Susie Dent’s Introduction To Swearing: The F-Word

Cover your eyes and ears: Susie Dent returns for her regular column.

Susie Dent's introduction to swearing

Cover your eyes and ears: Susie Dent returns for her regular column, where she talks about rude words. And this time, it begins with the letter ‘F’…

What’s the most versatile word in the English language? ‘Get’, perhaps, which takes up several pages in the Oxford English Dictionary? Or ‘set’, which has some 430 definitions? Good choices, both, but if you were to ask any lexicographer for their suggestions, it’s likely that ‘fuck’ would be near the top of the list. 

For good reason: how many other words can act as a noun (she doesn’t give a fuck), a verb (he really fucked up), an adjective (I don’t have a fucking clue), an intensifier (it’s all gone fucking crazy) and an everyday filler (abso-fucking-lutely)?

The F-bomb is now used so prolifically it’s become something of a damp squib

And that’s far from all. You might opt for a fuck-off camera or fuck-me shoes. You might have a fuck face, be a fuckwit or fucked up, know fuck all, be fucked over by a right fucker, scare the fuck out of someone, bring about a cluster-fuck, fuck about, or cry ‘fuck me!’ in astonishment.

All of this would suggest that the F-bomb is now used so prolifically it’s become something of a damp squib, a throwaway filler in our sentences that no longer has the power to turn heads or elicit much of a stutter. Almost every post-watershed comedy or panel show is studded with it. It has been used publicly by a future PM, when Boris Johnson declared ‘fuck business’ at a conference (a view roundly dismissed by the-then candidate rival for the Conservative Party leadership, Matt Hancock, with “fuck ‘fuck business'”). And yet, for all its ubiquity, this is a word that can still hold its own, with a sting that has endured for over half a millennium.


Fuck is not one of those ‘Anglo-Saxon’ words – a popular euphemism that belies the fact that most of our expletives date, in fact, from the Middle Ages. It first appeared as a verb around 1500, in a Latin-English verse that translates as ‘They [monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely’. As a noun, it began to make inroads in the 17th century, when a man called, rather impossibly, Richard Head, wrote ‘I did creep in.. and there I did see putting the great fuck upon my weef.’ 

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

If the timeline is clear, these are four letters in search of an etymology. There are some tantalising theories, among the most popular of which is the acronym ‘Fornication Under Command of the King’, said to have been coined at a time when the population of Britain had been so decimated by plague that the monarchy ordered everyone to go forward and procreate. Couples were instructed to hang a sign with F.U.C.K on their doors, meaning they must in no circumstances be disturbed by royal decree. Unsurprisingly, the tale is (literally) fucking nonsense.

I did creep in.. and there I did see putting the great fuck upon my weef.

The linguist Anatoly Liberman draws a parallel with a variety of Germanic verbs with roots in fik-, fak, fuk-, fok-, all of which mean ‘to move back and forth’, which would be entirely logical. If it’s not the joy of sex, however, there may be something far more sinister at work, and ‘fuck’ may be a much-altered descendant of the Latin pugnare, to hit, adding another link to the chain of sex and violence.

It certainly seems that hitting is how we originally understood fucking. Some of the word’s earliest appearances are in surnames: a Mr. Fuckebegger (Mr. Beggar-hitter), for example, is recorded in court rolls in the 13th century. Rather beautifully, on the other hand, a ‘windfucker ‘was once another word for kestrel, a bird that strikes or hits the wind with its wings.


Such uses show that ‘fuck’ was far from the taboo it is considered to be today. In 1528 an anonymous monk wrote ‘O D fuckin Abbot’ in the margin of a book on moral conduct. Whether he was accusing the abbot of having too much sex, or simply using the word as a strong exclamation, is unclear, but he was clearly prepared to deface a holy book with ‘fuck’ whilst shunning the term ‘damned’, opting for the abbreviation ‘D’ instead. For the monk and his peers, ‘damnation’ was the real obscenity.

By the 1700s, if the F-word was printed at all, it was always as f—k. The use of dashes and asterisks continued in newspapers until relatively recently. Euphemisms abound, from effing and jeffing to fecking. When Kenneth Tynan uttered the word ‘fuck’ on national TV in 1965, four motions were tabled in Parliament. 12 years later, the liberal use of the word by John Lydon as Johnny Rotten on the TV programme Today show secured the reputation of the Sex Pistols as front-page villains.

SEE MORE: Capturing the Legends of the 20th Century

Today, of course, the situation is drastically different: social media is awash with ‘fucks’ and ‘fuckings’, accounting in one study for over 34% of all swears. When John Lydon appeared on I’m A Celebrity in 2004 and called the audience ‘fucking cunts’ for not voting him off, there were fewer than 100 complaints.

Yet at the same time, watersheds hold firm, and broadcasters remain acutely aware of swearing’s ability to offend. There’s no denying our residual recognition of its ‘naughtiness’ either: swearing is rebellion, after all.  For a word that has coloured language in various shades of blue for over six centuries, ‘fuck’ still packs a surprisingly powerful punch in the swearing game.

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  • thescotthenriksen71 says:

    Fucking marvellous Susie, I can’t wait to unleash a Windefucker into conversation.

  • kevinfischer1 says:

    Beautiful explained

  • Avatar of peter.buxton102 peter.buxton102 says:

    Gerard Manley Hopkins penned a sonnet about the kestrel – ‘The Windfucker’. (or something like that.)

  • weekerr2003 says:

    F——-g brilliant

  • Avatar of kendunsmuir kendunsmuir says:

    Will I ever be able to look at a Kestrel again with a straight face? For evermore it will be a Windfucker

  • Avatar of jcn1149 jcn1149 says:

    Don’t forget feck as used by the Irish.

  • anniemarshallster says:

    I’ve always been told that the word derives from Danish…. Certainly they have a happy relationship with the word.

  • adocherty2018 says:

    Did you miss the part where fuck can be a place? As in “Get to fuck, and when you get there you can fuck off from there to!” Or did I speed read past it?….ah bless look its a windfucker!…..where can I find a kestrel so I can drop this into conversation?

  • martinakelly239 says:

    Fascinating, thanks

  • andrewhudson says:

    Interesting. People still use the phrase “to hit on someone”. I wonder if that has some sort of resonance with the old meaning of fuck?

  • tonymottram says:

    US Band Van Halen had an album titled
    For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge

  • tonymottram says:
    Sammy Hagar of Van Halen Explains the title of their F.U.C.K album title

  • garrywhite10 says:

    As a student in around 1970 I took a vacation job, labouring on the construction of the M56. Probably my first in-depth experience of the male adult world of the construction industry. One day I was masterfully schooled on the use the of language economically for the greatest effect. As I was walking along the pre-blacktop surface to my next task, my colleague and I came across an Irish subcontracted driver and his flatbed at the side of the road in a skew-whiff manner, with his driveshaft snapped at the universal joint. He was obviously distressed. We enquired of his predicament and whether he could fix it.
    His response was sublime and will go with me to my grave. “the fuckin’ fucker’s fuckin’ fucked.”

  • sal3legs9910 says:

    The Sex Pistol interview was 1976 and it was Steve Jones that said ‘fuck’ not John Lydon

  • reg_stubbs says:

    Well fuck my old boots….

    …..Words are only swearwords if you use them in that context, or pervert the original communication by using great fuckery!!

    (The “Getifa ya bassa!” sketch from Sir William Connolly CBE as an example)

  • john.hubbard says:

    Only on Saturday, an acquaintance told me with great certainty that it was an acronym from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and presumably believes it was a legal euphemism for rape. Seems highly unlikely!

  • brianrowe33 says:

    Loved the fucking pixels off your article

  • kilmunmary555679 says:

    I’m amazed at all the way back in history the F word goes, I found this article so amazing, thank you Suzie

  • mbhayes1160 says:

    At a Catholic school in Sydney in 1978, I muttered “fuck” under my breath in an English class. The (Marist)brother replied “German for ploughing the land”, to which I presented a red face. Not that I’ve ever stopped using it.

  • says:

    As many English words come from the Germanic, I would think “fuck” is a corruption of the German word “fick”, meaning the same thing?

  • says:

    An American I used to work with used the expression “fuck my tall hat”. Any idea what that is supposed to mean?

  • entertainer.2008 says:

    An excellent article! Well done, Susie! ??.

    Talking about changing values, years ago, Susie will remember this, when Richard Whitely was host of “Countdown”, both contestants made the word “Wankers” from the letters picked. Richard commented that “Yes, well ‘wankers’ is a word!”, made a joke about it and everyone laughed. Fast forward to last year, the same word was chosen, Rachel spelt it out on the board ……. but then three of letters were rendered “fuzzy” so that you could see WAN, then three fuzzy letters and then an S! So much for becoming a more liberal society! ?

  • william.faint says:

    I always understood it to be an acronym of a legal term, ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’. I suspect that is an urban legend and likely to be completely untrue.

    • duffaboy4245 says:

      @william.faint Our English teacher told us this at school as well, he said it was branded on the heads of Prostitutes. So maybe both explanations are true

  • Avatar of michaelbaumeister1950 michaelbaumeister1950 says:

    Great funking article. I’m fucking impressed!

  • martharichler9290 says:

    Fucking brilliant article. I’ve done a radio edit of Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’ weaving in baritone barks by my border collie Bandit and soprano barks by my best friend’s King Charles Spaniel Maisy. How can I send it to you? ?

  • philip says:

    I don’t care for its overuse these days because it is diminished in its power to shock and therefore less effective.

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