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The Best Word Ever?

A few weeks back my wife was ordering a couple of little kids’ books from Amazon for a baby shower, and she asked me if there was any book I wanted to add to the order so she could get free shipping. There was and I did. I like to imagine some random Amazon shipper in the midst of her/his dull day getting ready to shrink-wrap another order and noticing that in addition to Scuppers the Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and The Birthday Bird by Dr. Seuss, this one would include The F-Word, probably not a combo seen every day.

That’s right, The F-Word by Jesse Sheidlower, published by Oxford University Press in its third edition in 2009. You see, usage of the F-Word is the corner of English that has undergone probably the largest shift in my own lifetime. Once reserved for certain male-dominated subcultures, the F-Word has been busting out all over in recent years, from the august pages of the New Yorker to Vice President Cheney on the floor of the Senate to countless yahoos on Twitter.

Photo of Jesse Sheidlower.

Impish lexicographer Sheidlower.

The F-Word is now so popular that I fear that it may be becoming so much of a cliche that it is losing its power. I was curious as to what light the lexicographer Sheidlower, an Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary and the President Elect of the American Dialect Society, could shed on the long rise of the F-word in pop culture.

A word of warning: The F-Word is a serious book. Those buying it for jocular display as reading matter for overnight guests in their bathrooms are likely to be disappointed. Sheidlower has compiled a highly specialized  dictionary, with hundreds of variants for expressions using the F-word, each one with definitions and citations of usage going back in time.  From “absof—inglutely” (earliest reference: soldiers in World War I) to “zipless “f—“ (“an act of intercourse without emotional connection,” made famous by Erica Jong in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying), just about every imaginable variation is here.

(Just about every variation, but sadly not “fluffing” – the private euphemism that Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz coined for their lovemaking. Note: in keeping with the convention Kaze and I have established for 317am as a PG blog, one safe for high school English teachers and middle schoolers alike, you’ll not find me spelling this potent word out.)

Not that middle schoolers are unaware of the word. In fact, in his Foreword to the book, the comedian Lewis Black, nails the roots of its popularity through the centuries:

And because it’s a sin, using it is so enticing to the young that when they hear it for the first time they are spellbound. And when they use it for the first time, that F and U bang so deliciously against the hard K, ripping through the lips, it’s as if a caged animal has been unleashed. They feel that they have taken the first mighty step toward adulthood.

Photo of Lewis Black

F-Word expert Lewis Black.

The F-Word, which Black argues is “the best word ever,” is obviously a rich subject for anyone who loves our language, so rich that It will require a two-part post, but in this first segment, I’d like to summarize Sheidlower’s findings on some of the mythology surrounding the word.

First, it’s not an acronym, as some have reported, meaning “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Under Consent of the King,” the latter said to be a special license to replenish the population in times of plague.

The root word is of Germanic origin. As Sheidlower writes, “It is related to words in several other Germanic languages, such as Dutch, German and Swedish, that have sexual meanings as well as meanings such as ‘to strike’ or ‘to move back and forth.’ ”

Astonishingly, the ultimate Anglo-Saxon four-letter word is not Anglo-Saxon. As Sheidlower explains, Anglo-Saxon refers to Old English, a period before 1100, and “’f—‘ is simply not found in this era.”

Part of the difficulty of tracing the origins of the word is its taboo nature. The first usage that scholars have found of the word is the late 15th century. Sheidlower speculates that the F-Word may have arisen to replace the usual Middle English term for sex: “swive,” which was considered vulgar. Another possibility for Sheidlower:

The word carried a taboo so strong that it was never written down in the Middle Ages. The fact that its earliest known appearance in English, around 1475, is in a cipher lends surprising, though limited, support to this interpretation.

Other enticing nuggets from the book:

  • The F-Word is found much more frequently in Scotland in its early usage than England.
  • One common English verb, meaning “to have sex with,” which the F-Word came to replace, was “occupy.”

The first written record of the word in the USA, according to Sheidlower, came in 1846 in a legal document.  A Missouri farmer had been accused of having sex with a mare, and he successfully sued his accuser for slander. The slanderer’s lawyer argued on appeal that the word was unknown in the English language and not understood by those to whom it was spoken. Ergo, no slander. But the court upheld the slander charge in these terms:

…because the modesty of our lexicographers restrains them from publishing obscene words…it does not follow that they are not English words, and not understood by those who hear them.”

In short, Missorians knew damn well what the word meant, which is not so surprising because it was flourishing in print in England about the same time during the Golden Age of Victorian pornography.

We’ve clearly come a long, long way from 1846. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at some contemporary usages of the term and attempt to understand why the explosion of F-Words today.

2 Responses to The Best Word Ever?

  1. Howard Cincotta Nov 3, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I love the idea that the word might have so taboo in the Middle Ages that it was never written down. We do have a rough contemporary equivalent, albeit for political/historical reasons, not because of obscenity … the N-word.

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