The worst word

By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

But by the late 1500s, fuck largely disappeared from print, indicating that it had become taboo. It's probably no coincidence that its vilification occurred at the same time the church took on a greater role in Great Britain. Holy men undoubtedly linked the term with forbidden pleasures of the flesh, rendering it verboten.

But fuck's downward slide may have begun even earlier, and for reasons having less to do with morality than elitism. Some etymologists find its root in the Old English word fokken, which originally meant "to strike against" and "to breed cattle." Author Diane Ackerman points out in A Natural History of the Senses that when the Normans crossed the English Channel and conquered the Saxons in 1066, they replaced many Old English terms with French words, believing their own idiom more refined.

Eventually, Ackerman explains, the crude-sounding fokken, with its undignified double meaning, was displaced by the more elegant "fornicate," which itself is derived from the Latin fornix, an architectural term for a vaulted basement room in ancient Rome often rented by prostitutes. "So 'to fornicate,'" explains Ackerman, "is to pay a visit to a small, warm subterranean room with arched ceilings."

But even if fuck fell out of use in polite society, it never fell from favor among common folk--unlike other slang synonyms for "copulate," in old England, such as jape, sard, swive, and occupy (the latter reappeared with its present meaning several centuries later).

Fuck was sufficiently familiar in 19th-century England to spawn a slew of variations. Many sound like clumsy made-up words today: sexually desirable women were said to be "fucksome"; to be sexually aroused was to feel "fuckish"; and a lecherous man might have been called a "fuckster." To engage in the act of coitus itself was to "fuckle."

Strange to our ears, but what would the Victorian cusser make of our "fuckface," "fuckbrain," and "fucked up"?

Still, the F-word remained virtually banished from print for centuries. On the rare occasions it did appear in books, as in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), the author was compelled to present the awful word in masquerade as "f**k," a tradition that persists in some journals to this day.

"And even that disguise was considered scandalous. When Samuel Johnson published the first true English lexicography, Dictionary of the English Language, 30 years earlier, he left out the F-word. And it was omitted from most major English dictionaries until 1969, when it was at last included in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary followed suit three years later.

Moving toward the mainstream

By the 20th century, the F-word had begun to creep into literature, and the boldness of some authors eventually broke down barriers.

"The efforts of James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence have not restored it to original dignified status," reports Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, published in 1936. But Partridge couldn't have known at the time that the publication of the unexpurgated edition of Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover in 1959 would force a debate and several legal battles in the US and England over whether fuck should be permitted to appear in print. The publishing industry won; the print world has never looked back.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Culture and Lifestyle, English Language, Paul Shaffer,  More more >
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