The buying and selling of “fuck”

If you look around — and you don’t have to look very hard — you might have seen that there are a lot of items that now have the word “fuck” printed on them. These aren’t exotic or unusual things: socks, pencils, shirts, keychains, desk calendars, books, earrings. Even bars of soap, which might be handy for washing your mouth out after use.

I started to notice this commercial drift a few years ago when someone gave me a cup with a cartoony cat image and the statement “Cats Don’t Give a Fuck.” Not that that’s not true, but it is rather blunt. The cup seemed to be a clever novelty item, and its cheery presentation nothing taboo.

This was not long after I’d heard Samuel Jackson recite the text of the popular Adam Mansbach book Go the F**k to Sleep, to give modern parents some solace. There was something a bit daring in hearing Jackson shout the expletives in an alleged bedtime book, but, to me, more hilarious than blasphemous. And late last year, I read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and checked to see what else he’d done, only to find his newest, Everything Is F*cked. It wasn’t until I received a set of 10 pencils as a Christmas gift — pencils labeled with phrases like “Fuck-a-doodle-doo” on them — that it seemed the product-profanity engine had reached fourth gear.

Those pencils (box-labeled “Fucking Brilliant: 10 Pencils for Writing Shit Down”) are the product of Chronicle Books, a San Francisco–based publisher of books and gift items. Chronicle’s Calligraphuck line has a high percentage of fucks (and shits) among its varied product roster. Kim Romero, senior editor at Chronicle, told me, “Calligraphuck uses profanity in an uplifting way, putting emphasis on positive messages and sentiments. Much of the appeal lies in the humor and surprise of seeing profanity rendered in lovely gold calligraphy. It’s an irresistible combination of irreverence and elegance.”

Chronicle doesn’t see a commercial risk in carrying products with a naughty message. “We’re always interested in offering our consumers something new. In this case: brilliant swear words with a twist, not just vulgarity,” says Christina Amini, executive publishing director of adult books and gift products at Chronicle. “Believe it or not, we spend a lot of time talking about which expletives are just right for this line. You can’t please everyone all the time, especially when you offer something with a strong flavor like our ‘Classy as Fuck’ flask. So we know that it won’t work for all retailers, but for the people who love this, they are all in,” she says.

Chronicle

Mitch Nash, the co-founder of Blue Q, which sells many products that have swears on them, demurs on the shock value of such statements. “It’s not gratuitous. We don’t go, ‘Let’s say “fuck” on an item, it will sell.’ We’re first and foremost trying to say something where it serves as an amplifier,” he says. “This is the way people talk. So it’s just honesty and communication, and not being uptight about how language is used.”

“Fuck” seems to be the expression that packs the most branding oomph. Among some of the book titles I scanned: Calm the F*ck Down, Unf*ck Yourself, Bucky F*cking Dent, and Zen As F*ck. Faith Harper, the author of Unfuck Your Brain, also wrote Unfuck Your Boundaries, which has an accompanying workbook.

(That made me wonder if the Calm the F*ck Down author has sanctioned, say, these “calm the fuck down whiskey glasses, but in a brief dig into copyright law, I found this on the Stanford University Libraries site:

Copyright laws disfavor protection for short phrases. Such claims are viewed with suspicion by the Copyright Office, whose circulars state that, “… slogans, and other short phrases or expressions cannot be copyrighted.”

Considering that the f-word had its Germanic origins as early as the 15th century and is cited by other etymologists as being of an even earlier Indo-European coinage, it’s dubious that any wrangling over such short phrasings could be the basis for a legal battle. In short, “fuck” belongs to us all.

“Fuck” is a perennial favorite, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have curse competitors. The pencil from Chronicle I used to write some notes for this piece is labeled “Write That Shit Down.” Another proclaims, “Take Note, Bitches.”

From a brief perusal of a few other gift sites:

As Amini says, “We vary the specific profanity we use in the titles. Not all of the products in this line have ‘fuck’ in the title. For example, there’s the ‘Getting Shit Done List Ledger,’ the ‘None of Your Damn Business Notebook Collection,’ and the ‘Fabulous Bitch Keychain.’ How many fucks can someone give? Maybe there’s a limited number!”

Whatever those variants, an item that seemed to summarize the entire product generation is the wrapping paper in an elegant black and white I saw at Steel Petal Press that simply repeated “fuck” at right angles.

You might be intrigued, as I was, by the use of asterisks in some of these to soften the language, or maybe to broaden the buyer demographic — or perhaps to be a bit cute? “F*ck” seems to be the favorite asterisked rendering, but for most of the products I viewed, manufacturers spelled it out. Does putting in the asterisks actually protect anyone from the force of the language? Your brain immediately fills in the missing letter, but that doesn’t make you feel any smarter or more adult or more in on the joke.

Some companies are having a heyday peddling the profane, but what does that suggest for consumer perceptions? I spoke with Dr. Nicole Coleman, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business and an expert on how consumers make decisions, especially ones that are related to their emotions.

“It’s definitely still counternormative to see these words on actual products — in many parts of the country, it’s even counternormative to say four-letter words,” she says. “There is absolutely a generational shift happening around this language, however; it’s much more common to see younger consumers with these items than older generations.”

Coleman does think the continued and visible use of “banned” language on commercial products over time could break down barriers to negative reactions. “Language is a living entity, and it’s constantly changing to accommodate new trends and usage instances,” she says. “The growth of a word/word use comes out of a smaller group of individuals, and then becomes more widely accepted. In the case of ‘forbidden’ language, what we’ll likely see is a softening of the response to such choice words as they become more commonly used.”

Retailers of these products know that there are audience limits. “Chronicle endeavors to create books, gifts, and stationery that will surprise, inspire, and delight, and we realize that what may delight some people may not necessarily delight everyone,” says Romero.

Blue Q

The New York Times had an intriguing piece on the benefits of swearing, positing that cursing provides bodily release from temporary pain (the hammer-on-thumb reaction), as well as working as an emotional release. There was also exploration into whether an unbridled curser gave a stronger expression of authenticity or honesty.

When I asked Mitch Nash of Blue Q why he thought people liked things that had naughty or suggestive language, he had a quick correlative answer: “Their honesty,” he says. “People are drawn to something that is breaking the rules, and it’s going against the grain to be mass publishing products with these words on them. You’re maybe not supposed to be doing that, but we’re simply talking the way we talk.”

Coleman reinforces that angle from the “benign violations” psychological perspective: “The idea with benign violations is that there are certain experiences and actions that people engage in that are kind of aversive, but also safe,” she says. “Think about riding a roller coaster, watching a gory horror flick, eating super-spicy food — all of these types of behaviors are kind of awful, but also really exciting.

“Swear words and taboo language fall into this category. Let’s be real: saying ‘fuck’ doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s just another word. But it’s a ‘bad’ word, so there’s this thrill that goes along with using it.”

Sure, some folks might think a soap label that has “shit” written on it is nasty, but there are many who think otherwise. And the cursing-with-charm product might have staying power. As Amini says, “Fads come and go, but profanity and humor are evergreen. It’s just about figuring out the appropriate time and place for it.”


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