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MOVIE REVIEW

Presenting the history of a four-letter word

Alas, the gloriously succinct title of "F--," Steve Anderson's documentary about the history of obscenity is unfit for publication in a family newspaper. And one of the unanswered questions in this entertaining and well-researched cultural-linguistic profile is why, exactly. No one knows the word's precise etymology or how it has held on to its vulgar charm for all these centuries, but the term has definitely been dirty since its first appearance in the late 15th century.

The film considers its titular four-letter word's ancient and modern histories and its appearance in various branches of human life (sports, law, religion, popular culture, etc . ). Anderson presents this showcase with reasonable flippancy. We get a breezy cartoon run down of the word's many parts of speech, for instance. And the dozens of entertainers, politicians, and scholars -- from Alanis Morissette, adult-film star Tera Patrick, and the late Hunter S. Thompson to Alan Keyes, Sam Donaldson, and Michael Medved -- appear to be amused by Anderson's undertaking.

At its most enjoyable -- which is pretty much the movie's entire running time -- "F--" frolics in the VH-1 popumentary idiom, playfully patching together an argument from terrific archive footage and talking heads who say the darnedest things. Pat Boone happily offers a list of euphemisms for the eponymous obscenity, including his own name, and his fussbudget mindset just makes him seem all the foxier. Anderson's glib approach is to the movie's advantage, allowing anything profound to seem unexpected. (Those interested in a more incisive consideration of our relationship with foul language are advised to pick up one of Timothy Jay's books on the subject.)

The movie explains how the word took on its modern usage during the two World Wars, takes us on a mini-political journey that ruminates on the arrests and convictions of Lenny Bruce (described here as a "First Amendment martyr"), and considers the rise of the Parents Television Council, a powerful and litigious conservative group. We are given glimpses into the odd machinations of the Federal Communications Commission and reminded that Howard Stern was a lucrative target.

Despite the appearance of numerous free-speaking conservatives, the movie's partisanship leans nakedly to the left. But Anderson clearly wants to create a kind of equilibrium among sensibilities, although mostly for comic effect. One merrily assembled sequence creates the impression that the former porn star Ron Jeremy is in conversation with the etiquette maven Judith Martin -- Miss Manners to you. (It should be noted that Keyes is ridiculous without the aid of mischievous editing.)

Among the burning questions the movie raises: Does God care if we swear? Do Democrats curse more than Republicans? (See the eye-opening montage.) And, of course: What about the children? George Carlin, in a famous standup routine, had something to say about that last one. But, alas, that's unprintable, too.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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