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.
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.
- Want to write for us? We’re looking for the best British arts and the people that make it, from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Have a look at our pitching guidelines.