What the 'frak'? Faux curse seeping into language
NEW YORK - Lee Goldberg thinks Glen A. Larson is a genius, and not because the prolific television writer and producer gave us "Knight Rider" and "B.J. and the Bear."
It was Larson who first used the faux curse word "frak" in the original "Battlestar Galactica." The word was mostly overlooked back in the '70s series but is working its way into popular vocabulary as SciFi's modern update winds down production. (full story here)
The article gives the same explanation for 'frak's 'virus-like' spread in culture as for its use on the show: "You can't get in trouble. It's a made-up word."
On Battlestar Galactica (or BSG to us cult members), 'frak' is everywhere. The plot centers on the military crew of the last battlestar in existence, which is about to be destroyed at any moment -- they're earthy, adult characters in a pretty fraking awful situation that merits a lot of cursing. In terms of usage, 'frak' is exactly equivalent to its 'real,' taboo counterpart. Characters accuse each other of fraking one another and they ask, 'What the frak?' I'm not totally sure, but I think they even call each other 'motherfrakers.'
While Larson, of the original series, claims he was trying to give the show an 'other-worldly' feel by using the made up word, it also clearly serves a really important purpose. I (and I assume a lot of viewers) was a bit turned off by it at first, but we definitely buy a made-up word more easily than we buy a bunch of soldiers who don't curse.
Language log has blogged quite a bit about what they call 'taboo avoidance,' especially at the New York Times and other media of record. But the frak of BSG is different for two notable reasons.
First, it's not in print. LL has chronicled a lot of attempts to orthographically represent curse words, like f***, f-bomb and #@!!*. But I'm unfamiliar with similar devices for the spoken word except saying "Starbuck here used an expletive."
Second, the NYT gets into trouble because the people it's quoting and reporting about curse. We all know the Times' motto, but some of the news isn't exactly fit to print. Larson and the other BSG writers, on the other hand, have no such task to accomplish. Their only obvious option was to write characters who didn't curse.
Exactly why 'frak' is ok by the FCC is another important question. One of the actors quoted by AP espouses a theory that it must actually be the sound of a word, not its meaning, that matters. But according to a recent appeals court ruling against the FCC, Bono's use of 'fucking' at the Golden Globe awards should not have merited a fine because "offensive language used as an insult rather than as a description of sexual or excretory activity or organs is not within the scope of the Commission's prohibition of indecent program content." (More on LawMeme.)
Though we started with the power of an individual, we return, as always, to the masses. Because 'frak' does not have the same history of usage as 'fuck,' it's not the same word. It doesn't carry the same associations as the really violent, angry instances of 'fuck' we've heard throughout our lives.
But the point of the AP article is that 'frak' is making its way into that spot in our vocabulary -- if only among the nerds. If this 'viral' propagation continues, and if 'frak' starts taking on those violent associations, maybe when they remake BSG in another 30 years, it will be just as taboo as 'fuck.' I've definitely caught a strain of the virus. I've never used it in anger, but I've cursed 'frak!' in my head a few times. I've also thought 'Gods damn it!' when the mood strikes.
(Thanks to Jamie for sending this one our way!)