WTF!?

The F word.

F***

F**k

F*ck

To give you fair warning, if you’re of a sensitive nature regarding swearing, that I’m going to type the full word in a few lines. And a few more times after that. You may want to give this one a miss.

It’s an understandably fascinating word. It’s not quite the worst swear word (that would be the C word [ha! My phone autocorrected C to Conservative: I didn’t know it was such a radical]). But I think that makes fuck more interesting. It’s shocking, but you know that maybe sometimes you can use it, which just makes it more enticing.

What I really appreciate about it is its flexibility. It’s probably most used as an exclamation, whether of anger, frustration, shock, or simply in the name of catharsis. And then of course it’s a verb. It’s different meanings perhaps hint at our complex relationship with sex. You can fuck someone, which might be physically enjoyable, but not emotionally satisfying. And then you might fuck with someone, or fuck them over, entirely ruining their day. How can we use a verb which should be about an enjoyable experience in such a good way?

Maybe it’s partly down to some people’s discomfort and repression about sex. I think it owes more to the way we relate sex with power. Sexual assault is quite common in militaries around the world, often used as a method of establishing one’s dominance over another. 

And of course, it can also be a noun. However, what I think I appreciate most about the word is when it’s used to garnish everyday conversation.There’s a real artistry to using it well (I’m actually not overly fond of it, but I enjoy a good fuck when it’s used well. Slipping it into the middle of an adverb like absolutely in the right sentence can really express the intensity of your feeling.

Beyond the word itself though, are the stories about its etymology. You may have heard one of two explanations for the origin of the word, both claiming it gained life as an acronym.

The first is that people in some undefined past time caught committing adultery would have a sign reading for unlawful carnal knowledge hung around their neck as they were displayed in the stocks. But, why such an awkward phrase which wouldn’t even fit on a sign? Why not just adultery or adulterer?

The other suggestion is that it stands for fornication under consent of the king. The story goes along lines as follows: in Ancient England, couples had to get special dispensation from an apparently prudish king to make love. Or maybe the king was very into population control. Whatever the reason, apparently couples granted the honour had to hang a sign on their door saying fortification under consent of the king. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. If you’ve got a door, why bother getting permission when you can just close it and get on with your business? And do you think the king would really have spent his time deciding on the case of every couple who wanted a child? Another story says that the same phrases was found on letters given to soldiers, allowing them to rape the women in towns they invaded. I doubt they ever sought such permission though.

Sadly, for proponents of both acronyms, there’s no evidence for either. One can safely say the word is German in origin, with Middle Dutch, and old Swedish and Norwegian dialects featuring very similar words meaning to have sexual intercourse.

But these theories are still interesting in what they reveal about how people think about language. First, it shows that we’re limited in how we see language by time. It might seem logical that a lengthy phrase would be shortened into an acronym. But creating acronyms is a very recent development in language. It basically didn’t exist before the 20th century. And it’s still not very common. And how likely is it that either phrase would be spoken often enough to be abbreviated and continue to exist into the 21st century?

I think though, that a lot of people sharing these stories suspect that they may not be entirely truthful. The thing is though, we find it hard to resist an interesting and neat and tidy explanation for something. Especially when it involves acronyms, apparently. And perhaps even harder to resist is the desire to share these stories online, passing them off as fact and revelling in the kudos of those we amaze.

Imagine that, sharing secondhand knowledge on the Internet to impress strangers. Unbef**kinglievable.

18 thoughts on “WTF!?

  1. We had a whole graduate class meeting discussing this word. I was led to believe that it’s original meaning meant something like ” strike forcefully” and didn’t technically have a sexual connotation to it. That came later. But this class was many years ago… well probably like … fuck… 10 years or so. Damnit… I’m getting old.

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  2. I have heard the theory ‘fornication under consent of the king’ and many people believe that one because it sounds sophisticated. But I have studied a bit of history, and it seems the kings were only concerned about sexual relations between courtiers and nobles ( because any child produced in a high blood line might have a chance at the throne.) The peasants and regular people could just have at it, they needed no king’s permission! Interesting post!

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  3. […] Or bollocks. Yes, this apparently rude swearword is older than you might think. And, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not a swearword at all. As the word’s not commonly used in American English, you may not be very familiar with it. It’s best-known use is to refer to testicles. It’s quite flexible beyond that though. It can be used as a general exclamation of frustration or dismay, like Damn it! The more creative among us can use it in a phrasal verb: if you mess something up you can say you bollocksed it up. You can also talk bollocks, i.e. nonsense. In Ireland it’s also often used to refer to someone who’s basically an asshole. There’s something quite satisfying about calling someone a right bollocks. So it’s quite versatile, like the F word in all its forms. […]

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  4. Fuck yeah! Ok, i just read this because it came up under the last post of yours i commented on, and frankly i think *fuck* is a great word. So versatile. I’ve heard a few rumours about its origins, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus. Oh well. I’m just happy to be able to be able to use it when necessary. I’m put in mind of something i watched years ago which is very funny, and which, if you ever get the time to watch it ( it’s about 4 mins or so) i think you’d appreciate. Here ’tis : ( vid quality is awful; not sure what happenned to the original one..) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAlc-Dv27pM It’s mostly funny due to the fact that you’re expecting him to say something spiritual or profound, i guess. Anyway. Merry day/eve to you- i promise i’m going now!

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