The Sunday Salon: What the frak are you talking about?


A couple of weeks ago I checked out the science fiction classic Ringworld by Larry Niven. I first read the novel in high school, and back then I kept getting hung up on the expletive “tanj” the characters — especially 200 year-old Louis Wu — use in place of standard profanities.

Although published in the ’70s, the novel may have been susceptible to the publisher’s taste and policy as far as profanity was concerned, possibly leading Niven to create a substitute. I don’t recall much profanity in the science fiction novels I read in high school.

When I first read the novel, I thought “tanj” might be a non-English word, but I really had no idea back then how to look it up. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I’ve now discovered what “tanj” meant; it’s an acronym for “There Ain’t No Justice,” according to a Wikipedia entry.

The entry itself is interesting because it looks at other science fiction expletives. Of particular interest is the current version of Battlestar Galactica and its version of “fuck” — “frak.” Originally the word, according to the article, was spelled “frack” but producers decided to change to “frak” so it would be a literal four-letter word.

Apparently, according to the entry, “frak” jumped out of hyperspace into mainstream pop culture, appearing in the mouths of characters in the comic strip Dilbert and the sitcom The Office.

It’s interesting to see how language out of pop culture becomes mainstream. I wonder if “frak” will eventually become an official word absorbed into the language like “google,” or fade out like the ill-fated “shazbot”?

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