You all have very patiently listened to my occasional rants about how fluid language is these days. I’ve told you that in my day, a word meant one thing and not its opposite. I’ve complained about people using words without knowing what they mean. You’ve stuck by me, no doubt hoping that if you’re indulgent enough, I’ll stop being such a curmudgeon about this.
I wish I had better news for you.
The subject of today’s rant is the word “freaking.”
I hate the word “freaking” because it is at the bottom of a linguistic slippery slope. As a rule of thumb, I like to use the words at the top of the slope unless I have a pretty good reason not to. The words at the top are often shorter and more powerful, not diluted by a long slide through improper usage and popular opinion. Walking up the slope is going to be a bit like climbing up a sliding board, but I think it’ll be worth the trip.
The word “freaking” is commonly used as a sort of toothless profanity. It’s family friendly. We’re supposed to be okay saying things like “no freaking way” at the dinner table.
I object to this because “freaking” itself is not really a word. It is no more a word than the word “froozing,” which plays a pivotal role in the television edit of the motion picture, Fargo. Yeah. No froozin’ way.
Just up the slippery slope is the word “fricking.” Despite its appearance in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, I maintain that “fricking” is not a word. Worse, I think “fricking” is actually a mispronunciation of the word at the top of the slope. As much as I hate it, at least there’s an argument that “freaking” has an actual English root.
At the top of the slope lies the venerable vulgarity “frigging,” which has a fairly impressive literary pedigree. I first saw it in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, where it refers to the female act of self-pleasure. Time and casual usage have brought “frigging” more into the realm of everyday profanity; it’s used in roughly the same way as the far more popular f-word. But “frigging” isn’t really a safe substitute for its cousin. It’s really on just about the same level.
I think the ever-drifting English language has pulled “frigging” to “fricking,” which seems like more of a mispronunciation than a true substitution. From there, the trip to “freaking” is a short one.
But is this trip really necessary? Can’t we begin and end with “frigging”? Do we need to water it down for popular consumption?
I think not. I think we owe it to the language to preserve profanity’s punch by staying at the top of the slope. If we need more palatable swear words, can’t we make them up from scratch, without relying on good, old-fashioned profanity as a base?
Consider starting at the top of profanity’s slippery slope. Keep your language dangerous! And in turn, I’ll try to acknowledge that “fricking” is a word.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.