Thursday, January 1, 2015


The British, a people generally given to colorful verbal fireworks, draw upon a large palate with which to express nuances of emotion others perhaps rely on visual symbols to convey. Emoticons, for example, have become thelingua franca of textual expressiveness. One of the most direct phrases is “for f*ck’s sake” (FFS), usually delivered either as a stand-alone comment or as a post-script to a larger statement of a fairly obvious fact. 

Someone accidentally knocks over a can of paint; “oh for fuck’s sake,” they say, to themselves, to express their annoyance with a hint of self-condemnation. Someone watches some other hapless soul knock over a can of paint; “watch what you’re doing, for fuck’s sake,” they will cry, to emphasize their point. The volume at which this profanity is delivered varies; whispering it to oneself is the equivalent of an aside one wants another to catch one thinking, as opposed to saying. Someone’s mother-in-law knocks over a can of paint; “for fuck’s sake,” they mutter quietly just within earshot. 

To beg action for something or somebody’s sake is an ancient form of idiom. Those with a less vivid vocabulary might use “for Pete’s sake” instead. The Pete in question probably refers to Saint Peter, who has the power, after all, of refusing one entrance to heaven. You therefore implore sense on the part of the hapless person to whom the comment is directed, lest they find themselves at the pearly gates with one foot stuck in a can of paint. To call upon the sake of Saint Peter is one step removed from asking patience from God, as in “for God’s sake,” or Jesus, as in “for Christ’s sake.” All of the above seek the attention of a force for good, as in “for goodness’ sake.” When things get really desperate, we might say “for crying out loud.” 

But what is a sake to begin with? A sake, in any of its archaic forms, refers to a dispute, a lawsuit, a cause or strife. To have or bring a sake is akin to a legal suit; it is related to a charge. To claim something happen “for God’s sake,” then, is to request that it happen in God’s favor, to support His cause. 

Fuck, of course, is quite a different cause to appeal to. In this case, the fuck in question is the same entity as the one in the phrase “I don’t give a fuck,” or in other words, wits. When you say “for fuck’s sake,” you appeal not to a higher authority, but to your own tolerance for stupidity; you appeal to preserve your wits — hence its use on occasions which call for common sense. 

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