The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Kevin Dickinson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Kevin Dickinson. Kevin’s a staff writer and columnist at Big Think. You can reach Big Think at bigthink.com. His writing focuses on the intersection between education, psychology, business, and science. He holds a master’s in English and writing, and his articles have appeared in Agenda, RealClearScience, and The Washington Post. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter at kevinrdickinson.com. As always, there’ll be links to his Twitter, LinkedIn, and Big Think at jimruttshow.com on the episode page. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jim: Yeah, this should be entertaining for our listeners. Kevin wrote a piece for Big Think early December. Again, as my regular listeners know, this one definitely caught my attention. It’s called A Short History of the F Word. An old salty Jim couldn’t resist that. So, I read it. I then said, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be fun,” reached out to Kevin. He graciously agreed to be on the show, as we delve into the history and peculiar history of the F word. But this being the Jim Rutt Show, we’re mostly not going to say the F word. We’re mostly going to say fuck. As always, I did a little side research before we got going.
One of the things that’s interesting about fuck is that it’s one of those words that’s very flexible in English grammar. It can be used as a transitive and intransitive verb, as an adjective, as an adverb and a noun and an interjection. Also, this is very curious history. One of my co-workers early in my business career, I’ll just say her first name, Robin, so it’s not to embarrass her too much. She got a PhD in linguistics from an Ivy League college. She always said that her thesis topic was on what’s called fucking insertions, for example, abso-fucking-lutely and fucking hinge.
I’m from Minne-fucking-sota. Why they would give a PhD for that, I don’t know, but she claimed that was what her dissertation topic was. I never took her up on it. I did find out today when we’re doing my research that that’s known as exploitive infixations. So, how about that? You all can learn something new today. So, with that, tell us a little bit about the history of the F word.
Kevin: Right. Well, the history of the F word is a black box, we really don’t know where it came from. There are a lot of different contending ideas and theories out there. We know some that are just flat wrong. We know some that have a better claim to that honor than others, but I like to start the story in 1528. There’s a manuscript copy of De Officiis by Cicero. In the margins of this manuscript, there is a note that says, “O d fuckin Abbot”, and that’s the letter O, the letter D, fucking Abbot. By some accounts, this is the first unambiguous surviving use of the F word that we have. We know it existed at least centuries before that, but this is the first one that’s made it to us in print today.
What’s interesting about it is the way he’s using it, this anonymous monk is he’s not using it the way perhaps say we would today like if you were in a fraternity like, “Oh, fucking Abbot. Come on, let’s grab a beer,” right? He’s been derisive. He’s denigrating this Abbot. But what’s interesting is the D in front of it likely stands for damn. So, oh, damn, fucking Abbot.
So, it’s interesting is that while fucking is clearly a naughty word in this context for the monk to use, it’s not the naughtiest one he’s using. He could not bring himself to spell, which to us today is just a PG, Parental Guidance expletive damn. So, that really shows the distance that fuck has traveled in the intervening centuries going from naughty, mild expletive to the F word, the one everybody knows when you refer to it as the F word.
Jim: I love that the idea of a hierarchy of cuss words. I can remember when I was about five years old, we had in our basement, that leaning piece of plywood that my father had for some unknown reason in the old unfinished basement. The kids would crawl behind it and that was our little fort. We wrote the hierarchy of cuss words as we understood them at the age of five. Keep this in mind, this would have been in 1958, 1957, and all of our parents were World War II veterans. I can tell you they all cuss like sailors, Army, Marines, Air Force, it didn’t matter what branch. They were all quite artistic with their cussing. So, we wrote them down on this board and damn was down pretty far on the list, but I think it was a little bit above piss maybe.
But fuck was second to the highest, but then there was one mystery one we had no idea what it meant. It was “mofo”. That’s all we’d ever heard, mofo. For years, we wonder what the hell is mofo. We’d listen to him discuss it and have no idea. Only many, many years later do we realize that it had been a shortening of motherfucker, but somebody’s father said, “That was a worst word you could ever say.” So we decided that had to rank number one above fuck. So, anyway, the idea is at any given point in time in any given culture or community, there’s presumably a hierarchy of cuss words.
Kevin: Yes. In this particular anonymous monks, it’s religious profanities. Those are the ones that are just unmentionable. In fact, we get some odd words from that history of religious profanity. So, for example, gadzooks comes to us from what would be the profanity of the time, God’s hooks. Zounds comes from his blood. So, the idea being that you would swear on the body of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ, that was the most intense profanity you could utter in the day. Fuck comparatively, if you could have it on a map. There was a place in Bristol at some point in time labeled, “Fucking Grove”, which I suppose is the equivalent of makeout hill in the 1950s. You just know what people got up to in Fucking Grove.
Jim: All right.
Kevin: But over time, that switched and there probably a lot of causal reasons for it. As we became more private in our lives, things like excrement and sexual relations probably became less something you would mention in polite conversation. So, fuck took on a bit more of an air. Another possibility is that just as language spread, it was a classist thing, with writing and speaking, you wanted to speak and write more like the upper classes.
As you went up in the ranks, you wanted to disassociate yourself from the body language of the bar and the lower classes. So, there’s probably a lot of reasons why the switch was made. We’re not really sure. Because again, one reason fuck has such a mystery to it is it’s not something you write down a lot, except for in very specific circumstances. So, it’s lost to us in the intervening centuries.
Jim: It’s quite interesting. Especially in those days, when a relatively small percentage of people were literate, in fact, I’ll say around 1500, the literacy even in Urban England was lower than it was in Gaul at the high point of the Roman Empire. So, it was a still fairly scary to think about, 1,000 years later. They still hadn’t caught up in terms of literacy. So, there would certainly be a class bias, which would suppress. Of course, sensors existed in those days and you’re getting the big trouble if the king’s sensor, even worse, the church’s sensor got after you for doing something you weren’t supposed to do. So, another early example you quote is from 1503, William Dunbar. What can you tell us about him?
Kevin: So William Dunbar was a poet. He was also an ordained priest, and he has a poem that uses the word fukkit. F-U-K-K-I-T is how he spelled it. This could be an earlier instance of the word fuck being used in the English language. It depends on your view of Scots. If you think of Scots as a dialect of English, then this predates our anonymous salty monk. If you think of Scots has its own language, then what it shows is that both languages had an equivalent word that came from likely the same source, but it really depends on your opinion on that debate. I don’t have the knowledge or standing to even have an opinion on the Scots English debate. So, I just left that alone to the people who know better.
Jim: Another example was early poem written in English Latin hybrid. That sounds like an interesting and odd thing, where the translation was the monks are not in heaven, because they fuck the wives of the town of Ely. Tell us about that one.
Kevin: Yes, it was in a Latin English hybrid that was also written in code. So, they substitute letters in the alphabet for the one that came before it. So, you had to decipher to decode the code to get to this little bit of saucy gossip.
Jim: I love it. Was the fuck in English or a Latin than the English Latin hybrid? Looks like it was probably English based on the way it’s spelled.
Kevin: So what we have here is again, not technically the first unambiguous use of the word fuck, because it is that Latin English hybrid, but it does show us that fuck was alive and well before 1528.
Kevin: People knew it. People said it. People spoke it. They just didn’t write it all that much.
Jim: My favorite one ones of the early things that you quoted, in 1310 and 1311, Roger Fuckebythenavele, who was called to the court three times before being outlawed. I did little side research on that, and Paul Booth, a contemporary medieval historian, wrote about this event. Either this refers to an inexperienced copy later referring to someone trying to have sex with a naval or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid, they think this is the way to have sex. Anything more you can tell us about that incident?
Kevin: I prefer the latter. I like the idea that it’s just this poor guy just got no respect at all. That’s the 1300 the equivalent of a Rodney Dangerfield sketch, this poor guy. It didn’t end well for him apparently. After being called to court three times, he was “outlawed”, which my understanding is that that meant he was either sent away or executed. It didn’t end well for him in any case.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah. Roger Fuckebythenavele, might add that to my collection of abusive terms, of middle and abusive terms. This should be very handy on Facebook, where there certainly are a bunch of rather extravagant dimwits. Another popular theory but probably bogus is that fuck is an acronym for fornication under the command of the king. What say you to that?
Kevin: Yeah, so there’s actually quite a few of these what would be considered like folk etymologies. These are fake etymologies that they start like memes on the internet, and they just spread. So, before we get into the acronym, one was the claim that a name was found for a John le Fucker in 1278. John le Fucker may certainly have existed, but it’s not entirely clear that his last name comes from the fact that he was the fucker or came from a long lineage of proud fuckers. It could be a derivative of the French word for soldier. So, there’s a lot of these kinds of things that have an air of accountability to them, but they just don’t quite land when you dig deeper. FUCK as an acronym is one of those.
So, there’s a lot of different acronyms supposedly out there that are the origin of the word fuck. The one I cite in the article is fornicate under command of the king, which is this idea that after a particularly bad plague or some other population declining incident, the king had to build up his population and build up his tax base. So, he sent out commands that everybody should have sex and get that population up and running again. Another one is fornicate under consent of the king, which is the same idea, just the idea that you need to ask permission. Hey, can I have a kid? The king says, “Yup, here you go. Write it down.” Seems unlikely. People just have kids. That’s just what they do.
Jim: Yeah, perfectly, like in 1250 AD or something.
Kevin: Yeah, especially before prophylactics were readily available. Others are things like found under carnal knowledge. That’s the idea that like soldiers who got VD, the doctors would write on their notes, found under carnal knowledge, because soldiers were away at war. They’d lay down with a prostitute. They’d get a VD. That was a shorthand for the doctors, and in time, that became fuck obviously. Then another one is for unlawful common knowledge. So, this would be the idea is that in the legal system, this would be the legalese way of saying, someone was raped or someone had sex with a prostitute illegally. This one has a connection to reality.
You will find the phrase unlawful carnal knowledge in legal documents, but there’s no evidence that it got shortened to fuck, became an acronym, and then was widely spread throughout the English language. In fact, this is something that happens a lot in English. You’ll find that things like cop is short for constable on patrol. That’s not true. Acronyms didn’t really enter the language according to Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote a book titled The F-Word, which is a dictionary dedicated only to the F word. It’s an amazing reference for anybody listening. He went dispelling these myth notes that acronyms didn’t really enter the language a lot until around the 1930s when we start getting things like radar and laser and stuff like that.
Jim: I’m curious what is the etymology of cop, because I always heard it was constable on patrol.
Kevin: I do not know. I’m curious myself.
Jim: Have to do a quick look up and let’s see.
Kevin: It looks like it originally said to be a thief slayings of copper, so cop.
Jim: Okay, copper, anyway.
Kevin: It’s from 1846, agent noun from cop, to capture or arrest a prisoner. Okay. So, the verb, cop, to capture or arrest the prisoner. Eventually, it looks like it just made its way into the noun cop.
Jim: Yeah, my dad was a cop and he always told us it stood for constable on patrol, but that tells you that folk etymologies are widespread.
Kevin: They get around.
Jim: A couple other acronyms I found doing a little bit of Googling was if a couple was caught committing adultery, the two would be punished for unlawful carnal knowledge in the nude with fucking written on the stalks to denote the crime. Then variation on the one that you read referred to as supposedly church clerks would record the crime, forbidden use of carnal knowledge. Whether that’s rape or adultery, I don’t know. But John McWhorter, basically, leading linguist, basically said, “All of them are highly unlikely.” So it’s interesting.
Kevin: They’re all highly unlikely and I think one thing that signals that fact is that there are so many of them. They all sound just close enough to write and yet are completely different.
Jim: Yup, exactly. Exactly. Another one I’ve found, now this one is thought maybe to actually be real and this was maybe the earliest print version, a 1790 poem by St. George Tucker. It was a father upset with his bookish son saying, “I don’t give a fuck for all you’ve read,” originally printed as “I don’t give a —-.” Scholars now agree that words of fuck were removed making the poem the first recorded instance of the now common phrase I don’t give a fuck. I’m not sure that that makes a lot of sense if it was printed with the blanks. I guess you could say all right, it’s an implied printed use, not the actual printed use but that’s another interesting one.
Then the other talking about acronyms is starting in the World War II period, fuck ended up in quite a few growing list of acronyms, SNAFU, situation normal, all fucked up. My favorite, FUBAR, fucked up beyond all recognition. That’s a good one to describe a lot of software development projects that I’ve been involved with over the years, and business deals in general. Then of course, we have today’s favorite, WTF, which I use very commonly as people who read my Twitter know. If I just think something is stupid, I just say, “WTF??” Any other acronyms that you’re familiar with that use the F for fuck?
Kevin: I mean, there are a lot of them. The English language is just littered with uses of the word fuck, as you mentioned. It can be used as all sorts of different ways. I think my favorite is FUBAR and SNAFU. I’m not a WTF guy. I just go straight for “What the fuck?” I like to really land on the fuck at the end of that question when I’m in disbelief.
Jim: I use WTF. I usually not have to spell it a lot but I do sometimes use “whaddafuck” as all one word, W-H-A-D-D-A-F-U-C-K. Whaddafuck if I’m feeling more typographically liberal on a given day. Now another little bit of research I did, which is fun, was I was curious what movies had fuck up here the most times. According to Wikipedia, the JH Movie Collections Official Wiki, and of course, they may have stolen it from Wikipedia. So, it may be a circle jerk. Not counting a couple of oddballs, the mainstream movie with the most fucks in it was The Wolf of Wall Street. Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street?
Kevin: I did see The Wolf of Wall Street. I know what you’re going to ask me.
Jim: Make a guess how many times fuck was used in The Wolf of Wall Street, just a guess. It was 180 minutes long if that helps. So, three hours, that’s a long fucking movie, right?
Kevin: That is. Now, having to compare it to other Scorsese films because I know Casino has somewhere of north of 250 fucks in it, I’m going to say 362 fucks.
Jim: All right. You’re fucking wrong, dude, 569 fucks in under 180 minutes. So, that’s slightly more than three per minute.
Kevin: Oh, man.
Jim: You are right. Casino is also in the top 10, coming in at number eight with 422 fucks.
Kevin: Four hundred and twenty-two, I was off on my Casino reference too.
Jim: But you’re close. I mean, you’re in the right ballpark. You knew it was high. Uncut Gems, I remember there was a lot of fucks in that, 560. That’s a whole bunch, the movie I’d never even heard of. Christmas Bloody Christmas, 487. I was little surprised with that. One of my very favorite movies called Clerks, Kevin Smith movie, was the only movie to ever get an X rating that was back before whatever they use now for X, NC-17 or some fucking thing. It used to be X, you have to be 18 to see it. The only movie that was ever given an X strictly for language.
Now I will say there’s all kinds of foul shit in there, just endless crazy things of these working class kids from New Jersey, but it did not make the top 165 or something. But Clerks 2 did come in at 164 with 150. My curiosity was piqued. So, I did a little Googling. I found a transcript of the movie, and I searched it to see how many fucks there were in the original Clerks. It was a mere 90.
Kevin: A mere 90.
Jim: It’s a short movie about 90 minutes long. It’s about one a minute, something like that. Maybe I’ll take this on as a small project, but put it up on the web and become mildly famous for it is calculate the fucks per minute from this dataset, because clearly, that’s much more significant than the absolute number of fucks, right? The Wolf of Wall Street’s 180 minutes, that’s a three-hour movie. That’s long, while something like Uncut Gems at 135, oh, yeah, definitely score higher on fucks per minute than The Wolf of Wall Street. That should be the right statistic. Maybe that’s all become famous all by their own Wikipedia entry for fucks per minute. I like that.
Kevin: Do our due diligence, forwarding the culture as we can.
Kevin: Interesting thing about movies actually and the word fuck is so movies came around at the turn of the century. I think the first movie to feature the word was MASH in the 1970s. Part of that was the Hays Code. I think part of it was just movies weren’t really, perhaps other than some avant-garde movies and obviously erotic movies, which we can talk about later, they weren’t really pushing the envelope as much as say, a literature in the early half of the 20th century. Now it’s an arms race, it sounds like. You don’t have any more time to fit any more fucks in per minute compared to The Wolf of Wall Street.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. It’s going to be hard to beat that one, I’m afraid.
Kevin: Going to be hard.
Jim: Or the Uncut Gems at even higher rate. Oh, I take that back. The son of bitches have already done the calculation. They just didn’t sort it. Yeah, Uncut Gems is one fuck per 4.15 minutes. The Wolf of Wall Street is 3.16 fucks per minute. Christmas Bloody Christmas is 5.6. So, of the dramas, that was seemed to be the highest. The other two are Swearnet and Fuck: A Documentary, neither of which seemed like they were quite in the same category. Oh, the other data point, this is very concerning to me, is I pulled up the Google Ngram Viewer, where you can search for words and how often they appear in the corpus that they use for that, which is a bunch of books and magazines and stuff. Sadly, it looks like fuck may have reached its high watermark in 2017. 2018 and 2019 are both down slightly after an unbroken line of increase since about 1961.
Jim: That’s that.
Kevin: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see. Maybe it fluctuates. Maybe it comes back. Maybe we as a culture need to invent new ways to use the word. It’s interesting that yeah, it starts really ticking up at 1960, which is around the time of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trials in the UK.
Jim: Yeah, why don’t you tell us that story? That’s of course a very important story for free speech in general.
Kevin: Yeah, so fuck was used in print before Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ulysses, for example, James Joyce’s Ulysses has about a dozen fucks in the course of the novel, which is why it wasn’t available widely in the United States until the 1930s, except for private collections and people who pass it around. But Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was printed originally in 1928 and 1929, wasn’t available in unexpurgated edition or what people like to call a fig leaf edition, which is an edition that has all the obscenities and profanities and dirty scenes removed. It wasn’t available in Britain in an unedited version until 1960.
When Penguin tried to publish that, they came a foul of the Obscene Publication Act of 1959. So, they had to go to trial. They won that trial, because they were found to be of cultural significance, which was a little loophole in the act. After that, the dam just broke on fuck. You add that watershed trial. You add to the liberalizing sense in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, you can go into a bookstore and find a book titled that you don’t even have to open the book. It’s titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, right? It’s right there.
Jim: But that’s actually a good book.
Kevin: It’s a good book.
Jim: Then you look at the graph again. The elbow gets even sharper around 2000. That’s where it really takes off. The point two, it’s like nine times higher in 2017 than it was in 2000. Nine times is probably a little overstatement, but not much. So, vast increase from 2000 to 2017. I don’t have to keep an eye on that. It’d be quite sad. I’m going to have to get to work getting that number up, so that the poor little fuck doesn’t fall behind on the curve. Oh, you know what? That would be fun. Just to go back to our cussing piece of plywood with written in crayon fuck versus shit. Let’s see how those two fine words are-
Kevin: How they compare.
Jim: How they’re doing. Okay. They track pretty closely interesting, with shit always in the lead, but only by a factor of maybe 30 or 40%. Shit has also turned down and 2017 was the high water of shit and fuck. That’s interesting.
Kevin: Maybe we’re witnessing the turn of a new sense of prudishness in our culture. I doubt it, but maybe.
Jim: Maybe. I can actually tell you a funny little story that was probably around 2017 I think. I was running a division of Thomson Reuters. I was famous for saying fuck and this would have been in the late ’90s. People was first starting to complain about sexual harassment as any other thing. Of course, we had an adamant rule against sexual harassment. In fact, they threatened to break a guy’s legs if he ever did X again in our company. So, we did not tolerate real sexual harassment, but there was this bizarre idea that saying fuck was somehow sexual harassment. So, I had my head of HR researched the law and said, “All right, fuck is an intensifier, is just a loud noise.”
She wrote this beautiful paper, basically said fuck a bunch of times, and said, “Fuck is an intensifier. Fuck, in this case, in that case. As long as it’s not use sexually, it does not constitute sexual harassment or indicates blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Sorry, that was cool. It’s like 1997 probably, maybe 1998. Then in 1999, I just gotten hired literally the day before, that I had started as the CEO of a publicly traded company, Network Solutions, the guys that ran the domain name database back in those days. In my intro talk to the top 35 or 40 managers, that guy dropped three F bombs, right? It was from the defense contractor legacy, which are a bunch of straight laced motherfuckers.
At that point, we were still a 50% owned subsidiary of a really big defense contractor. It turned out three people in that meeting called the head of HR at the parent company and complained about this new CEO saying fuck. So, the head of HR called me up and said, “You got three reports, blah, blah, blah.” So I took out this little document I kept with me that my HR person at Thompson had written. I read it to him, and he goes, “Well, yeah, that’s actually legally correct, but I would like to really ask you to avoid doing that if you can.” So I told him, “Fuck that,” and hung up on him. Because I knew, which he didn’t probably, it was that as a condition of my employment, the parent had agreed to sell down below 50% within 14 days, which they did.
So, I was no longer under their thumb. So, that was pretty fun. Then the third turn of the same screw, which may be showing this prudery, the person who had written that statement for me in 1997, let’s say, she later went on to become a real big wig in HR. She invited me to give a talk about my views on HR and technology, this, that, the other thing at a big meeting she was running. I asked her for permission to tell that story. She is cool with it, but she chatted with the other senior people organizing this conference. They said, “Oh, no, you can’t do that.” This would have been about 2017, probably 2015, 2016. So, I would say the temperature has cooled a little bit for using fuck even in ways that aren’t at all sexual, but really just as an intensifier and interjective, etc.
So, that’ll be an interesting number to keep an eye on in the years ahead. I wish Google would update the Ngram more often. Now it’s up to 2019. I think it used to only go up to 2008, which was useless, but there’s no reason that those useless fucks can update it more frequently. They got all kinds of computers, Goddamnit. They’re not always going all the time. So, whenever the computers aren’t going, you should be updating the Ngram Viewer. You’re four years behind. Goddammit! Motherfuckers!
Kevin: I would be interested to know. I do know that fuck is alive and well on social media though. On Twitter in particular, it’s still the most used of the swear words. What’s interesting is your story reminds me of an interesting, odd effect of taboo words in general, fuck in particular, but taboo words in general, which is that the word itself captures our attention and brings to the fore potentially sometimes like the negative connotations of the word automatically. Steven Pinker has in his book, The Stuff of Thought, has a note where he knows that you can swear really in five different ways, right? You can be descriptive, and that’s the fuck as used in the bedroom between two consenting adults. That’s the descriptive fuck. You can be abusive. That is the go fuck yourself fuck.
You can be emphatic like it’s really fucking hot in here. That’s the emphatic fuck. You can be cathartic, right? That’s the hit your hand with a hammer while trying to get a nail. You just shout out fuck. There’s your cathartic fuck. Oh, and you can be idiomatic. I really got fucked on that deal. What’s interesting about it is depending on who’s listening, you’re going to get people taking it very differently depending on that. I have a friend who New Year’s Eve this year, he texted me and he’s just like, “Happy New Year’s, motherfucker.” It was just a treat to hear from him. It was a sign of our friendship.
We can banter. We can go back and forth. We can call each other’s names. We can talk about taboo subjects with each other. At the same time, I wouldn’t be in church right on Christmas Eve shaking hands with the pastor as I walk out the door, “Merry Christmas, motherfucker.” That would be beyond the pale. So, it really is a word that is loosening in where we can use it and how we can use it, but there are still places where putting it on just feels wrong, even to somebody like me who would write an article discussing the history of the word.
Jim: Yup. Famously, my mother was old school and she used her damns and hells but I only heard her say shit once and the F word never. Even us, even my father, the king of artistic swearing, never used the F word in front of my mother. It’s just not done. She would go after you with the pancake turner if you did. So, you learn pretty quickly not to do that.
Kevin: Yeah. The times are they are changing still. I know college professors today. They can say fuck in a class and get away with it, no problem. They would never drop a racial epithet in class. Those words are strictly not allowed. They are off the table entirely in our culture. Whereas, in my grandpa’s generation, they did not have near the verbal steam that they do for my generation. So, English keeps on churning.
Jim: That’s definitely true. The racial slurs didn’t even make our chart in 1957. In fact, the most common, the famous N word was used very fluidly by the working class, folks I grew up with, the adults. In fact, it was somewhat of a mark of gentility if it was used by itself and not prefaced with fucking. So, yeah, it had very different valence. Certainly, kids weren’t supposed to say it, but absolutely ordinary word by adults, mean spirited and generally thought to be coarse and lower class, but certainly didn’t have the deadly valence that it has today. But I will say frankly, good riddance to that word. That word is so dehumanizing, so vile in every fucking way. Even though as much as I like to cuss, I do not regret the retirement of that word at all.
Kevin: You can see the transition too in the ’80s roughly when the F word became a thing. You could reference it under a veil by saying the F word. Everyone know what you’re talking about, but you didn’t have to say it. Today, now we use it the same way we say the N word. Nobody references the word directly. We say it under a veil in order to stay within the bounds of our social mores. I think also, certainly in my part of America, but I think most of America, we do the same for the C word, right? Britain, not so much.
It doesn’t have quite the same sting in Britain that it does here in the United States, but you can see the words following that trend while, as you said, when we started, I don’t have to worry about saying the F word on this show. I can just go full fuck and it’s no worry. So, again, starting with our monk back in 1528 all the way up today, we can see the shifting tides with these words, where they’re acceptable and where they’re not acceptable and by whom.
Jim: Let’s go back to a little bit more dry historical. Here’s what we had some fun on the sociological. John McWhorter, you quoted him as having a couple of theories. At the end of the day, he confessed we don’t fucking know, but give me a couple of his ideas on where the F word may have come from.
Kevin: Yeah, so John McWhorter has a great book called Nine Nasty Words. I highly recommend it to anybody who’s into this subject. He dives into obviously more than fuck, because there’s a whole nine, eight more to go. But he discusses potential places the F word could have come from that aren’t acronyms. One is that it’s just an old English word that’s just lost the time. As sad and as unfulfilling as that answer is, there’s a likelihood that it’s true. He cites that we have about 34,000 Old English words available to us through various sources, most of them court documents and religious texts.
So, not the place you’re generally going to find fuck. Although, interestingly, the first written American fuck does come from a court case. It comes from a Supreme Court case in Missouri, I think. It’s a slander case where someone was suing somebody who claimed that he had fucked a mayor, and it’s referenced as the word used to describe the incident.
Jim: The first use is in a Supreme Court case.
Kevin: Not a Supreme Court like US Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Missouri.
Jim: Okay, State Supreme Court. Okay.
Kevin: Let me see. 1846 is that case, so it’s just lost to us. For reference, if you go to your Collegiate Dictionary that you have sitting on your shelf that you’ve never used because now you have Google, you’ll find about over 200,000 words in there. So, that just shows the discrepancy between the words we have available to us and the words that they probably use just on a given day back in Old English times. The other potential source is that it’s a Germanic word that came over. There’s a whole lot of dramatic words that are related to things like meaning to strike or to move back and forth, that follow the F vowel K motif that we see in fuck. One of them is like fikken, which means to move back and forth. That’s a possibility.
Another possibility is that it’s a Norwegian word. John McWhorter cites the possibility of fuka or fukka. It’s F-U-K-K-A. It means exactly what you imagined it means based on that spelling. That would have come over with the Vikings, because the Vikings didn’t just raid and pillage. They settled, they started farms, they had wives. They got up to the things. Vikings get up to with their wives and so the word came over with them and their culture. That could also explain William Dunbar’s fukkit, F-U-K-K-I-T from his poem, because Vikings did settle in Northumbria, which would have been a place that exists now in the North of England, South of Scotland area.
Jim: Cool. I have heard the fukka one before. They were there for hundreds of years. They were there for about 800 AD until… They were still there when William the Conqueror came. There’s still a few of them still left. The fact the month before the Battle of Hastings there was a battle at Stamford Bridge between Harold and some Danes and Harold won that battle but then went on to lose the Battle of Hastings and history and language in particular change. That’s why we got all our French word.
So, what about the history of the use in dictionaries? I still recall that it was about in fifth grade, we thought it was quite the height of cleverness to go to the library and open the unabridged dictionary, but it didn’t have fuck in it. This would have been about 1963, because it was the year Kennedy got assassinated. It did have shit but it didn’t have fuck. So, what’s the history of fuck in the dictionary?
Kevin: The word fuck doesn’t appear often in English dictionaries. The first dictionary that appeared in was John of Florio’s A Worlde of Wordes. That was an English to Italian translation dictionary, where it appeared. Then it also appeared in John Ash’s The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language in 1795. But between 1795 and 1966, no dictionary included the F word. It was Penguin that broke the taboo in 1966. The American Heritage Dictionary followed three years after in 1969, but they made the concession of also printing clean additions for places like high school or people who didn’t want those obscenities included.
Jim: That’s cool. That corresponds to my experience of not seeing the F word in the dictionary. Though we did have shit in 1963. So, that corresponds to data in the wild. Very interesting. Well, I think we’ve had a good conversation here. What are some thoughts about the use of the word going forward?
Kevin: So Valerie Fridland, she’s a linguist and she recently came out with a book where she coined the term linguistic fashionistas. Her thing is that language is a lot like fashion. How we choose to use it says a lot about how we want to present ourselves to the world in the same way the clothes we put on are ways to present ourselves to the world like here today, talking with you, coming at it from a casually professional vibe. So, I have my collared shirt but no tie. It’s unbuttoned. If I’m hanging out with my friends at the bar, I’ll wear just a hoodie and some ratty jeans. It doesn’t really matter all that much. I think taboo language and the word fuck in particular, I think that’s where we’re headed with it.
The way we use it shows a lot about how we want to present ourselves to the world. So, when I’m with my friends and I want to let my hair down, so to speak and just want to present a place where people can feel safe and confident, saying what they want, how they want, we use fuck all the time, in every conceivable way. But like I said, when you’re at church or perhaps at a family dinner table or something like that, I tend to dress it up a little bit more, wear a tie in my speech as well. It cleans up.
I think that’s the thing, we need to recognize a lot about the language in general, but the word fuck in particular, it has its uses. It has its place. Where we use it is a way of not only necessarily breaking down social norms or doing proper English, but it’s a way for us to present ourselves to the world and create an atmosphere that we want people to take place in.
Jim: Very good. Well, I want to thank you, Kevin, for a fucking interesting conversation here and want to encourage all you writers out there, Goddamnit, get fucking back in your writing. So, we can turn that Ngram thing around.
Kevin: I’ll do my best. I certainly tried my best with this last article. More to come, I suppose. Thank you for having me, Jim. It’s been a wonderful conversation.
Jim: It was a whole lot of fun. Thanks for coming on.
Kevin: Thank you.