There are few words in the English language as fun to say as “fuck.”

Try it right now. Just blurt out “fuck.” Say it like you mean it. Yeah, that felt good, didn’t it?

Those of us who truly love “fuck” want to say it everywhere, as often as possible, in as many situations as it’s called for (which is all of them).  The problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to be sure when it’s socially acceptable to say fuck.


Who among us hasn’t let an f-bomb slip at a dinner party, only to realize too late that everyone is staring at us like we just dropped our pants?

It’s a confusing social climate for the modern curser. Consume enough pop culture and you could get the sense that the word “fuck” is allowed, even encouraged, just about everywhere. On shows like Veep—which won the Emmy for best comedy this past weekend—“fuck” is just part of the everyday vernacular. Do an Amazon search for songs with “fuck” in the title and you’ll find 25,106—and 1,703 of those are new releases. Our favorite new book written by an actual psychologist and not intended to be ironic? F*ck Feelings.

But out in the real world, things are less clear. Is “fuck” acceptable in the locker room? In the workplace? During a wedding toast?

The Oxford English Dictionary has recognized “fuck” as an acceptable word since 1972, but the new voice dictation feature on Google Docs refuses to spell it for you. So who’s right, Google or Oxford?

In 2015, we know exactly which big-box stores have open-carry policies, so we can shop with a gun like God intended. But it’s unclear whether walking into a Target and asking the greeter “Where’s the motherfucking pharmacy?” will get you thrown into jail.

And no, that’s not hyperbole. Saying fuck can get you arrested.

When William Barboza received a speeding ticket in New York and decided to express his displeasure by writing “fuck your shitty town bitches” on the payment form, he was arrested, put in jail, and charged with aggravated harassment.

A judge dismissed the case last week, calling Barboza’s language protected speech under the First Amendment. Which is good news for fuck-lovers, if still a little worrying. It means you can be arrested for using “fuck,” but you probably won’t end up in prison.

“People use language like this all the time,” his lawyer explained to the New York Times. “They send letters like this to customer service at Verizon, the I.R.S.”

All the time? Seriously? People are regularly telling their cellphone providers and the Internal Revenue Service to go fuck themselves? That seems . . . excessive.

Dr. Timothy Jay, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in swearing at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says that fuck isn’t more or less popular than it ever was. “My data shows that it was as common in the 1980s as it is today,” he says.

But saying “fuck” has definitely become riskier. In 1980, if you dropped an f-bomb and offended somebody, the most you had to worry about was a stern, disapproving look.

But today, the waters are murkier. “You have to factor in things like sexual harassment, hate speech, bullying, discrimination, and workplace aggression legislation,” says Dr. Jay. Your “fuck” may have the most innocent of intentions, but to the wrong ears, it could be misconstrued as an act of violence or intimidation.

What to do then? Just stop saying “fuck” entirely? Jesse Sheidlower, former North American Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the best-selling book The F-Word, thinks a better idea is to take a closer look at the nature of your fucks.

“In general, sexual uses of ‘fuck’—which are comparatively rarer than figurative ones—are less acceptable,” he says. In other words, try not to use “fuck” as a replacement word for “sexual intercourse.”

A sentence like “I’m having a fucking great time at this office party” is unlikely to offend even your more puritanical co-workers. But loudly announcing, “I haven’t decided who I’m going to fuck at this office party yet,” well, you’ve just made everybody you work with reeeeeeally uncomfortable.

Let that be a hard and fast rule: Don’t use “fuck” as a verb. Use it as an adjective, adverb, noun, or interjection, but never, ever as a verb.

All of the ”fuck“ experts we contacted for this story agreed on one thing. They have no fucking idea where you should or shouldn’t say “fuck.” The answer they gave us, more often than not, was “It depends.”

Dr. Jay, after informing us that “even two year olds say fuck,” said the word is mostly fine in locker rooms, bars, and the occasional drunken wedding or wake, or wherever its use “makes a joke funnier or builds social cohesion among buddies.”

What about geographically? Are there certain cities or states where “fuck” is more widely accepted? We asked Jack Grieve, Ph.D., a professor of forensic linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham, England, who actually created a “swearword map” of the United States.

He collected data on curse words from “asshole” to “shit” to “pussy,” tracking regional patterns of swearing preferences on Twitter.

Do Tweets really reflect how people speak offline? “Regional patterns on Twitter are probably a pretty good indicator of regional patterns in everyday speech,” Grieve says. “The words they use in face-to-face conversations and online are drawn from the same lexicon in their brain.”

Take a look at his findings on “fuck”:


What does that mean? It means that fuck “is used most often in the area roughly around the edges of the country, and less often inland,” says Grieve. It’s also common “in major urban areas and on the coasts. Also, someone online mentioned oil fields in North Dakota, I think.”

(That’s true. A Twitter user pointed out that on the fuck map, “The red in the Dakotas matches with the general locations of Indian reserves and oil fields.” So, read into that what you will.)

Other than this very general info, it’s all a bit vague. Which isn’t the case with most swears. In fact, Grieve’s data on some curse words are shockingly specific. “‘Shit’ is clearly preferred by African Americans,” Grieve admits. “While ‘cunt’ appears to be more of a white northern swear word.”

But as for “fuck,” well, fuck if he knows. If you want to be safe, stick to the cities and the oil fields.

Where does that leave us? Should you or shouldn’t you say fuck? We’ll give the final word to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, who recently issued a historic trademark decision that pretty much says everything you need to know about “fuck” in modern America.

When a company attempted to register the phrase “NO FUCKS GIVEN,” which would give them exclusive rights to use it on shirts, hats, and hoodies, the Trademark Office officially denied their request, giving this poignant explanation:

“The fact that profane words may be uttered more freely in contemporary American society than in the past does not render such words any less profane.”

So there you go. Yes, “fuck” is everywhere. And yes, it’s still fucking offensive.

(Originally published by Men’s Health.)