Notes on the F-Word

For centuries on end, fuck was one of the two most taboo obscenities a speaker of English could utter. (The other major thou-shalt-not? The C-word). Yet it began as a rather unremarkable synonym for copulation and fornication and continued as such until the 1600s, when it nosedived into the deep end of the sea of vulgarity.

Four hundred years later a handful of literary lights began brandishing the word, much to the horror of many. In Ulysses (1922), James Joyce threw it in twice; In Lady Chatterley’s Lover* (1928), D H. Lawrence upped the ante with 30 uses; and in From Here to Eternity (1951), James Jones dropped the F-bomb a full fifty times. Filmmakers jumped headfirst into the action soon after, and today fuck is so common in everyday speech that its power to shock is mostly a thing of the past.

At the same time, anyone with the slightest bit of sense knows never to throw the F-word out as if it were as acceptable as cuddle or kiss or hug: Like everything from dressing for the occasion to dinner party conversation, word choice is situational. To put it another way, the etiquette of the spoken word dictates that you zip your lip when considering saying anything that may offend anyone around you, whether the elderly, parents with young children, or the nun on the bus.

W(here)TF?

Even etymologists aren’t quite sure where the F-word came from. Two big contenders are the Old German infinitive ficken (“to strike”) and Old Norse fukja (“to drive”). In An Encyclopedia of Swearing, Geoffrey Hughes, Professor of the History of English at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, states that a strong case for a Scandinavian origin is found in the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1966), which cites three fuckja cognates: “Middle Dutch fokken, ‘to thrust, copulate with’; a Norwegian dialect form fukka, ‘to copulate’; and Swedish fucka,** ‘to strike, push, copulate.’”

Such linguistic murkiness may explain why few words are the source of so many misconceptions. For starters, fuck may be the first word that comes to mind when someone speaks of “Anglo-Saxon four-letter words,” but the terms for the sex act in that period (500–1100 AD) were swive and sard. Nor was the F-word always considered an obscenity when it first found its way into print. Its first recorded use on paper was in a poem published in 1503 by the major Scottish poet William Dunbar. Three decades later the Scottish literary lion Sir David Lyndsay, in his morality play A Satire of the Three Estates, attacked the duplicity of the clergy with the words “Bishops… may fuck their fill and be unmarry’t.”

No Acronym, This

Many F-word users wrongly believe it is an acronym, mainly because purportedly authoritative websites say so – sites about as authoritative as those claiming film of the 1969 moon landing was shot in the Arizona desert. Said falsehoods? First, that prostitutes and anyone else convicted of a sex crime in the Middle Ages had to wear a badge with the acronym FUCK, which stood for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” Second, that the word stood for “Fornication Under Consent of the King” – a baffler suggesting that even married couples had to ask permission before copulating. Whoever came up with these flights of fancy apparently had no clue that acronyms were almost unheard of until the 1930s.***

For a look at the F-word’s multiple forms and euphemisms and which socioeconomic groups are the most enthusiastic swearers, check out Notes on the F-Word.2.)

*Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for decades, and literary critics were shocked… shocked. In a 1928 issue of the British magazine John Bull, a reviewer called the novel “the most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country… The creations of muddy-minded perverts, peddled in back-street bookstalls in Paris, are prudish by comparison.” If you can hardly wait to get your hands on the unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s succès de scandale,  click here. 

**Like me, you may wonder why the Swedish word fucka doesn’t close the case. Front it with the letter m followed by five more letters and you have one of the most frequently heard variations of a word that comes in myriad shapes and forms.

***For more on acronyms, have a look at  Acronym to Real Word.

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