Review: ‘A Field Guide to the F Word’: In a Word? Meh
(I received a free copy of “A Field Guide to the F Word” by Ben Parker in exchange for my honest review. The book was published Jan. 5, 2016, by Valley Press, an imprint of Lone Wolf Consortium.)
If there was ever to be a book that was in my fuckin’ wheelhouse, it would be one that blends grammar, style, and cursing. (See: “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt and “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years” by Geoffrey Nunberg, both of which I read and loved.) Nunberg’s book is especially relevant here; it’s a linguist’s entirely sincere and serious take on the precise meaning of the word “asshole,” how we use it, how that has changed over time, and how it has influenced and been influenced by cultural movements. I had hoped Ben Parker’s take on the F-world (or, as Parker describes it, simply The Word) would similarly weave sociology and linguistics together to show the evolution of everyone’s favorite swear word.
“A Field Guide to the F Word” didn’t quite hit that mark.
The book briefly examines the history of the word. The origins of “fuck” are fairly uncertain—though it is not, as the folk etymology goes, an initialism for “fornicating under consent of the king.” Throughout the word’s history it has remained taboo, but the granddaddy of all curse words really gained steam with servicemen during World War II, according to Parker.
The book then dives into the deep end, dropping into explaining the various uses of fuck. It uses linguistic and grammatical terms without defining them. It’s apparently supposed to be funny, but the attempts at levity fell flat. There are few explanations for why certain uses of the word fuck sound right, while others don’t work.
All of this is a shame because there is some genuinely interesting information in here and a nuanced discussion of what fuck means in different contexts, how it can convey so many different emotions—seriously, everything from anger or surprise to delight or disappointment—and how there are so few suitable synonyms that have the versatility fuck does.
The most interesting part was fuck and infixing, specifically expletive infixing, which basically is inserting a word inside another word, like so: Massa-fucking-chusetts. Here Parker does some work, citing a linguist, but crucial concepts (including what infixing is) are not explained.
It’s all so unfortunate because Parker’s primary argument is sound: When properly deployed, The Word can be beautiful, even poetic. My time living in New Jersey taught me that much. But Parker doesn’t properly show his work, vacillating between long lists of examples (which, confusingly, don’t ever include the word “fuck” in them) and dense linguistic diatribes. Sometimes, the lists are preceded with a yes or a no, but Parker never sets out to explain why, for example, “A fucking gaggle of geese” works when “A fucking flock of pigeons” doesn’t. (And I’m not sure he’s right there, either. I would have been willing to be convinced, though.)
There is a lot of handwringing: over women dropping F-bombs (fuck that), over improper usage of fuck, over the nuance of the word being lost—although maybe that was supposed to be funny? It’s unclear.
But most of all, a field guide, even a humorous one, should be easy to understand. People should be able to pick this book up and—without being an editor or a linguist or a grammarian—understand what’s being said. The quaint refusal to print the word “fuck” also doesn’t help make it more comprehensible.
There is gold in “A Field Guide to the F Word.” I wish it didn’t take so much panning to find.