The worst word

How F**K became our top taboo term -- and why we need it to stay that way
By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on April 1, 1994


Imagine you're a music writer assigned to cover the Grammy Awards. You've been sitting for hours in a crowded basement room beneath the auditorium at Radio City Music Hall, watching the event on a TV monitor. The scene is a strange mix of excitement and paralyzing boredom: after all, the room is crawling with mega-stars. And after all, it is an awards show.

Then it happens: you look up at the TV screen and see Bono, the lead singer of U2, step up to the podium to accept a statuette for recording the Best Alternative Music album. "We shall continue to abuse our position," he says, "and fuck up the mainstream."

Hello, front page!

BONO NO-NO SHOCKS GRAMMYS read a Boston Herald page-one headline the next morning. For reporter Larry Katz, who wrote the accompanying story, the Irish rocker's glib use of the F-word helped turn another dull ceremony into a night to remember.

"There were whoops and hollers of glee in the press room," he says. "It provided us with a tremendous amount of amusement."

Members of the press corps sprang to life because they knew instantly that real news had just happened. The next day, giddy water-cooler and e-mail discussions around the nation would start with "Did you hear what Bono said?" The smirking fellow with the scraggly beard had just stood up before an estimated TV audience of 1.4 billion people worldwide and uttered the worst word in the English language.

Or course, if Bono had dropped his trousers or babbled pig Latin for 30 seconds, that would have made news, too. But the special brand of incredulity that swept over the land underscored the special role this mean little word plays in our culture.

But why fuck? Why, of all the terms we've concocted for sexual intercourse, did one become "the most reviled word in the English language," according to linguist Richard A. Spears in his book Slang and Euphemism?

The answer is really quite simple: because we made it the worst word--and we need it to stay that way.

Fuck: A brief history

"Any word is an innocent collection of sounds until a community surrounds it with connotations and then decrees that it cannot be used in certain speech patterns," writes Peter Farb in Word Play, his classic study of spoken communication. "This is what happened when the English speech community relegated fuck to forbidden status about 1650."

That means that the F-word enjoyed at least a few centuries of inoffensive daily use before it was considered a dirty word. Its precise origin isn't clear, although fuck is usually traced to the Germanic word ficken, for "strike." Ficken seems to have developed its alternate sexual meaning (referring specifically to male penetration) in the 1400s, probably in Scotland, according to Slang and Euphemism.

The distinguished anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote an entire book on cursing, The Anatomy of Swearing. In it, he reports that the first print appearance of fuck was in a poem published in 1503 by Scottish poet--and former Franciscan friar--William Dunbar. Dunbar's fellow Scots, including poet Robert Burns, used the word uninhibitedly for most of the 16th century.

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Related: Plain talk, Year in Books: Word plays, You say what?!, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , James Joyce, Dictionaries and Lexicography, Bono (Musician),  More more >
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