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?


3 thoughts on “Frak and invective coinage

  1. James September 3, 2008 / 9:01 am

    “At what point does something made-up become a legitimate, trouble-inducing member of the language?”

    When you are a child and get smacked for saying it.

  2. tulugaq September 3, 2008 / 9:16 am

    I think you’re on to something there, James.

    Given the US government’s policies lately, I’m surprised the FCC hasn’t tried to add a rule about swear words that are made up but still understood to be swear words. Pleased, of course, but surprised.

  3. antred January 8, 2010 / 11:46 am

    That Jamie Bamber quote you posted is right on the money! We’re such a bunch of sorry hypocrites …. frak or fuck, the intention is exactly the same, so if you’re offended by ‘fuck’ but think ‘frak’ is ok then you’re moron (not directed at anyone in particular).
    I despise anal-retentive Puritans who think that all the world’s evils originate from people swearing too much. The hell with them all!

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