Lexicon Valley

Can John Leguizamo Put a Pretty Face on Fugly?

Courtesy of 108 Media

“F-U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi! You fugly! Fugly! Fugly as in ugly!” That’s the chorus that greets young Jesse Sanchez in the new movie Fugly! when he tries to impress a bunch of girls by dropping his pants.

“The nickname stuck,” the adult Jesse says in a voiceover. “Fugly. For the rest of my life.”

Jesse is a fictionalized version of John Leguizamo, writer and director of Fugly! (which opens today in New York and will be available on video on demand on Nov. 25). Like his protagonist, Leguizamo was tormented by this particular F-word at a young age, growing up in Queens in the 1970s.

Now Leguizamo has his revenge on those who called him “fugly” as a kid, with a poignant comedy about a down-on-his-luck actor who learns how to transcend the playground slur and finds some beauty in his life.

Fugly is, plain and simple, a contraction of “fucking ugly” (a derivation that came as a surprise to Meredith Vieira when she chatted with Leguizamo about his movie). In a phone interview, Leguizamo told me that the “fugly” slur was “universal” at his school in the mid-’70s, but he has discovered that it’s the kind of word that every generation tries to claim as its own.

“A lot of people think that they made it up,” Leguizamo said. “Teenagers always think that they made it up.”

Fugly has, no doubt, been independently reinvented by young people in many places and at many times. The earliest appearance recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as in Jesse Sheidlower’s authoritative book The F-Word, actually comes from Australia. In More Than a Mere Bravo, a glossary of cadet slang from the Royal Military College at Duntroon, R.J. Rayward records fugly as a noun used to refer “an extremely ugly woman.”

Australian cadets were using fugly in this way by 1970. American kids, meanwhile, began popularizing the adjective, especially in urban neighborhoods like the one where Leguizamo had his traumatic encounter with the word.

In the days before Urban Dictionary, however, teen slang could go years without being documented. The first citation for the adjective in the OED and The F-Word appears, oddly enough, in the 1980 novel Man, Woman, and Child by Erich Segal, better known for writing the sappy Love Story. It’s safe to say that by the time Segal got to it, fugly was all too familiar to teens across the country.

Since its initial spread in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fugly has enjoyed many subsequent waves of popularity. In a 2005 article for Salon, Melena Z. Ryzik noted that fugly had caught on in fashion-conscious circles, helped along by sites like Go Fug Yourself.

The word’s slangy appeal has even gone global: months before Leguizamo released Fugly!, Bollywood put out its own “fugly” movie. The title of the Indian production is spelled F*ugly, which is given the more innocuous explanation, “fight against ugly.” (That’s just the latest bowdlerization of the fully expanded “fucking ugly”: elsewhere you can find fugly glossed as “funny and ugly,” “fat and ugly,” “fantastically ugly,” and so forth.)

With that extra F, fugly packs a punch that ugly simply cannot. “It’s horrific!” Leguizamo told me of his own experience with the word. “Ugly is bad, but fugly is really horrid.” After being traumatized by the word as a child, he said, “I’ve had to work my whole life not to feel that. I was always terrified that I was going to be called that.”

But by using fugly as the title of his film, Leguizamo is fighting back against this verbal terror and hoping to sap it of its potency. “It would be nice for it not to have the power it once had, just like all nasty, horrible nicknames,” Leguizamo said. “We all go through fugly moments. If we all share our fugliness, it won’t sting so hard.”

Watch the trailer for Fugly! below: 

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