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Monday, July 11, 2011

The "F" Word

WARNING:  Explicit words used in this post!
No one under the age of 18 should continue!

My first time in the reference section of the research library at UCLA I came across the complete, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Impressed by the footage of verbiage, I took the opportunity to seek words I could never find before, such as antidisestablishmentarianism.  Boring!  So then I decided to look up the mother of all forbidden words - fuck.  As I leafed through the F volume, I noticed the pages were worn...very worn, as a matter of fact.  I was very disappointed when I came across the entry, as not much was said.

The look on my face must have been perplexed, because a reference librarian came by, saw me, and came over to offer assistance.  I unabashedly showed her the word I was looking up, and pointed out how worn the pages were.  Giggling, she looked at the volume and the entry.  She, too, was disappointed.  Not having any other suggestions as to where to look for any etymological information on the word, she asked if this was an assignment.  No, just personal interest I said, whereupon we both chuckled.

The word is unique in that it can be used in one form or another as an adjective, adverb, command, interjection, noun, or verb.  It is considered obscene in social contexts but is common in informal and domestic circumstances.  A 2000 study in Great Britain yielded that it was the third most profane word, the number one spot going to cunt, and in second place was motherfucker.  It remains taboo in English-speaking countries, but is not so censored in non-English-speaking countries where it is, however, recognized as vulgar.  The Canadian Press considers it commonplace and has added the usage to the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling Guide.  

One reason it is hard to trace the etymology of the word is because it was taboo. When the OED's F volume was originally compiled in 1893-1897, the editors omitted it, but did include it in the 2nd edition.  It cites the word fukkit used in 1503, with the earliest instance of the current spelling in 1535:  "Bischops may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit," (bishops may fuck their fill and be unmarried) from Sir David Lyndesay's Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits.  It is presumed to be a much older word, but not the kind that was written in the type of texts that have survived in Old English and Middle English.

The word is hinted at in a 15th century poem "Flen flyys", from the opening line "Flen, flyys, and freris" ("Fleas, flies, and friars") written in Middle English and bastard Latin.  The questionable lines reads:  Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.  This was a substitution cypher that requires replacing each letter with the next letter in alphabetical order:  "non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vyivys of heli", which translates, "they are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely."  This poem satirized Carmelite friars of Cambridge, so was most likely coded because of the accusation of misconduct.  "Fvccant" (with a "v" for "u") was from a common device used in Middle English which approximated Latin when a Latin word was unknown.

Cognates of the word include ficken/German, fokken/Dutch, fukka/Norwegian, and fokka/dialectal Swedish.  Thus it may come from the Indo-European root meaning to strike.  It could also be from Old High German pfluog, meaning "to plow, as a field".  (This brings to mind a Spinal Tap song - "Sex Farm", for all you Tapheads.)

There are rumors that it is an acronym, but most sources deny both this and another rumor stating it came from plucking a bow made of yew.  The word goes back much farther than the circumstances in these rumors.

The word was outlawed in print by the Obscene Publications Act in 1857 in Great Britain, and by the Comstock Act in 1873 in the United States.  It may have been banned in print, but it thrived in conversation.  It is part of military acronyms from WWII - SNAFU and FUBAR.  WTF is a recent coinage, widely used on the internet, and it counts as a meme.  In 1971, nearly 100 years after its usage was outlawed, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Cohen V. California, 403 U.S. 15, that the public display of the word is protected under the 1st and 14th amendments and cannot be made a criminal offense.  Paul Robert Cohen had been convicted in 1968 of disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket with the words "Fuck the Draft" on it, in reference to Vietnam.

In 2009, the European Union's OHIM (Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, the trademarks and designs registry) disallowed a German brewery to market a beer called "Fucking Hell".  The brewery sued, claiming the beer was named after an Austrian village called Fucking, and "Hell" is the German word for light, and it is a light beer.  On March 26, 2010, they received permission to market the beer.

The Catcher in the Rye was published in the U.S. in 1951 and featured the word. It was number 13 on the ALA's most banned books from 1990-2000.  Norman Mailer's publishers persuaded him to substitute the word "fug" in his book The Naked and the Dead in 1948.  The musical group The Fugs named themselves after his euphemism.  Tallulah Bank head's PR guy famously quipped, "So you're the young man who can't spell fuck."

The word is now so commonplace in mainstream movies from the U.S. that it almost goes unnoticed.  This becomes problematic when the movies appear on television.  The line from "Diehard" - "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" became "Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon".  John Goodman's character in "The Big Lebowski" has a popular line that he says repeatedly, "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass".  On TV he says, "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps".

Most people think of classical Greece and Rome as civilized, erudite, polished and tasteful.  Not so!  The middle finger gesture, and its meaning, was used in ancient Greek comedy to insult someone, although some would argue it was a method of diverting the threat of the evil eye.  (My Greek grandmother used to aim her hand with all fingers out and slightly curled to curse, saying the word "Nah!")  The Romans adopted the gesture we know as the finger, or flipping the bird, calling it the digitus impudicus or digitus infamis.

So, the notion and the word fuck have an ancient pedigree.  Interesting that it is still considered one of the worst words.  There are far worse words to my mind - racist, bigot, pedophile - that are perhaps less crude but certainly more foul.



  1. I must admit I never thought researching the F-word could be so fucking interesting. I guess it will be the last thing I read on the internet before I have to get the fuck off to work. I have some thoughts on the F-word myself I'd like to fucking share when I get back.

    Until then, I do want to say that one thing I question is the statement: "A 2000 study in Great Britain yielded that it was the third most profane word, the number one spot going to cunt, and in second place was motherfucker." Are they fucking kidding me? --Brits use cunt and motherfucker more than the F-word? That wouldn't be the result here in the good ol' fucking USA! The tried-and-true F-word is hands down no contest over these other two. Hell, one Quentin Tarantino movie uses the F-word more times than the whole fucking population of Great Britain! Once more, in this fucking country, it isn't just that the F-word is used as either an adjective, adverb, command, interjection, noun, or verb, but that the F-word can be strung together as all these to make a sentence--like when you want to express your displeasure when you are cut off in traffic by some fucking Brit who doesn't know how to drive here.

    Granted, I guess since the Brits can embrace D.H Lawrence as one of their own, they probably use that ancient Anglo-Saxon word "cunt" a lot. But, seriously, to my ears it's not as, well ... endearing ... over on this side of the fucking pond. And I suspect that the poll wasn't 50-50 men and women. Most women I know well don't like it. I guess 'cause men here use it as a vile insult. I mean, do you think that Eve Ensler would have had an Off Broadway hit if she had called it "The Cunt Monologues"?

    So I'm fucking asking myself what the fuck is up with these Brits anyway?

  2. * Hargrave, Andrea Millwood (2000). Delete Expletives? London: Advertising Standards Authority, British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission.

  3. Let's explore the names that are so much more often used than penis/vagina. I don't think I heard the proper names for those most popular anatomical entities until at least high school. It was unheard of to refer to our genetals in scientific terms. I still almost gag on those words.

  4. Raphael, they probably make you gag because of their unfamiliarity. Some people prefer the correct scientific names for genitalia. Using them is more clinical and less crude.