San Francisco. -- In the beginning, there was The Word. And, in the 1960s, it was appropriated from sailors, baseball players and low-life by millions of privileged, middle-class kids who wished to establish their rebel status and flout authority.
Four letters, its roots in old English, The Word was used -- loudly and in many grammatical forms -- primarily to shock, rankle and offend adults.
One, two three, four -- we don't want your (word)ing war.
Or, (word) the system.
Years passed. The rebellious kids grew into middle-aged adults. Today, some of them have stopped using The Word. Some have just stopped using it all the time, especially when their own children are in the room.
Many, however, still use The Word all the time. Not because they still want to shock or offend. They are "the establishment" now. Kids want to offend them.
No, they use The Word because they cannot stop. The Word has become a habit, part of their everyday speech. Always a remarkably versa tile word -- noun, verb (both passive and active), adverb, adjective, all-purpose invective -- The Word has evolved into a staple of the former rebels' vocabulary.
Oh, (word). I've gotta go to a (word)ing tax accountant and get an extension or else I'm (word)ed, big time.
It was shortly after she heard herself utter a sentence much like the above that one former rebel realized how mindless she had become. Purportedly a person who loves and respects the English language, she was shocked to admit that she could barely construct a sentence without using the word (word).
Her speech was not peppered with The Word, it was marinated, breaded and deep-fried in it.
"Oh, (word)," said the former rebel. "What has become of me?"
Then she got an inspiration.
"I know," she said. "I will give up saying (word) for Lent."
Despite the mistaken belief of many people, Lenten sacrifices are supposed to be logical. They are supposed to help a person be more mindful, contemplative and reverent, not just prove that the person can live without chocolate for six weeks. Also, they are supposed to hurt.
"Perfect," said the former rebel. "And every time I slip and say (word), I will mark down the transgression in a book, count each mark as a quarter and, on Easter, give the money to the poor."
Depending on how one views it, the former rebel could not have picked a better or worse time to give up saying The Word: The bulk of her Lenten season was spent recovering from knee surgery.
From the first frustrating days on crutches, through endless nights of codeine-dulled pain, right up to and including the awkward discomfort of physical therapy, there were endless opportunities to groan, spit or shout The Word.
Usually, it just popped out, accidentally. But, sometimes, the former rebel had plenty of warning and chose to say The Word. "I'll buy one," she would say. "I need it."
Always, though, she dutifully marked down the transgressions. And she made significant progress. Only six marks in the last seven days. Then she went back to work.
None of her colleagues had given up saying The Word for Lent. No one had taken the aggravation out of the job while she was away.
In three days, she made 16 marks. She tried to see the bright side. This was very good news for the poor.
Stephanie Salter is a San Francisco Examiner columnist.