Plain talk

Jesse Sheidlower gives the f-word its due
By JUSTINE ELIAS  |  September 15, 2009

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The F-Word | By Jesse Sheidlower | Oxford University Press | 319 pages | $16.95
Until 1970, with the release of M.A.S.H., audiences had never heard the f-word in a mainstream Hollywood film. And even in Robert Altman's Korean War–set black comedy, the f-bomb exploded but once, and not as a synonym for sexual intercourse. Mere locker-room chatter: f-ing this, f-ing that.

Who catalogues this stuff, and why? Jesse Sheidlower, an editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, an expert in slang, and the author of The F-Word, can't stop talking about fuck. "Why not?" says Sheidlower, who's spent more than a decade on his book, which is now in its third edition. Although the Long Island–born, Manhattan-based 41-year-old once hoped to become a Mediæval English scholar, he found himself, amid a PhD program, more interested in language research. A career as a dictionary editor beckoned. And though he writes frequently for Slate, the New York Times, and academic journals, his work with the OED — a 25-year revision of the multi-volume dictionary, "a history of the entire English language" — will be a lifetime project.

So where did his favorite word come from? There's a common belief that it's an acronym. "Absolutely not!" says Sheidlower, sighing. "Acronyms are rare before the 1930s. No one — I mean, no one — used them in the 19th century, and we know 'fuck' is far older. Around 1500 is the earliest citation."

The F-Word covers all fuck's bases, from its 15th-century Germanic (not Old English) roots to its first Middle English usage to 20th-century terms like "fuckfest" (coined, it seems, by Henry Miller in 1932) to every freaking euphemism ("fox," "frig," "frick," "forget," "futz"). Notorious f-fans are represented: David Mamet, Martin Scorsese, Richard Price, Norman Mailer, and Liz Phair.

Among recent coinages, "fucktard" needs no explanation. The saucy Wellesley College term "fuck truck" gets a ride. Sheidlower says he's "keen to antedate it, I know it's possible." As a 20-year-old grad student, he discovered that Lord Byron, in a private letter, used "tool" as a verb meaning, "well, you know, to have sex." And Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, writing to a friend, described an older lady, admiringly, as a "jolly fuckstress." "The masculine, 'fuckster,' is much older — there are three 17th-century examples."

To those who accuse Sheidlower of reveling in sepia-toned smutty language, the soft-spoken lexicographer scoffs, "These books survived. Yes, they were rare, and it's hard to find now. People did talk about this stuff back then." In the decade since the first, briefer edition of The F-Word, he's noticed a distinct chill in media circles when discussing frank language — even as popular language has become saltier. "At the same time that it's become socially more acceptable to use this word, the FCC seems to be cracking down harder."

And though he's not a particular fan of f-bomb-laden pop culture, he's against speech codes and media censorship. "I've never really gotten that — the idea of banning particular words. As when people get far more upset at the use of ethnic terms than they do about the actual existence of prejudice."

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