An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Editor: Geoffrey Hughes. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
The most powerfully taboo term for copulation over several centuries, fuck is still regarded as unmentionable by the vast majority of middle-class people. It was unlisted in standard dictionaries from 1728 until 1965, being therefore omitted by Dr. Johnson (1755), by the monumental Oxford English Dictionary in 1898, and even by Webster III in 1961. The simple appearance of the word was for many decades regarded as grounds for obscenity or pornography, an assumption not properly challenged in the courts until 1959 in the United States and 1960 in Britain. The Supplement to the OED (1972), it carried the following usage note: “For centuries, and still by the great majority, regarded as a taboo-word; until recent times not often recorded in print but frequent in coarse speech.” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) has a broader and more concessive note: “usually considered vulgar,” the dictionary’s standard designation for a great variety of vulgar, obscene, and profane language. Fuck has generated a great number of meanings, compounds, idioms, and tones.
The history of the word is full of surprises. Contrary to popular misconception, fuck is not an Anglo-Saxon term, the first recorded instance being only in 1503. This lateness might suggest a lexical gap, but in fact two ancient terms, sard and swive, now both obsolete, did service in Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. These and other synonyms are covered fully in the entry for copulation. However, John Ayto notes that the personal name John le Fucker is recorded from 1278 (1991, 242).
The ulterior etymology of the term is uncertain, a surprising fact considering the relative modernity of the word. Etymologists have long puzzled over the relationship between fuck and its Continental semantic partners, French foutre, recorded from the twelfth century, and German ficken, meaning “to strike.” There are problems with both phonetic and semantic links. Eric Partridge, in his etymological dictionary Origins (1977), stressed the link between Latin futuere (the root of French foutre) and Latin battuere, “to strike.” These connections invoke the slang metaphorical terms for sexual intercourse in terms of aggression, namely knock, bang, and the recently fashionable British bonk. (The relevant metaphors for “penis” are also suggestive: tool, prick, chopper, and weapon, a basic term in Anglo-Saxon.) Another potentially germane root, not usually canvassed in standard works, lies in Old Norse fukja, “to drive,” which generates the forms windfucker (an alternative to windhover) and Scots fucksail, “a foresail.” According to William Craigie in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (1931-), fucksail acquired the transferred sense of “a woman’s skirt” and was also reduced to plain fuck. The link between Old Norse fukja and the earliest forms such as Scots fuk still remains metaphorical. Random House (1994) follows this Scandinavian connection very plausibly, categorizing the word as “an English reflex of a widespread Germanic form.” It cites as cognates Middle Dutch fokken, “to thrust, copulate with,” a Norwegian dialect form fukka, “to copulate,” and Swedish focka, “to strike, push, copulate.”
More unexpectedly, fuck first appears, not as part of the language of the gutter, but in a noble context, in the work of major Scots poets and aristocrats. William Dunbar has the first recorded instance, dated 1503: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit” (Poems, lxxv 13), while the noted Scots satirist Sir David Lindsay commented scathingly in 1535 on the hypocrisy of the clergy: “Bischops … may fuck their fill and be unmarryit” (Satire of the Three Estates, l. 1363).
Another early instance is, amazingly, in a swearing match, or flyting, in this case Lindsay’s Flyting with King James (ca. 1540), which contains this piece of riotous alliteration: “Aye fukkand [fucking] lyke ane furious fornicatour.” In another flyting match between two major poets, Sir Walter Kennedy dismisses William Dunbar as a “wan fukkit funling” (“an ill-conceived foundling”) (l. 39). Flyting is an archaic term referring to a verbal contest of insult and obscenity. As these and other instances suggest, the term was initially more widely used in the North, a tradition continued by Robert Burns in his Merry Muses (ca. 1800):
When maukin bucks, at early f―ks,
In dewy glens are seen, sir.
There were in the past a number of cognate terms, such as fuckable, fuckish, and fuckster (a good performer), in addition to the surviving fucking and fucker. This proliferation suggests a vigorous, albeit scandalous, currency.
In England, it took some time for fuck to be recorded. Unexpectedly, the word did not appear in any of the “canting” dictionaries recording the argot of the underworld from the late sixteenth century, first emerging in John Florio’s comprehensive English/Italian dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes (1598). Translating the relevant Italian verb, Florio ran through the whole gamut of available English synonyms with Renaissance exuberance:
Fottere: To iape [jape], to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.
We notice that out of this extensive word field, only one term has survived into Modern English in the copulatory sense. There is no usage note suggesting that any of the words was taboo. However fuck does not appear in the major literature of the times (see, however, E. Wilson’s article, 1993, 29-34). The natural explanation is that bilingual dictionaries had greater freedom than their “native” equivalents. Thus Randle Cotgrave’s contemporary Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) uses a fair amount of coarse language. As one might expect of a dramatist subject to certain constraints, Shakespeare avoids direct use of the term, preferring euphemistic forms from various other languages, such as foutra, a variant of French foutre (Henry IV, Part II, V ii 98). Likewise in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), there is a pun about “the focative case” (IV i 53). These would obviously be risqué in-jokes.
During the Restoration, a period of decadence reacting to the Puritan Commonwealth, the taboo was jauntily violated by such outrageous poets as the Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), who begins his deceptively titled poem “A Ramble in Saint James’s Park” in this fashion:
Much wine had past with grave discourse
Of who fucks who and who does worse.
The Prologue to Rochester’s attributed play Sodom is spoken by a character called Fuckadilla, who announces that “A little fuck can’t stay our appetite” (l. 19). Four-letter words also abounded in contemporary poems by various upper-class figures, partly as displays of aristocratic insouciance. Thus “A Letter from the Lord Buckhurst to Mr. George Etherege” opens an exchange of letter-poems about the various women they had shared:
Dreaming last night on Mrs. Farley [a noted actress]
My prick was up this morning early.
For by a gentler way I found
The nymph would fuck under ten pound.
These were, of course, matters of individual taste as well as class. Whereas Rochester and his set flaunt the word, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), avoids it, preferring French euphemisms, even in the private record of his Diary, written in his own shorthand code.
The taboo became more entrenched in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when dictionary policies were understandably reticent: Nathaniel Bailey (1728) printed the full form, oddly giving a Latin definition, feminam subagitare; Dr. Johnson (1755) omitted it; and Francis Grose (1785) minced it to f―k, a convention that was to become virtually standard in subsequent centuries as the word went underground. The OED also famously omitted the term, and even in a private letter of 1869, Dante Gabriel Rosetti wrote: “If Byron f―d his sister, he f―d his sister and there an end.”
Of course, it is extremely unlikely that fuck was unheard in the streets, taverns, and brothels from the eighteenth century onward, possibly being used by even the best mannered citizens. But it virtually disappeared from the public page. A typical example of the double standard between the public persona and the private person lies in two anecdotes covered in the entry for Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). These show that Johnson used the word in company, but omitted all vulgar sexual terms in his Dictionary (1755), a model of decorum.
From 1857 the word fell under the category of “obscene libel,” which meant that a publisher could be prosecuted for printing it. Sir James Murray, the broad-minded editor of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928), fastidiously recorded a huge range of the vulgar and obscene terms, but drew the line at fuck and cunt. These topics are discussed in more detail in the entries for Oxford English Dictionary and the major contemporaries, John S. Farmer and William E. Henley, who included an astonishing thesaurus of over six hundred synonyms. Their compendium shows that obscenity and profanity were thriving behind the Victorian facade of respectability.
The ensuing spirit of censorship, prudishness, and Comstockery, as well as stringent laws against obscenity, ensured that fuck remained taboo for decades on both sides of the Atlantic. It first reappeared lexicographically in the United Kingdom in the Penguin English Dictionary in 1965. Naturally, the omissions from the original OED were made good in the first volume of the Supplement (1972). Having understandably been excluded in the earlier American dictionaries, notably those of Webster (1806 and 1828), fuck remained unlisted in the United States, even being omitted from the Third Edition of Webster (1961). This despite the pioneering article, “An Obscenity Symbol” by Allen Walker Read in American Speech, December 1934. It was eventually included in Stuart Berg Flexner’s I Hear America Talking (1976) and The New Dictionary of American Slang (1986) but did not find a place in the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology(1988). However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (ed. Jonathan Lighter, 1994-) provided truly comprehensive treatment.
The wording of the Obscene Publications Act (1857) upheld a traditional notion of obscenity as being “of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in a well-regulated mind.” Although the test for obscenity from 1868 focused on “the tendency of the matter … to deprave or corrupt” rather than on the language per se, the mere existence of “four-letter” words clearly influenced decisions. The entries for censorship and obscenity deal more fully with these and the more notable trials on the grounds of obscenity, while that for Lady Chatterley’s Lover covers the novel and the celebrated lawsuit of 1960 (Regina v. Penguin Books).
The victory of the publishers in the lawsuit led to a radical increase in publications in the United Kingdom with obviously pornographic titles such as Screw, Orgy, Pleasure, Suck, and Cunts and Grunts. However, in 1965, Kenneth Tynan, the noted theater critic and producer, provoked a scandal through the first broadcast utterance of fuck on B.B.C. television. Yet Tynan’s comments were tame compared with some of the slogans in violent protests in the United States against the Vietnam War. The most notorious of these were “Fuck the Draft” and “Fuck the Pigs.” Commenting on the new vocabulary of protest in an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Violence” in 1970, E. Goodhart observed “The operative words are ‘pig,’ ‘bullshit,’ ‘motherfucker.’ It is the language of left militant students … the ‘alma-mater fuckers'” (399).
In common with many powerful terms of abuse, fuck has developed a great range of grammatical functions and tones. Among them are fuck all, fuck about, fuck it! fuck off, and such phrases as fuck a duck!, fuck you Jack, I’m all right, I’m fucked if I know, fuck that for a lark!, and go fuck yourself. Most of these idioms are comparatively recent in the great time span of the language, although Fuck you! is dated ca. 1895, Fuck you Jack, I’m all right, ca. 1915, and fuck a duck!, ca. 1934. The last expression was possibly more literal: Grose (1785) has the humorous entry: “Duck f-ck-r, The man who has care of the poultry upon a ship of war.” The surrealistic flying fuck dates from James Jones’s war classic From Here to Eternity (1946). Another typical feature is the infixing of the term into other words like unfuckingbelievable and phrases such as get the fuck out, a process noted in Sagarin (1962, 148). American usage uniquely includes the insulting use as a noun, as in “You blooming fuck!” recorded from ca. 1927, but current only in recent decades. Jonathon Green’s The Slang Thesaurus (1999) lists forty-three different forms and idioms. A veritable thesaurus of usage is recorded in Jesse Sheidlower’s coyly titled study, The F-Word (1995), in which, according to the blurb, “every sense of the word f#@k is examined in detail.”
Among the multitudinous euphemisms are French foutra (ca. 1592), fut (ca. 1605), foot (ca. 1735), footering (ca. 1735),frigging (ca. 1785), footling (ca. 1905), effing (ca. 1929), and fugging (coined by Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead (1947, 10), still mainly confined to American usage. This historical sequence, set out in the accompanying figure, shows the continuing need for new euphemisms, as the more remote forms are no longer generally recognized as related to the core term. (Frig carries in British slang the sense of “masturbate.”) Various polite but knowing euphemisms exist in formulas in British English. These include “the f-word,” “to eff off,” and “effing,” first recorded in Robert Graves’s reminiscences of World War I, Goodbye to All That: “(The bandmaster, who was squeamish, reported it as: ‘Sir, he called me a double effing c―)” (1929, 70). This instance provides a clear verification of the time gap between actual and recorded use. Although eff is generally regarded as British, Ernest Hemingway is accorded the first use in Across the River and Into the Trees (1950): “‘Eff Florence,’ the colonel said” (98). In the phrase “effing and blinding,” blinding is a less obvious reference to bloody, also found in usages like “He didn’t take a blind bit of notice.”
Although still widely considered taboo and marked as such in most dictionaries, the actual currency of fuck is steadily encroaching on areas of polite discourse. Naturally, there is still a great variation of individual tolerance and diversity of use. Alan Clark, minister of trade in Margaret Thatcher’s last cabinet, recorded in his devastatingly frank Diaries his final meeting with the prime minister, a highly decorous personage, just prior to her resignation. When Thatcher mentions the possibility of Michael Portillo as her successor, Clark snaps back: “Who the fuck’s Michael? No one. Nothing. He won’t last six months” (1993, 366). Clark’s diaries record many similar idioms and a great variety of coarse language used in the presence of important political figures, without demur or rebuke. The wider aspect is simply shown in the recent French characterization of the English as les fuckoffs, on account of their copious use of the phrase. The clothing retailer French Connection gained considerable publicity by styling itself FCUK in Britain about 1994.
The most obvious global influence accelerating the acceptability of the term has been popular culture, especially in film and television. Hollywood, initially an influence for restraint, has become one for license. Under the Production Code of 1930, “pointed profanity or vulgar expressions, however used [were] forbidden.” The Code was revised in the course of the 1960s, so that a number of Vietnam War films, such as Apocalypse Now! (1980), Platoon(1987), and Full Metal Jacket (1988), subjected the audience to a veritable verbal bombardment of obscenity. Similar in style were such significant works as The Commitments (1991), Trainspotting (1996), Kids (1997), and most of the films of Spike Lee, notably Do the Right Thing (1989). Publicity material for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe Award for the Best Screenplay, claims with a mixture of coyness and pride, that “the f-word is used 271 times.” In several of these instances the content and the milieu concern the gangster underworld or the military, both notorious for swearing and profanity. However, some works showing a similar proliferation have quite different content and questionable qualifications for the category of “popular culture.” Thus David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross (1983), set in a real estate office, was suffused with copulatory idioms, as was Mark Ravenhill’s directly titled Shopping and Fucking (1996).
Within the realm of poetry, Philip Larkin, a reclusive librarian at Hull University suggested as the successor to Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate, caused a minor sensation with his poems using demotic language, notably “This Be the Verse” (1971), which opens with this “Freudian” insight into family relationships:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s collections, notably Sky Ray Lolly (1986), uses similarly earthy language. Recent fiction has produced many works in the same vein, among them Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), Martin Amis’s Success (1985), and James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (1994). This book’s principal lexical feature is the astonishingly concentrated use of the word fuck and other four-letter words (up to a dozen times per page): “Fucking bunk man it was fucking hollow, he was lying on the fucking bare spring and it was killing him man his fucking shoulder, jesus christ; he turned on to his front” (1994, 29). (The “decapitalization” of Jesus Christ is a more provocative eccentricity.) The novel won the prestigious British Booker Prize in 1994, but only after a division in the jury and a critical furor. A less acrimonious controversy surrounded the copious use of fucken in the Booker Prize-winner for 2003, D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little. Organs of “quality journalism” have not been left behind. The Anniversary Issue of the prestigious New Yorker magazine (February 19 and 26, 2001) carried an article “Fast Woman,” by Susan Orlean about Jean Jennings, a high-speed driver, who complains about a slow-moving truck: “Un-fucking-believable” (152). Such copy would not have been countenanced in earlier decades, let alone a century ago.
Other global varieties of English have tended to be less persistent and exploratory in their use of the term. In South African English fuck is still generally regarded as taboo and is seldom printed, uttered in public, or broadcast. However, it has a fairly vigorous demotic usage, particularly among second-language speakers, for whom the taboo is less real. The phonetic proximity of the Afrikaans cognates fok, fokken, and fok-al supplies a common euphemistic outlet. Australian English, notable for its colorful and vigorous slang, is oddly reticent over the use of the term, generally preferring the euphemisms, the naughty and to do the naughty. However, it includes fuckwit for an idiot, the ironic fucktruck for “a panel van, especially one fitted with a mattress,” and the spoonerism “No wucking furries.”
The entry for copulation deals with the related word field. The use of fuck and its variant forms as swearwords and terms of abuse is relatively recent, dating from the early decades of the twentieth century. Overall, the term has developed from being powerfully taboo to a split status, still shocking to many, but nevertheless increasingly current. In its grading of word frequency, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995) listed fucking in the top 1,000 most spoken words and fuck in the top 3,000 most spoken. Timothy Jay’s studies into the language of college students similarly showed a high level of taboo and of frequency (1992, 143-57). As is typical of swearwords, increased currency has led to the semantic trend of loss of intensity.