THE F-Word. Yes, you know the word we are talking about. It's not "fundamentalism"; it's not "fontanelle" and, despite the coy abbreviation we'll use here, it is not "fudge".

This F-word is so potent that even the long drawn out sound of its opening consonant might be enough to shock the nation: f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f. Every Saturday, it seems, there is that tiny, archaic ritual of expurgation performed on Match of the Day. A footballer is trapped in a tight close up, his enormous lips are stretching, lusting to make that familiar fricative, when abruptly, a wary producer cuts away, robbing us of the consummation of that inevitable, climactic k'uh.

But while some of the F-word's most conspicuous public appearances may be in dumb show, during the televising of sports events, use of the word is no longer rare in any respectable walk of life.

For Irish writers in particular, the liberty to use the F-word in a literary context has been hard won. Consequently, the word's use in replicating the vernacular of the Hibernian metropolis has become more than a bad habit: it has become the defining act of the unreservedly post colonial writer.

From Joyce's Ulysses, which contained the frank vow: "I'll wring the bastard fucker's bleeding bastard fucking windpipe" to the writings of Roddy Doyle, f--k has been the word on every confident Dubliner's lips.

Doyle, indeed, has made f--k something of a cornerstone of his fiction although, for many, this caused his banishment forever from polite literature. While D.R. Lawrence took the witness box to remind people of the true meaning of the F-word, Doyle has struggled to emancipate the word from a simply procreative role, and to demonstrate to the English speaking world the term's breathtaking versatility.

FROM the opening pages of The Commitments, in which Jimmy Rabbitte exclaims: "Fuck, fuck, exclamation mark, me", right up to Doyle's latest novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors (published today) - which contains many ornate pledges, of the genre: "I'll kill you; I'll fuckin' kill you" - the writer has used the F-word as a shortcut to producing "authentic" Irish dialogue, and thereby to producing an authentic" Ireland.

Admittedly, when speaking about what Mary Whitehouse once referred to as "the Anglo Saxon word," it would be possible to fill every scrap of available space with exalted and venerable references. At least one author has done just that. Last year, Random House in the United States published The F-Word, a chubby, scholarly volume edited by lexicographer, Jesse Sheidlower.

What the book proves most effectively, however, is that not only is swearing neither big nor clever, it is not exactly new either. The long and shadowy past of the word is perhaps why some dictionaries still cling to "orig. unkn.", when in reality much is known about its origins.

"F--k" is a word of Germanic origin and meant "to thrust" or "to strike". It first appears in written form during the 15th century. Even at that point, the F word usually turned up in the saucy marginalia of manuscripts, suggesting that from its earliest days the word carried a strong taboo, and was therefore more likely to be spoken than written down.

THE word is perhaps more acceptable now than ever before, but it seems as though its acceptability has a tidal character. The word appeared in 17th and 18th century dictionaries (with the notable exception of Dr. Johnson's, as he excluded swear words) but after 1795, it was 170 years before the F word was again included in a dictionary.

One of the main uses of swearing, according to Dr. Jennifer Ridley, of the Centre for Language and Communication Studies in TCD, is to get some kind of reaction. You use linguistic taboos to draw attention to yourself, to be provocative". The type of reaction the F word will receive, however, depends on a number of factors, including the status of the speaker and the listener, and the context in which the word is spoken.

Dr. Ridley's analysis of the popularity of Aon FocalEile (the song written by Richie Kavanagh, and popularised on Gerry Ryan's radio show) is that it plays on the "clang association" of the word focal. "When we hear a word, or see a word, automatically in our mind, associations are struck up," says Ridley. "This type of response to the word is dictated by phonological, rather than semantic resemblance. You associate focal with f--k phonologically. Children tend to go for clang associations."

As far as RTE is concerned, there are no directives as to whether the F-word can or cannot be used: According to Fionnuala O Kelly, Public Relations Manager at the station, there is no list of banned words, and the suitability of strong language is a matter of context and scheduling. The decision as to whether the F-word, or any other swear word, is suitable rests with the producer of a programme.

Ms. O'Kelly said that she had not noticed the double entendre aspect of Richie Kavanagh's record. "I think the song is stupid, and it might be considered an insult to the Irish language," said O'Kelly, "but that other aspect has obviously passed me by completely. " As far as most infractions are concerned, the qualitative and quantitative" aspects of an incidence of bad language need to be examined. "Effing bastard is two words, so that is obviously worse than one..."

It is, however, far from universally accepted that it is quantity rather than quality which is the issue. Despite the work of F-word pioneers, such as D.H. Lawrence and Kenneth Tynan, who thought that speaking the word might lead to some kind of new, invigorated consciousness, the F-Word continues to be a libertarian flash point. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States.

ON FEBUARY 8TH this year, President Clinton upset a lot of people. At that time, the President signed into law the Communications Decency Act, an act which involved a curtailment of free speech on the Internet. While outside the United States, the notion of limited free speech is readily accepted, to the Net community, which is of course still largely American, the new law marked the hard Right's most successful ever attack on the First Amendment, that part of the American constitution that guarantees freedom of speech.

Many net veterans had seen the move coming and had reacted in a manner that seems particularly apt. Last spring, when the content of the Act became known, all over the World Wide Web, pages began to appear that all seemed strangely similar. At the top of the page there was often a large piece of colour typography featuring the F Word. Below, there was often some humorous reference to the page's educational benefits.

Lower down still, there was a version of a text by H.L. Mencken, (from his 1919 tome in defence of the vitality of the vernacular in the New World, The American Language) exploring the use of profanity and demonstrating the versatility of the word "hell". In all these pages the "search and replace" function on the word processor had been used to replace "hell" with the F word.

These initial "F word" Web pages have now been followed up by a new generation of civil liberties sites across the globe. The principle is that as the heart of the Internet is American, whatever laws are passed, they will have a worldwide impact. In a very real sense, the F word remains a central issue in this battle, as Internet users continue to register their World Wide Web Pages using "f--k" as a keyword, thereby risking fines of up to $250,000 - a level of penalty which perhaps makes the Communications Decency Act the enforcer of the most expensive swear box ever created.

But perhaps, now that the F-word is becoming so respectable as to have a feature article dedicated to it in The Irish Times, its power - to shock and to assert difference must be further diminishing. Some scholars have remarked that as the F-word, and other imprecations of a sexual nature have become more commonplace, more mediacised, fresh words have replaced them as the sites of linguistic conflict.

This is particularly true, for example, with the issue of race. In circumstances where the sexual epithet might have slipped by unnoticed, a racial term does not. If Detective Mark Fuhrman, for example, had used the comparatively innocuous F-word, rather than the N word, perhaps O.J. Simpson would now be in prison.