I’d like to begin this letter with a hypothetical but familiar story. There’s a girl we probably all know. Let’s call her Sally. Sally is shy, demure, and would never step on anyone’s toes. You’ve never known her to be even the least bit confrontational, let alone shocking. Then, one day, in the middle of a casual conversation, Sally says something like, “Fuck that asshole.”
Everyone in the room stops what they’re doing. It’s like a bomb just went off. Half of you wants to gleefully egg her on: “Yes! Sally! Channel your inner aggressive side and conquer the world!” But the other half is horrifically shocked, almost offended. “What? Sally?! Have even the purest among us been corrupted?” When Sally curses, it carries more weight, precisely because it’s unusual for her. The more vanilla the background, the more even a simple swear word stands out.
This played out in a strange misunderstanding with our issue theme this block, partially because I used to be much like Sally. I’m not sure if I was trying to prove I can cuss like a bro or shock people who still think I’m nothing but an innocent child, but I jumped on the “Four-Letter Word” theme and wrote an email to our writers filled with swear words. (I got a little carried away, down to the copyright, which reads, “All rights reserved, motherfucker. Don’t even think about trying to steal this shit.”)
What I didn’t realize is that the term “four-letter word” is apparently no longer well-known. At the pitch meeting for the issue, most people just thought we wanted ideas centered around words spelled with four letters. So a lot of the recipients of that email probably just thought I was really angry. And despite the fact that articles don’t even have to be on-theme, I got a lot of stretch-justifications for peoples’ topics to fit: “My four-letter word is ‘anti,’” David Andrews told me when we first started working on his article about the search for Chilean “antipoet” Nicanor Parra (pg. 42).
So to clear it up once and for all, “four-letter word” is a reference to profanity, of all sorts: swearing, insults, pornography, illicit messages. Some of our contributors did take the theme literally: Sonya Padden discusses the social reasons behind the way we have sex in college (pg. 12); Alex Confer’s art (covers & pg. 26) juxtaposes the grotesque and the mundane to create a shocking, living fantasy.
Other writers delved into topics that shock not because of their illicit nature, but because of an especially interesting, weird, or beautiful story. When Nathan Makela interviewed Congressman Jared Polis about his sexual identity, he found that being a gay politician didn’t mean exactly what he thought (pg. 8). Catherine Sinow tells us about a friend group whose favorite pastimes are watching bad movies and making bad music (pg. 22). Rachel Frizell examines the philosophy behind the chicken dances, pleas for universal love, and shameless neo-Luddism of a Manhattan street performer (pg. 38).
Jason Edelstein reflects on his own mixed-up experience with another four-letter word, “jawn,” which can replace pretty much any noun (pg. 48). Just like any jawn, sometimes things don’t make any sense out of context, but you must make it seem like they fit. On that note, this block we hired a new web editor, the fantastic June Sass, whose first and last names both happen to be spelled with four letters. A stroke of fate?
In some sense, it was okay that the meaning of this theme got mixed up. It made the process more interesting and sparked ideas for great pieces. So we found that profanity, and language in general, only means something if the speaker and the listener come to share some mutual understanding about the message. Hopefully, you’ll find that connection with our contributors to the “Four-Letter Word” issue—making it a fucking excellent read.
Sara Fleming and the Cipher Staff
Part of the Four Letter Word issue