed a report referring to the word as “_uc_,” so alert readers might put together the second- and third-day reports and thus understand what the Times was saying. No dice. “I know what you’re getting at,” said the metropolitan editor, so “_uc_” never ran. Many Times readers are presumably still in the dark.

I guessed that Al Pacino's Scarface was the most F-word-clogged.

Since, then I have become an aficionado of the publicly uttered F-word. For a column at U.S. News, I counted the number in Lenny Dykstra’s book, Nails (169) and in a taped comedy performance by Eddie Murphy (214). Later, Martin Lawrence topped Murphy with 311. The former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda once used the f-word 144 times in a pep talk to players, who counted them to pass the time. A skilled lip-reading Dodger fan concluded that Lasorda probably needed more than 100,000 on-field f-words to get through an average season. In my column, I guessed that Al Pacino's Scarface was the most F-word-clogged Hollywood movie. But no, it now ranks only 45th. You can look at the current F-word rankings on Wikipedia.

Fuck, the documentary on the word, is the champion with 824, followed by Summer of Sam (435), something called Nil By Mouth (428), Casino (422), and Alpha Dog (367). In the speed category, Steve Martin's character in Planes, Trains and Automobiles uses derivations of the f-word 18 times in just over a minute. If you are inclined to debate the issue of most F-words by a recording artist, don’t bother. It was Richard Nixon by a mile for the Watergate tapes.

John Leo is editor of Minding the Campus, the Manhattan Institute site on colleges and universities.