What the ‘frak’? Faux curse seeping into language
Saturday, September 6, 2008
NEW YORK — Lee Goldberg thinks Glen A. Larson is a genius, and not because the prolific television writer and producer gave us “Knight Rider” and “B.J. and the Bear.”
It was Larson who first used the faux curse word “frak” in the original “Battlestar Galactica.” The word was mostly overlooked back in the ’70s series but is working its way into popular vocabulary as SciFi’s modern update winds down production.
“All joking aside, say what you will about what you might call the lowbrow nature of many of his shows, he did something truly amazing and subversive, up there with what Steven Bochco gets credit for, with ‘frak,”’ Goldberg said.
There’s no question what the word stands for and it’s used gleefully, as many as 20 times in some episodes.
“And he was saying it 30 years ago in the original goofy, god-awful ‘Battlestar Galactica,”’ said Goldberg, a television writer and novelist whose credits include “Monk” and “Diagnosis Murder.”
The word is showing up everywhere — on T-shirts, in sitcoms, best-selling novels and regular conversation.
“I have to start by saying that I’m drinking coffee out of a mug that says ‘frak off’ on the side of it, so much has it seeped into my life,” “Galactica” star Jamie Bamber said.
The word is insinuating its way into popular vocabulary for a simple reason.
You can’t get in trouble. It’s a made-up word.
“It may have been the great George Carlin who talked about these things so cleverly,” Larson said. “He’d say, ‘Mother would say shoot, but she meant ... when she reached in and burned her fingers on the crocker.’ And the child says, ‘I know what you meant Mom.”’
The word’s usage has moved from the small but fervent group of “Galactica” fans into everyday language. It’s shown up in very mainstream shows like “The Office,” “Gossip Girl” and “Scrubs.” One YouTube posting has 2 minutes of sound bites that cover the gamut.
“I’m in my own little cocoon of science fictiondom, but it is certainly used around here and amongst the people I know,” said Irene Gallo, art director at the sci-fi imprint Tor Books where employees held a “frak party” to watch the season premiere. “It’s sort of a way to be able to use a four-letter word without really getting into any kind of HR trouble or with people you’re really not quite comfortable being yourself with.”
The word has even appeared in the funny pages where Dilbert muttered a disconsolate “frack” — the original spelling before producers of the current show changed it to a four-letter word — after a particularly dumb order from his evil twit of a boss.
“Dilbert” creator Scott Adams calls the word “pure genius.”
“At first I thought ‘frak’ was too contrived and it bothered me to hear it,” Adams said. “Over time it merged in my mind with its coarser cousin and totally worked. The creators ingeniously found a way to make viewers curse in their own heads — you tend to translate the word — and yet the show is not profane.”
Best-selling novelist Robert Crais slips the word into the prologue of his latest Elvis Cole mystery, “Chasing Darkness.”
“It’s viral, it spreads like a virus,” Crais said. “That first wave of people who use it are all fans. They use it because they’re tickled by it and like me they’re paying an homage to the show. When they’re using it, they’re probably doing it with a sly wink. But as it gets heard and people use it, it spreads.”
The re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica” tells the story of the human survivors of a war with a robotic race known as the Cylons. Fewer than 40,000 humans remain in a ragtag fleet being pursued across space by the Cylons, who wiped out the 12 colonies in a surprise nuclear holocaust.
Their destination is the mythical planet Earth, a legend passed down in religious texts. Shooting wrapped in July and the final 10 episodes will appear beginning in January.
Larson, one of television’s most prolific and successful writers, doesn’t much care for the new series. He used “frack” and its cousin “feldergarb” as alternates for curse words because the original “Battlestar” was family friendly and appeared on Sunday nights. The words fit in with his philosophy that while the show was about humans, it shouldn’t have an Earthly feel.
In what he said was his first interview about the series, Larson says there were no red fire extinguishers on his Battlestar Galactica and characters wore original costumes, not suits and ties.
“Our point was to whenever possible make it a departure like you’re visiting somewhere else,” Larson said. “And we did coin certain phrases for use in expletive situations, but we tried to carry that over into a lot of other stuff, even push brooms and the coin of the realm.”
When new series producer Ron Moore first introduced “frak” in early scripts, Bamber said the actors were dubious.
“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.”
Co-executive producer and writer Michael Angeli said using the word in scripts is satisfying for anyone who’s been censored over the years.
“It’s a great way to do something naughty and get away with it,” Angeli said. “One of the things that television shows do constantly is they battle with Standards and Practices over what can be seen and what can’t be seen, what can be said and what can’t be said.
“A lot of our characters are soldiers. That whole sort of view and that subculture, that’s how they speak. They’re rough and tumble, and they’re bawdy and they swear.”
Goldberg believes Larson should get more credit for “frak” and has posted an appreciation on his Web site. He even sought out Larson to let him know how he feels: “I told him, ‘Frak is fraking brilliant, Glen.’ ”
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