A Very, Very Dirty Word
The British Empire's second-greatest gift to the world.
The following anecdote appears in one of Niall Ferguson's absorbing studies of the British Empire. On the eve of independence for the colony of South Yemen, the last British governor hosted a dinner party attended by Denis Healey, then the minister for defense. Over the final sundown cocktail, as the flag was about to be lowered over the capital of Aden, the governor turned to Healey and said, "You know, Minister, I believe that in the long view of history, the British Empire will be remembered only for two things." What, Healey was interested to know, were these imperishable aspects? "The game of soccer. And the expression 'fuck off.' "
This prediction, made almost 40 years ago, now looks alarmingly prescient. Soccer enthusiasm is sweeping the globe, and both Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Dick Cheney have resorted to the "fuck" word in the recent past—Kerry to say "fucked up" in connection with postwar planning in Iraq and Cheney to recommend that Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., go and attempt an anatomical impossibility. The latter advice received the signal honor of being printed in full, without asterisks, in the Washington Post, thus provoking some ombudsmanlike soul-searching on its own account by the paper's editor, Len Downie.
At some media-pol event in Washington after the invasion of Afghanistan, I was told by an eyewitness that Al Franken attempted an ironic congratulation of Paul Wolfowitz, saying that Bush had won by using Clinton's armed forces. "Fuck off," was the considered riposte of the deputy defense secretary.
If things go on like this—which in a way I sometimes hope they do—we will reach the point where newspapers will report exchanges deadpan, like this:
" 'Fuck off,' he shot back."
" 'Fuck off,' he suggested."
" 'Fuck off,' he opined."
" 'Fuck off,' he advised."
" 'Fuck off,' he averred."
" 'Fuck off,' he joked."
Or even, " 'Fuck off,' he quipped."
The spreading of this tremendous rejoinder by means of the British Empire or its surrogates cannot be doubted. In London, older men of Greek Cypriot descent can be heard to say, as they rise from the card game or the restaurant table, "Thakono fuck off," by which they mean, "I shall now take my leave"; or, "It really is high time that I returned to the bosom of my family"; or perhaps, phrased more tersely and in the modern vernacular, "I am out of here."
A friend of mine was once a junior officer in her majesty's forces in the Egyptian Suez Canal Zone. One of his duties was the procuring of fresh fruit for those under his command. On a certain morning, an Egyptian merchant called upon him and announced that he could furnish a regular supply of bananas. "Just the thing," replied my friend, "that we are looking for." The man then spoiled the whole effect by stating, in poor but unmistakable English, that of course in the event of an agreement Capt. Lewis could expect 5 percent on top. Peter—I call him this because it is his name—thereupon became incensed. He stated that such a suggestion was an unpardonable one and added that he was sure he could find another banana merchant and that, whatever the case might be, such a banana supplier would emphatically not be the man who had just made such an outrageous proposition to a British serving officer. Sensing his own lapse in taste, the Egyptian made a courteous bow and replied with perfect gravity: "OK, effendi. I fuck off now." It was plain that he had acquired his basic English from loitering around the barracks gate.
Let us not forget, in other words, the implied etiquette of the term. If shouted at a follower or supporter of another soccer team, in a moment of heat, it may connote "please go away" or even "go away in any case." But if used of oneself—dare one say passively—it may simply express the settled determination to be elsewhere. (I once heard the late Sir Kingsley Amis, describing the end of an evening of revelry, saying, "So then—off I fucked.")
"Fuck you" or "Go fuck yourself"—the popular American form—lacks this transitive/intransitive element to some degree. At points, it even seems to confuse the act of sexual intercourse with an act of aggression: a regrettable overlap to be sure. Anglo-Americanism in Iraq may turn out to be the crucible of this difference. I know from experience that older Iraqis, who remember the British period with mingled affection and resentment, are aware of the full declensions of the "fuck" verb. But to judge by their gestures, some of the younger Iraqis are a bit coarser. "Fuck off," some of them seem to be yelling at coalition forces. A lot hinges on the appropriate military response. "Fuck you" might be risky. "OK, off we fuck, then" might buy some valuable time.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Dick Cheney by Jason Reed/Reuters.