Frak and invective coinage

CNN is currently running a story about the word frak, created for the original Battlestar Galactica series in the 1970s as a way to swear but still get around TV censors. I hadn’t realized frak had been around quite so long – although perhaps I can be forgiven for not noticing it while watching the original BG as a kid – but I have noticed more and more TV shows using it and other invented words to skirt the censors. (Good for them, too – I don’t see the point of censoring language in television and radio anyway.)

Anyway, what really caught my eye in the CNN article was this:

“You can’t get in trouble. It’s a made-up word.”

That says a lot about folk views on word coinage, doesn’t it? The implication is that anything made-up is not part of the language, even though pretty much everyone understands what it means. I’d love to explore more what the author means by made-up, too – is it only words like frak that weren’t free morphemes in English before?

One of the actors in the new Battlestar Galactica series has this interesting insight:

“I mean why are we not offended by ‘frak’ because it means exactly the same thing as the other thing?” said Bamber, who plays fighter pilot-turned-president Lee “Apollo” Adama. “So it raises questions about language and why certain words are offensive. Is it their meaning? … Clearly it’s not their meaning. Clearly it’s literally their sound.”

In Firefly, another scifi series, Joss Whedon had his characters swear in Chinese most of the time – another excellent censor-avoidance method – but also had recognizable variants of current English swear words, such as gorram for god damn. In that sense, it’s not so much made-up as tweaked for a particular purpose. Is it because swear words are a largely closed class of words that you can claim a new one isn’t a real word? At what point does something made-up become a legitimate, trouble-inducing member of the language?

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