When You Hear the F-Word, Try Picking Up More Than One Meaning

People occasionally complain to me that so many today seem to lean on profanity rather than utilizing the other lexical resources at their disposal. “Why do they have to keep using that word over and over? What is that?” I was asked by someone of a certain age, for example, when I spoke at a gathering of academics last week.

We all can guess which word he meant — it starts with f — but I don’t hear it the way he does. It’s partly because we sometimes miss the richness of meaning in our profanity and partly because we tend to miss the richness of how we use the rest of our vocabulary. Our default sense of a word involves a single meaning: Even when a word such as “candle,” typically used as a noun, is used as a verb, it still means holding a candle or a light up to better see something. But so very many words are used in a wide range of meanings, and while idioms are part of that range, even they are only the beginning.

The morning before the event I spoke at, for example, I watched the new Blu-ray restoration of the first “A Star Is Born” film, from 1937. (Film fans should get a look; this is one of the major early Technicolor films, and it now looks splendid.) In one scene, Norman (played beautifully by Fredric March, whose purported membership in the Ku Klux Klan I took issue with last fall) playfully replies to ribbing from Esther (Janet Gaynor) with: “And don’t throw that up to me now.”

I had never heard that expression but easily found it in an

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