The other f-word


This week I used the f-word in a conversation with my grandchild. Not the four-letter f-word; that one continues to grow weaker with each use in its tiresome march toward banality. I used the other one, the three-letter f-word, which according to my grandchild, isn’t nice.


We were poodles at the time, so we had to call our lunch “dog food.” One minute we were talking about how poodles enjoy eating worms, the grandchild’s take on our pesto pasta; and the next minute, we were discussing Santa Claus and pregnant women. If you have ever talked to a poodle, you understand that they have wide-ranging interests. When we talked about Santa, I said his belly was fat. That led to the “not nice” comment.


I agreed and said we shouldn’t call people fat. It’s fine for imaginary people, but real people come in all sizes. Some are big and some are small, I said. We shouldn’t call bigger people fat.



Satisfied that I had learned my lesson about calling people fat, the little poodle said, “We can tell big people, ‘You look fat, but you’re not fat.’”


Small children and poodles are literalists. They understand the denotation, literal meaning, of a word; but they can also understand the connotations, other words and emotions associated with a word. Fat in its literal meaning refers to the size of a person’s body; but it is stuffed with connotations. Fat is more often used as a pejorative, a sign of moral failure, and implies that a person is lazy, dull, or stupid.


We have many synonyms for fat: corpulent, obese, chubby, plump, thick-set, and pudgy, just to name a few. But “fat” appears in print earlier than all the rest. It comes from the Old English word fǽtt and shows up in writings around the late 9th century.


In every day speech, we favor words with Old English roots. According to the University of Texas website, half of the thousand most commonly used words in English come from Old English. That includes pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and all those short, direct words like fast, good, wonder, water, and “word” itself. You can’t open your mouth without one of those ancient words strolling out.


Talking about fat is delicate business because the connotations keep getting in the way. We can use words like overweight, big, and heavy to talk about body size, but “fat” will still be there. Eliminating it from our bodies is possible; eliminating it from our lexicon is near impossible.


In the U.S., about one-third of our children have more stored fat than they need. At school and on the playground they hear the three-letter f-word all of the time. Name-calling causes a lot of emotional pain and suffering, so we need to teach children not to call other people fat. But having too much fat on a body causes a lot of physical pain and suffering, so we need to feed our children real food; then they will be healthy and won’t get called names.

Snacking with the grandchild
Photo by Tom and Pat Leeson, Vancouver, Washington, USA at a

My grandchild and I went to the zoo after lunch. By the time we got home, we were otters, hungry ones, so we munched on carrots and tangerines, and talked about the animals we had seen.


We feed our children both information and food. We can teach them to speak nicely about others, and we can teach them to eat good food. Both are necessary, and both are nice, that is to say, in good taste.

26 thoughts on “The other f-word

  1. I wish you would talk about another f word, the euFamism… it so tires me, and it has that plastic smell of toilet air purifier. Loved this post, and I do love the direct simple English (and you can imagine why), but this business of politically correct is driving me up the wall! Another truly educational post!

    • I’m glad you liked the post, ShimonZ. I think RAB’s comment below is helpful. Many euphemisms are used because people don’t want to face hard truths. Sometimes though they are used to make a truth bearable.

  2. ShimonZ, I don’t say “politically correct” anymore; I say “squeamish.” Euphemisms emerge from the squeamish soul.
    On the other hand, empathy can prompt some vocabulary substitutions too, and I’d hate to squelch that impulse.
    Probably if we could just learn that we do not necessarily have the need, or the right, to volunteer some pronunciation or observation about everybody we see, we would in the process eliminate not only a lot of the euphemisms but also a lot of the words they “replace.”

    • I think empathy plays a part in word choice, or should. Words really do have the power to harm or heal.

      It takes time for little people not to comment on what they see and observe. They can say some unflattering things about people without any sense of what the words really mean or the connotations they carry. It surprised me a bit that my grandchild already has such a keen sense of the negative associations with the word “fat.”

    • Thank you, RAB, for your helpful response to my comment. I have a great deal of empathy for my fellow man, and try to relate to each person with respect. And I have found that this agenda of politically correct, and the refinement of the language so as not to make people uncomfortable, is in fact muddying the waters, and interferes with thinking on the part of some otherwise dull souls. I agree with you, that many a comment in social contacts, is unnecessary, and that some words and expressions are repulsive… but in recent years I’ve been most dismayed by this make up that has been piled on the face of the language. In Hebrew, for instance, the word ‘old’ is considered a sign of respect, and has been such for not hundreds, but thousands of years. Today in Israel, many young people will use the word ‘senior’ to avoid the simple word old, because they think it might be insulting…

  3. In my family we use fluffy instead of fat. That happened because one our cats was….um…..fluffy! So now it’s used for people too. I am not sure a fluffy person would feel any better about it though.

  4. A fat lot of good it does us to teach children and ourselves how to speak respectfully if we don’t all learn to think and act respectfully, too. Cheers to you for the reminder!

  5. Our family dog has put on some weight over the years — we try not to think of her as “fat”, but rather that she has a shrinking head syndrome. It brings more compassion…

  6. I don’t have a problem with the word “fat”. Some people are, well, fat. Sometimes it’s not their fault, but most of the time it is their life choices. Or in the case of obese children, the life choices of their parents. In my youth, there were very few “fat kids”, and most of them really were just bigger kids that eventually grew out of the fat and into a big adult body. But most of us were pretty skinny, and we ate white bread & peanut butter & full sugar kool-aid & soda if it was a special occasion. But we also were outside running around all the time. TV was that hour on Friday & Saturday night right before bed when you watched Hee-Haw or The Six Million Dollar Man with the rest of the family. Otherwise, after homework, it was outside, outside, outside. Cold out? Put on a coat! Wet out? Put on galoshes! I think if we had a little more of that we’d have a lot less “fat” to talk about.

    • Part of the problem is certainly a lack of exercise, but the food we give to children plays a big part, in my opinion. It saddens me to see very small children who are already obese. They face a life of emotional and physical suffering. It just doesn’t seem right because it is so preventable.

  7. Now that I read your post I realize that I don’t use the three letter f word, except when referring to myself which in itself is mad because I am not (fat that is) simply a few pounds overweight. It is sad to think about the hurt caused to small children by unthinking name-calling.

    • It is painful, isn’t it? If it was caused by a medical condition, it wouldn’t be as bad, but since most of it is caused by giving children unhealthy food, it’s doubly sad. It doesn’t have to be that way.

  8. Cracking up here, Some glitch in my computer substitured ^@c&( for each and every apostrophe …. so I worked out that “fat” was the “F” word and thus must be substituted for every example of the ^@c&( I encountered. Which was at every apostrophe. And which made it a very odd article indeed. I added “fat” everywhere ….

    Finally it occured to me that my browser might be on a toot and I rebooted. Ahaa ….. now I’m doubly pleased by your delightful article and the fact I have my brain intact and wasn’t missing something too arcane and clever for me. Whew ….. that was a ^@c&( ing experience.

  9. Margie

    Personally, I think the obsession to be thin is the same obsession as the one to be young and beautiful. Society is tolerant of sports or movie stars with drug or alcohol addictions, yet heap scorn on the ones who dare to become fat. Which one will live longer, do you suppose?

    • It is an obsession and it seems the thinner our ideal becomes, the heavier people become. If we would focus on health, we’d be a lot better off. Society seems willing to forgive celebrities just about anything but gaining weight. Sad, isn’t it?

  10. I’m ignoring your real point here, but I love that you are otters and poodles. When I am with my granddaughters, they are owls and kitties, and sometimes puppies. So far, I have not been granted entrance into the animal life, but am relegated to being the grown-up who cares for the owls, kitties, or puppies. Grandparenting is, in fact, grand!

    • I love being a grandparent. I think the little one pulls me into that word because there are no other grandchildren, and because it’s apparent that I am only a few years older, even though I’m in this old lady disguise.

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