what the fuck part 2 (an etymological look at everyone’s favorite four-letter word)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

THE WORD THAT IN­SPIRED the term “four-letter word” is con­sid­ered among the foulest of words in the Eng­lish lan­guage. That alone guar­an­tees it a place in the lex­icon beg­ging to be re­searched. And that word is fuck. And finding out all about fuck is not all that easy a thing to do . . .

I am a child of the post-WWII baby boom; that is, the orig­inal boom that oc­curred in the years after the war. The post-war birth rate peaked in 1947–48 (al­most 27 births per 1,000 pop­u­la­tion) and more or less plateaued out until 1956–57 (al­most 24 births per 1,000 pop­u­la­tion). This was fol­lowed by a steady de­cline until it reached a low in the 1970s (less than 15 births per 1,000 population).

As a word, “fuck” dates from the 1670s and wasn’t in a single Eng­lish lan­guage dic­tio­nary from 1795 to 1965.

I am not in ac­cord with the con­sensus opinion, which ac­cepts the Baby Boomer pop­u­la­tion as having been born be­tween 1946 and 1964. Too long for me and NOT the end­lessly ex­tended, never-ending boom that lasts into the mid-1960s. Again, I am meandering.

For those of us born in that time and who went to school in the 1950s and ’60s here in the United States, speaking that word aloud could get one’s face or be­hind slapped, be forced to take a bite of an Ivory soap bar and chew it, or be sent to the Prin­ci­pal’s office.

That fuck can also be de­scribed using such ad­jec­tives as uni­versal and ubiq­ui­tous makes it all the more fas­ci­nating a topic for those with a need to know about the lan­guage they and others around them use daily. Here find three sources dis­cussing as­pects of the et­y­mology of the word fuck . . .


EroticArt India 800

Erotic fan­tasy in an­cient In­dian art.

Etymologically, “fuck” has been difficult

Until re­cently, fuck was a dif­fi­cult word to trace, in part be­cause it was taboo to the ed­i­tors of the orig­inal Ox­ford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary. The ear­liest ap­pear­ance of the cur­rent spelling (fuck) is 1535, but pre­sum­ably, it is a much more an­cient word than that, simply one that wasn’t written in the kind of texts that have sur­vived from Old Eng­lish and Middle English.

The ear­liest ex­am­ples of the word oth­er­wise are from Scot­tish, which sug­gests a Scan­di­na­vian origin—perhaps from a word akin to Nor­we­gian fukka or Swedish focka (both ‘cop­u­late’) and fock (‘penis’). An­other theory traces it to Middle Eng­lish fyke or fike (‘move rest­lessly, fidget’ [but] which also meant ‘dally, flirt’).

This would par­allel the usual Middle Eng­lish slang term swive (‘to have sexual in­ter­course’), which is from Old Eng­lish swifan (‘to move lightly over, sweep’). But OED re­marks that these cannot be shown to be re­lated to the Eng­lish word.

As a noun, fuck dates from the 1670s. Samuel Johnson ex­cluded the word in his A Dic­tio­nary Of The Eng­lish Lan­guage (1755) and fuck wasn’t in a single Eng­lish lan­guage dic­tio­nary from 1795 to 1965.

Fuck was out­lawed in print in Eng­land by the Ob­scene Pub­li­ca­tions Act of 1857 and by the Com­stock Act of 1873 in the US.


WallyWood DisneyOrgy bw 1500

Wally Wood’s no­to­rious poster for Paul Krass­ner’s Re­alist mag­a­zine from 1966 that sat­i­rized Dis­ney’s squeaky-clean image was later turned into a black light poster that was hard to find even in the ’60s.

Attitudes remain fucked up

Progress in ac­cep­tance of the word’s near-universal usage began in the mid-20th cen­tury. In1949, Hem­ingway sub­sti­tuted muck for fuck in For Whom The Bell Tolls. In 1948, the pub­lishers ‘per­suaded’ Norman Mailer to use fug in­stead of fuck in his WWII novel The Naked And The Dead. When Mailer was in­tro­duced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, ‘So you’re the man who can’t spell fuck.’

The vari­a­tion in mean­ings of “fuck” can be at­trib­uted to dif­fer­ences in na­tional cul­ture, local cul­ture, so­ci­o­log­ical cul­ture, and gen­er­a­tional culture.

The big break­through lit­er­arily came in 1950 with the pub­li­ca­tion of James Jones’s From Here To Eter­nity, which fea­tured the char­ac­ters saying ‘fuck’ fifty times, down from 258 in the orig­inal manuscript!

The legal bar­riers also broke down in the 20th cen­tury, with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1933) and the D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover de­ci­sions (1959). The Pen­guin Dic­tio­nary broke the lex­i­cog­ra­pher’s taboo in 1966, fol­lowed by Houghton Mif­flin and The Amer­ican Her­itage Dic­tio­nary in 1969.”

The above is taken (and edited and rewritten) from the On­line Et­y­mology Dic­tio­nary. That ar­ticle is more than 800 words in length, while my abridg­ment above is just over 300 words, so there is lots more to read, so click over to OED and read the rest.




In 1967, early press­ings of Mitch Ryder & the De­troit Wheels’ new single Sock It To Me – Baby! (multi-color label, top) met with some prob­lems with air­play: one part of the lyrics was sup­posed to be “Honey in the bee­hive, hon­ey­bunch, every time you kiss me feels like a punch.” Radio pro­gram­mers were hearing it as “feel like a fuck.” Sup­pos­edly, that phrase was rere­corded and dropped into all sub­se­quent press­ings so that “punch” sounded like “punch.”

Ever-flexible, “fuck” can mean anything

And fuck so damn flex­ible: it can mean al­most any­thing the user wants it to mean. As a noun, it refers to the act of sex and can be meant negatively—to deem that act as base, bes­tial, below de­cent human standards—or it can be pos­i­tive, even tender among real lovers who just want to get down and, well, fuck.

Of course, as a verb, it means to ac­tu­ally “do it.” It is usu­ally used to de­scribe an act of pure (mere?) cop­u­la­tion, de­void of the emo­tional or spir­i­tual as­pects that most of us ex­pect to exist for us to call the act of cop­u­la­tion and the act of making love. 

As a two-word phrase—Fuck you!—it can be meant deroga­to­rily, dis­mis­sively, jok­ingly, or even af­fec­tion­ately. A common vari­a­tion is Fuck off, which is usu­ally dis­mis­sive but can also mean more. 

And Fuck you! and Fuck off! don’t have to be said, they can be im­plied. And its use, mostly in­di­rectly, is rather pop­ular in pop­ular cul­ture. The Rolling Stones are no­to­rious for their put-downs of the fairer sex: The best-known ex­ample in most peo­ple’s minds is Under My Thumb. But careful lis­tening to the lyrics lets one know that the song is re­ally an ex­ample of the phrase “turn­about is fair play.”

A better ex­ample might be Stupid Girl (“She bitches ’bout things that she’s never seen. Look at that stupid girl”). But each of these songs is aimed at a par­tic­ular person—supposedly the girls that the group met on their 1966 tour of the States. But a much better ex­ample of an in­di­rect “fuck you” as a pop song can be easily found . . .

In 1965, Dobie Gray had a huge hit on the pop charts with a song called The In Crowd. The lyrics are es­sen­tially one big Fuck you! to everyone who is not a member of that in-crowd: “I’m in with the in-crowd, I go where the in-crowd goes. / I’m in with the in-crowd, and I know what the in-crowd knows.” But I di­gress (which I con­fess, is a bit of a habit of mine).


EroticArt Picasso etching 800

Anh etching dis­playing Pablo Pi­cas­so’s seeming end­less fas­ci­na­tion with women and sex.

And “bugger off” is NOT “fuck off”

An­other ex­ample of cul­tural vari­a­tions on a common phrase or bit of slang is Bugger off! In the US, the word bugger is al­most al­ways as­so­ci­ated with (un­wanted) anal in­ter­course. So, an Amer­ican saying Bugger off! would be in­ter­preted by many, if not most, other Amer­i­cans as using an equiv­a­lent to a neg­a­tive variant of Fuck you! or Fuck off!

In the UK, its meaning is com­pletely dif­ferent. When one Eng­lishman tells an­other to Bugger off!, he is usu­ally telling him, “Go away and leave me alone.” And here I go again, off into the wild blue digression.



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