by Summer Worsley
It’s one of the English-speaking world’s most popular swear words, applicable in almost any situation and capable of expressing enthusiasm, pain, displeasure, and so much more. It’s also able to be placed in just about any sentence when conjugated properly, and still work grammatically.
But despite its widespread use and near-universal spread, we are still not sure where exactly “fuck” came from.
Prompted by Netflix’s new series on the history of swear words, we decided to take a deep dive into the etymology of fuck to discover how it ended up on the tips of our tongues. But first, let’s take a moment to admire just how versatile this taboo word is.
Fuck it all, how “fuck” can do so much
It’s safe to say that few words in the English language are as versatile as fuck. Stub your toe while out for a walk and you can say “oh fuck”; get angry with a fellow drinker in a bar and it’s considered appropriate, if not wise, to say “fuck you”; give up on a difficult task in exasperation and you’ll probably say “fuck it.”
Fuck works in just about any situation, and it’s doesn’t always have negative connotations either, consider “fuck, yeah!” But we don’t have just fuck at our disposal, we also have fucker, fucking, and fucked.
For linguists who specialise in taboo language, the versatility of fuck is fucking astounding, to say the least.
It has also been the subject of linguistic papers over the years. In perhaps the finest example, the rather suspiciously named Quang Phuc Dong, from the fictitious South Hanoi Institue of Technology (SHIT), authored a paper titled English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subject. While SHIT doesn’t exist, and Quang Phuc Dong was a pen name for James D. McCawley, this 60s paper contains solid linguistic theory.
Check it out, my favourite examples are 26 “fuck these transitive verbs”, 29 “John fucked communism” and 34 “fuck any irregular verb.”
But I digress, if it’s so fucking popular and intriguing, why don’t we know its origins?
The etymology of fuck
One key reason why fuck’s etymology is so obscure is that the word was omitted by the OED editors during the dictionary’s first edition, the pioneer Johnson also excluded the word from his “F” entries. In fact, fuck wasn’t codified in a single dictionary until 1966, when The Penguin Dictionary broke ranks and included the popular expletive.
An often-cited fuck origin story claims the word is an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King, F.U.C.K. and comes from a time when sex was outlawed unless the king had permitted the deed. It’s a juicy tale, but unfortunately, it’s incorrect.
There are a couple of more plausible theories. The first links fuck to low German, Dutch, or Frisian and suggests fuck jumped the language divide in the fifteenth century. We also suspect that fuck existed in English before then, but didn’t yet carry a sexual meaning, instead, fuck meant “to strike.” This theory is endorsed by many, including Jesse Sheidlower, who wrote, The F-Word, a whole book on the subject of fuck.
Another theory traces fuck from Norse, via Scottish as there are early instances of fuck appearing in Scottish texts. This is less likely as English didn’t borrow from Scottish a lot, and it’s possible that the Scots were simply bold enough to use the word in written text.
Over the years, early instances of the word in text have been uncovered, some dating as far back as the twelfth century. Paul Booth, a Keele University historian notes a court case in 1310 that may feature our earliest recorded use of fuck.
If so, the defendant, Roger Fuckebythenavele, may go down in history for more than an extremely odd surname. According to Booth, the surname may refer to sexual inadequacy, a view that seems odd at first but makes more sense when we consider that descriptive names were common at that time. Consider Gropecuntlane, a known red-light district.
If Fuckebythenavele does indeed serve as a sexual descriptor, it runs contrary to the view that fuck lacked a sexual meaning until much later. It could just mean to stike the navel or something along those lines.
Overall, when it comes to fuck, the one thing we can agree on is that we know fuck all about its origins and the mystery may remain for some time to come. Taboos change, and word meanings shift, so fuck in its present form may bear little resemblance to the fucks of old.
Whether you give two fucks about it or not, it’s certainly interesting to think about!