John McPhee on One Word You Couldn't Publish in The New Yorker

Fuck, fucker, fuckest; fuckest, fucker, fuck. In all my days, I had found that four-letter word—with its silent “c” and its quartzite “k”—more shocking than a thunderclap. My parents thought it was a rhetorical crime. Mr. Shawn actually seemed philosophical about its presence in the language, but not in his periodical. My young daughters, evidently, were in no sense as burdened as he was. Or as I was. Or as their grandparents were. In the car in their middle-school years, they batted that word between the back and front seats as if they were playing Ping-Pong. Driving, and hearing those words reach a critical mass, I once spontaneously bellowed (in an even-tempered, paternal way), “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck—I can say it, too!”

Well, maybe in a car, but not in The New Yorker, not in 1975, and I didn’t need to be told. I had been writing for the magazine for a dozen years. There were no alternatives like “f—” or “f**k” or “[expletive deleted],” which sounds like so much gravel going down a chute. If the magazine had employed such devices, which it didn’t, I would have shunned them. “F-word” was not an expression in use then and the country would be better off if it had not become one.

-John McPhee, in The New Yorker (now free for everyone), on the history of certain words in the magazine.

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More F-words in the Longreads Archive

Photo: Princeton University