World War II and the F-Word

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17 July 2017 |Tom Kelly | War is Boring

“The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.” Soldier’s response to malfunctioning socket wrench. JP

“According to John Babcock, a mortarman in the U.S. Army’s 78th Infantry Division, during World War II and every war before or after, the word “fuck” “was, and still is, the most frequently used crutch-word in the military.”

J. Glenn Gray, another World War II soldier, agreed. “The most common word in the mouths of American soldiers has been [‘fuck.’] This word does duty as adjective, adverb, verb, noun and in any other form it can possibly be used, however inappropriate or ridiculous in application.”

At times it was used as a placeholder while thinking of another “more appropriate word, but more often it was “a pure expletive that automatically insinuated itself into dog-face talk.”

The reliance on “fuck” as a universal descriptor was the downfall of many World War II servicemen who, during a rare visit to their families, asked “a younger sister or sweet old grandmother to ‘pass the fucking butter.’”

Glenn Fisher of the 102nd Infantry Division noted that a “real master of Army language rarely uttered a sentence without using it at least once.”

Even soldiers such as Fisher, who only seen the word “scrawled on the walls of outdoor toilets” and occasionally heard it “pronounced by small boys who were well out of earshot of any adult” before joining the Army, embraced the use of “fuck” even if they did not feel comfortable using it as much as others were.

But how did “fuck,” the “ultimate in obscenity” at the time according to Fisher, become “the most frequently used crutch-word in the military”?

U.S. Army staff sergeant James Jensen receives a late Christmas present while Pvt. 1st Class Eddie Yecny studies a pair of field glasses in France in February 1945. Army photo

“Among the working class, ‘fucking’ had always been a popular intensifier, but in wartime it became precious as a way for millions of conscripts to note, in a licensed way, their bitterness and anger,” noted Paul Fussell, an historian and platoon leader in the 103rd Infantry Division in World War II.

“If you couldn’t oppose chickenshit any other way, you could always say, ‘Fuck it!’”

Fisher said he doesn’t disagree with Fussell’s rationale, but also theorized some other reasons for the rampant use of “fuck” in the World War II G.I. lexicon. First, he said he believes that the use of “fuck” by senior non-commissioned officers with little education masked their poor vocabulary.

Second, it was part of a bonding process which established among soldiers a “secret language that civilians did not know and, for the most part, didn’t even know existed.” In fact, when Fisher said “fuck” in front of his parents, they were astonished. And when he wrote “fuck” in a letter to them, they believed that he had written “buck.”

Fisher said he suspected “the misreading was caused by an unconscious denial. Their little boy would not use that word.” Third, he concluded that it may have been part of the brutalization process, hand-in-hand with the Army’s teaching recruits to break other societal taboos … such as killing.

It’s important to note that the use of “fuck” required nuance. “Ranting and railing in fuck-ese was a boring turnoff, the last refuge of the inarticulate,” Babcock said.

When he demanded the attention of his listeners for critical activities such as weapons instruction, Babcock said he “avoided the fuck-word and swearing in general. [The soldiers] took me more seriously, knowing instinctively that empty expletives lack substance and credibility.”

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