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F-bombs and aha moments

Published:Saturday | August 18, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Tony Deyal

First, there is the 'Tipping Point', which author Malcolm Gladwell describes as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point". Next comes the 'tripping' point, which seems to be what happened to the Merriam-Webster College Dictionary when it admitted the word 'F-bomb' among 100 new words that will soon be included in the annual update of the 114-year-old dictionary.

A word to the wise may be sufficient, but an F-bomb may blow wisdom to smithereens.

Jordana Divon, in 'The Daily Brew', explained how the F-bomb blasted its way into the dictionary, "Yes, the word you use in lieu of spelling out the actual four-letter profanity for propriety's sake has landed in the hallowed dictionary pages after decades of living on the vernacular margins."

Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Kory Stamper described 'F-bomb' as "a word that is very visually evocative. It's not just the F-word. It's F-bomb. You know that it's going to cause a lot of consternation and possible damage."

Stamper and her group attributed the first use of the term 'F-bomb' to a Newsday story in 1988 when a former New York Mets player, catcher Gary Carter, told the magazine he'd given up F-bombs, or, in other words, he was limiting his use of profanity to more socially acceptable terminology.

The F-bomb then gained greater prominence after a 'legendary' basketball coach, Bobby Knight, expressed his fondness for the term. However, it is when the F-bomb burst in the political arena that it carved out its own niche and blew its competition, the F-word, to bits.

Huge spike

According to Stamper of Merriam-Webster, "We saw another huge spike after Dick Cheney dropped an F-bomb in the Senate in 2004, and again in 2010 when Vice-President Joe Biden did the same thing in the same place."

While Leonne Italie of AP says, "It's about freaking time" and the F-bomb can be found among countless online dictionaries, this will be the first time it appears in print, and already, some of the criticism has started.

Babble, a website for "a new generation of parents", complains, "When young children realise that if 'F-bomb' is in the dictionary, its formerly taboo status must have been lifted", and asks, "Are the Merriam-Webster folks simply reacting to the times and trying to keep up with them, or are they making a statement and giving printed consent to start using and doing some previously non-kid friendly words and activities?"

Babble also complains about another word admitted into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It is 'sexting'. When I was growing up, 'sex' and 'ting' were synonymous, so when Lord Kitchener sang, "Gimme the ting that the doctor order me/ Gimme the ting," we knew what he meant. However, sexting, in these days of cellphones, Facebook and tweets (incidentally 'tweet' was the dictionary's last year word), means "the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cellphone."

Like Samsung, sexting is all over the Galaxy now, yet Babble describes its inclusion in the Merriam-Webster as "another word added to the dictionary that puts an official label on something you don't want your kids doing". A response on the Drudge Report was, "I really hate it that Merriam-Webster adds garbage like this. Legitimising slang and sloppy language should never be acceptable."

Babble should be forced into an 'aha moment', which, partly through the term's use by megastar Oprah Winfrey, has also found its way into the dictionary. My aha moment came many, many years ago when I found out that the root words of the F-bomb and C-bomb (if there ever was or will be one) are in the dictionary. Using Babble's logic, kids would already have seen those words, so why would they settle for euphemisms?

Does one have to be rich and/or famous like Oprah and Bobby Knight, or infamous like Dick Cheney, to prompt Merriam-Webster? It seems so.

Singing a snippet

One of the new words is 'earworm'. The Associated Press states that 'earworm' started with author Stephen King, who used it in 2009, in a column for Entertainment Weekly titled 'The Trouble With Earworms'. King described waking up in the middle of the night for a glass of water when he found himself singing a snippet of a lyric.

He wrote, "My friend, the Longhair, says that's what you call songs that burrow into your head and commence chewing your brains. The dreaded earworm can turn even a great song into something you'd run from, screaming at the top of your lungs. If only you could."

Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper explained that the word 'earworm' comes from the German 'ohrwurm', which surfaced in English in the late '80s as a way to describe untranslatable words. Since King popularised it as a tune that won't leave your head, it solidified itself in the national linguistic consciousness in America. Earworm isn't actually a new word for Merriam-Webster and can also be a blight that attacks corn.

Also among the new words or old words with new meanings are 'systemic risk', which means that "you owe more on your mortgage than the property is worth", and 'toxic', or "an asset that has lost so much value that it cannot be sold on the market".

Will the inclusion of words like the 'F-bomb' and 'sexting' prove to be a systemic risk that will be toxic for Merriam-Webster? Are they at a tipping point or a tripping point? In other words, will a word to the wise be an aha moment, or an F-bomb?

Tony Deyal was last seen with an earworm - Lord Kitchener's 'Gimme De Ting'. He said he would prefer a house call from Gabby's 'Doctor Cassandra'.