So, O’Rourke objected, “profanity is not the F-bomb. What is profane is a 17-month-old baby being shot in the face.” Point taken, but note that he would not have said the same thing in reference to the N-word. O’Rourke’s “F-bomb,” then, was less a matter of swearing than his seeking a note of sincerity. The F-word these days may not be truly profane to many of us, but it remains potent, a way of indicating genuine feeling. That is a common note from O’Rourke, paralleled by his display of his Spanish-speaking skills during the first Democratic debate in June. Related to this sincerity is that his F-bomb was downright articulate: “We don’t yet know what the motivation is … but we do know this is fucked up.” The word untenable would have sounded too formal; problematic too weak; troubling too uncommitted; egregious too Mr. Mooney. “Fucked up,” combining pungency with a streak of impatient dismissiveness, conveys exactly the sentiment O’Rourke intended, as well as precisely the one his supporters share.

Eventually, but evidently not yet, our formal understanding of profanity will catch up with reality, and it will seem as silly to write “the F-word” as it seems now that Pinafore’s captain refers to a “D___.” At that point, dropping the F-bomb on the campaign trail will attract about as much attention as dropping the D-bomb. In other words, no attention at all. Slurs are our real profanity today. Beyond those slurs, we might take a page from George Carlin and consider that words only have the power to shock because we give them that power.