Old Words in a New Box: Cee-Lo's Hit Single

01/08/2011 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Christmas Eve, and the family has gathered for what turns out to be a distinctly non-traditional celebration. Instead of singing "Away in a Manger" or "Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel," my daughter, knowing her father has a decent interest in indecent words, has downloaded on her iPad what she says is the nation's most popular song: Cee Lo Green's "F**k You." The family is all ears.

Over and over again, the great F-word is repeated. "F**k you! And f**k her too!" is the recurring plaint of the rejected lover. These are not the kind of lyrics that Cole Porter wrote, or that Stephen Sondheim writes. Their lyrics make you want to think about what you are hearing. With Cee Lo, the words wash over you. Your mind begins to wonder and -- an unintended consequence -- you can reflect on other things.

In this case, I couldn't help thinking about a movie, The Moon Is Blue, a mild comedy that once caused a national hullabaloo because it included such highly charged words as "preg*ant," "sed*ce," and "virg*n." The people who were most upset were the same ones who prayed regularly to the Blessed Virg*n Mary. The Motion Picture Association of America refused to give the film its seal of approval, the National Legion of Decency gave it a "C" for "Condemned," New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman denounced it as "an occasion of sin," and local authorities in various jurisdictions censored the film or banned it entirely. All this about the film version of a play that had run for two seasons on Broadway, then toured around the country, without shaking the foundations of public morality to any discernible degree.

"F**k you! And f**k her too!" We have come a rather long way. And it has been a h*ll of a ride.

Would-be censors often claim that they are protecting the young, without realizing just how much the young know. When I myself was young, a few eons ago, male children often became acquainted with so-called "bad" words for the first time when they went to Boy Scout camp in the summer. Here they learned to revel in foul language. So accustomed did they become to using bad words after a week or two that they had trouble -- or so they claimed -- cleaning up their vocabularies upon returning home. Then they commiserated with one another. "I almost asked my mother to please pass the f**king butter," was a typical complaint. Really, the Scouts should create a merit badge for use of bad language. It demands at least as much skill as basket weaving and is likely to be much more useful in later life.

Then there was the time that I asked my son, then aged five, what were the worst words that he knew. Out of his cherubic mouth came: "F**king a**hole." After picking myself up from the floor, I asked where he had learned those words. "From listening in at the window of the first-grade classroom." I don't think that he knew the literal meaning of the phrase, but that's just a guess. I chickened out, afraid to ask that question.

"F**k you! And f**k her too!"

The operative word here is not, as often supposed, a slang term. Nor is it an acronym for For Unlawful (or Unnatural) Carnal Knowledge, accusations supposedly made in medieval trials for rape and sodomy. Rather, it is part of our language's oldest stock, probably related to the Middle Dutch fokken, to mock, strike, copulate with, and the German ficken, to rub, itch, scratch, have sexual intercourse with. It hasn't been found in writing prior to the early sixteenth century, probably because it was so fraught with sex and violence that it was heavily tabooed. The earliest example of the term in The Oxford English Dictionary involves clerical transgressions. It comes from a pre-1500 anonymous poem, Flyn, flyys, (from the first line, "Flyn, flyys, and freris," meaning "Fleas, flies, and friars"), where the loaded word is enciphered as gxddbov, which equals the fake Latin fuccant, each letter of gxddbov standing for the previous one in the alphabet. The crucial line translates as "The friars [meaning the Carmelite monks of Cambridge] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely [a nearby town]."

"F**k you! And f**k her too!"

The taboo is greatly relaxed nowadays. But is this progress? Or simply change? There doesn't seem to be a lot new under the sun. Some twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus said, "You can't step twice into the same river. For other waters are ever flowing on to you." Maybe we should ditch progress, with its implications of forward and backward, high and low, good and bad, and speak instead of, say, cultural change, social change, or evolutionary change.

"F**k you. And f**k her too!"

But we don't know exactly what Heraclitus meant. His statement exists without context, just a fragment of a large work. Most likely, he was referring to continuous change over time, but it could be that he was advancing the more unsettling idea that all natural objects constantly change, in which case the apparent stability of the world around us is but a phantasm and we cannot believe the evidence of our senses. Later philosophers in the ancient world regarded Heraclitus as "obscure."

"F**k you! And f**k her too!"

Cee Lo is about done. And so I am.

A belated but Joyous N*el to you -- and to her, too!