On some points of RFC 1738

The word fuck is used and abused by people, in contexts way exceeding the primary meaning of “to have sexual intercourse with (someone)” (OxfordDictionaries.com). Thus, it is fairly understandable why the word itself has been the topic of research of different branches of humanities, such as linguistics, culture studies, sociology, and more, united under the common name of scatolinguistics (Zwicky, 1992:ix).

The major points of investigation seem to be fuck’s etymology and first recorded uses, the linguistic analysis of its syntactic and semantic properties, and its appearances in popular culture.

There are numerous myths and misconceptions about the origins of fuck circulating in the media. Contrary to popular urban legends, the word fuck is not an acronym for “Found Under Carnal Knowledge”, “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or, better yet, “Fornication Under Consent of the King”; all these explanations emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in popular newspapers, but there is no grain of truth to them (Sheidlower, Black, 2009:i). Fuck is not, in fact, an Anglo-Saxon word at all.

Instead, etymologists point out to borrowings from either French and Latin or Old Norse, due to both the historical relation between those languages and English in the Middle Ages and the similarity of forms - French foutre, Latin futuere, Old Norse fukja, Middle Dutch fokken, Swedish focka, etc (Hughes, 2006:188). Sheidlower and Black (2009:ii-iii), however, oppose to the French/Latin roots hypothesis and are particularly of the belief that the word was borrowed from Low German, Flemish or Dutch.

Not only is the etymology of fuck unclear, but also the date of its premiere appearance in written sources arouses considerable doubt. Buck (1949) writes about one “John le Fucker”, a name that supposedly dates back to 1278, but there is neither the source of the name nor reference provided, and the name itself could, in fact, have nothing to do with fuck itself (Sheidlower, Black; 2009:ii). According to Hughes’ An Encyclopaedia of Swearing, fuck as a functional word first appeared in a 1503 poem by a Scot poet and aristocrat, William Dunbar, and it is also recorded in the 1540s as a part of a flyting, that is, a “verbal contest of insult and obscenity” (2006:189). In England, the first instances of fuck seem to have occurred at the brink of the 16th century, with Sheidlower and Black citing two cases: an Anglo-Latin poem from 1475, Flen flyys, and an annotation on a margin, “O d fuckin Abbot”, made by an anonymous monk in 1528 (2009:ii-iii). A popular teenage saying “I don’t give a fuck” may seem to date back to a 1790ish poem by George Tucker, though the piece itself had not been unveiled before the broader public until 1977 (Mohr, 2013a:iv).

Yet, common though it might have been in everyday speech and writing, fuck did not appear in monolingual dictionaries until 1965: it was present in neither Dr Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language nor in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it remained unlisted even in the 1961 edition of Webster Dictionary. This was mainly owing to the legislative as, since the mid-19th century, printing fuck could result in trial and incarceration. After the 1960 case Regina vs Penguin Books, there was a surge of obscenely-titled books; but when Kenneth Tynan dropped the first-ever “f-bomb” (that is, used the world fuck in a broadcast) on BBC, he provoked a nation-wide debate, with politicians roaring with rage and trying to persecute him for public obscenities. Meanwhile, in the United States, fuck appeared in abundance in slogans during the protests against the Vietnam War, such as “Fuck the Draft” and “Fuck the Pig” (Hughes, 2006:191). It also made its way into the scientific papers of that time, with linguists trying to establish the syntactic and semantic properties of fuck and its derivations.

A comprehensive literature search shows that there seem to be two kinds of fuck, namely, fuck(1) and fuck(2); for the sake of clarity, these will be referred to, respectively, as the copulative fuck and disapproving fuck (Dong; in Zwicky, 1992:3). While the former of them simply encompasses the meaning of engaging in sexual intercourse, the latter proves considerably more ambiguous. The striking difference between the two fucks can be observed by juxtaposing pairs of sentences (asterisks denote ungrammatical utterances):

(1) *Fuck you. (copulative)
(2) Fuck yourself. (copulative)
(3) Fuck you. (disapproving)
(4) *Fuck yourself. (disapproving)

As the examples above indicate, the copulative fuck requires using a reflexive pronoun for the interlocutor’s self-reference (cf. Fuck yourself and I’ll give you a dollar.), while the disapproving fuck bars the usage of reflexive pronouns (cf. *Fuck yourself and leave me alone.). Moreover, as Dong (in Zwicky, 1992:4) observes, while imperative verb phrases can be conjoined, it cannot be accomplished when using the disapproving fuck:

(5) Wash the dishes and sweep the floor.
(6) *Wash the dishes and fuck you.
(7) *Fuck you and wash the dishes.

This, along with an observation that the disapproving fuck cannot take adverbial adjuncts (Fuck communism on the sofa/tomorrow/*gently.), leads Dong to thinking that fuck is, in fact, a “quasi-verb” (1992:7). Furthermore, Shad (in Zwicky, 1992:34) notes that fucking (disapproving) does not behave like a typical adjective, either, as its insertion is allowed in the contexts in which other adjectives and degree adverbs cannot be used:

(8)  That’s too fucking bad.
(9) *That’s too sad bad.
(10)  That’s too fucking much.
(11) *That’s too very much.

Likewise, Bopp (in Zwicky, 1992:61) also proves that the word cannot be used in a relative clause like any typical adjective:

(12)  Turn off that playing radio.
(13)  Turn off that radio which is playing.
(14)  Turn off that fucking radio.
(15)  *Turn off that radio which is fucking.

Bopp also points to the fact that though fucking well might seem to be an adverbial phrase, just like quietly, it does not in fact behave like one (in Zwicky, 1992:62):

(16)  John quietly picked the lock.
(17)  Quietly, John picked the lock.
(18)  You fucking well took your time.
(19) *Fucking well, you took your time.

To sum it up so far, fuck and fucking (disapproving) have been shown to represent quasi-verbs, quasi-adjectives and quasi-adverbs. However, fucking displays another interesting property; namely, it can be used as an infix morpheme to emphasize the gravity of seemingly any non-monosyllabic word: kanga-fuckin’-roo, Ala-fuckin’-bama, fun-fuckin’-tastic. McCarthy (1982:577-589) notes that the placement of this infix depends on the prosodic structure of a given word: it is not allowed to break the stress pattern of a foot, there is a preference for placing the infixing before the primary stress in a word, etc.

The linguistic approach to the word fuck seems to suggest that, although its primary definition revolves around the copulative meaning, it is the disapproving connotation that has been drawing linguists’ attention. Both readings, however, have appeared in books, films and music throughout the centuries.

Even the oldest examples of the usage of fuck may seem somehow ambiguous in its reading. While the meaning of fuck in Flen flyys is clearly copulative (“They are not in heaven, since they fuck the wives of Ely” in Modern English), the meaning behind “O d fucking Abbot” is shrouded in mystery; it might mean that the friar’s engaging in sexual intercourse was frowned upon, or it might be the first attestation of the F-word in its disapproving meaning. Additionally, the d letter may stand for damned, which makes it even more interesting since it suggests that it was damned that was a real taboo at that time (Mohr, 2013b). And one of the founding fathers of the British literature, William Shakespeare, might not have used the word explicitly, but his works do contain numerous references to fuck. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, there is the focative case – a pun on the vocative case; a character in Henry V often uses the word firk, an Elizabethan euphemism for fuck; and there are numerous puns employing the French cognate foutre (Sheidlower, Black, 2009:12-13)

However, while fuck might have appeared or at least been hinted at in the written sources of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, its occurrence in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature would still meet with the outbursts of public opinion, culminating in the above-mentioned case Regina vs. Penguin Books. The case itself was the public prosecution of Penguin Books for the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, a book which contains such fine examples of the usage of the copulative fuck as “Fellows with swaying waists fucking little jazz girls” (in Sheidlower, Black, 2009:124) and “I’m not just my lady’s fucker, after all” (in Sheidlower, Black, 2009:170). Interestingly enough, while Lawrence’s book is often pointed to when discussing profanity, few remember about James Joyce’s Ulysses, which also contains numerous instances of the f-word in both the disapproving (“I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king”; in Sheidlower, Black, 2009:182) and copulative sense (“His wife is fucked yes and damn well fucked too”; in Sheidlower, Black, 2009:124).

Shocking though the above-presented examples might seem, modern cinema provides any careful observer with many more instances of the word. The movies directed by Quentin Tarantino have, for a long time, been regarded as “exceptionally vulgar”; but while Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, indeed, employ plenty of fucks in both readings, they only placed 20th and 21st, respectively, on the list of films using the f-word most often (Sheidlower, Black, 2009:22-23). Pulp Fiction’s use of fuck inspired Dr Sandhya Sundaresan of Leipzig University to claim that swearwords such as fuck play a semantic role similar to please (2014). More recently, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street made headlines for being the most obscene movie in history, and it indeed seems to be the most profane mainstream/Hollywood movie of all time, with the ballpark figure of 500 fucks as cited by Wickman (2014). This 2013 biographical drama not only uses the f-word in both readings but also pushes the boundaries of its morphological and pragmatic productivity: there are infix fucks (“Oompa-fuckin’-Loompas”), chants (“Fuck you” sung by traders) and neologisms (“Did the Emperor of Fucksville come down from fucking Fucksville?”, italics mine). The frequent use of fuck in the movie is reflected in numerous YouTube videos compiling the utterances into long chains of f-words.

All things considered, it seems fair to say that fuck transcends both time and space; it has been in constant use since its premiere appearance sometime in the Middle Ages, even if it has always been rejected by social mores. Its high morphological productivity has allowed countless people to express their innermost feelings and desires and stimulated the creative faculties of numerous artists. Finally, fuck has been the focal point of research for a substantial number of academics, allowing for the exploration of why exactly is the employing of the f-word so intrinsic to successful expression in everyday life.

Bibliography:

1. Hughes, Geoffrey. 2006. An Encyclopedia of Swearing. The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World. Armonk, New York/London, England.
2. McCarthy, John J. 1982. Prosodic structure and expletive information.
3. Mohr, Melissa. 2013a. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Oxford University Press, New York.
4. Mohr, Melissa. 2013b. A F*cking Short History of the F-Word. Huffington Post online; last accessed 30/05/15 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-mohr/a-fcking-short-history-of_b_3352948.html.
5. Sheidlower, Jesse; Black, Lewis. 2009. The F-Word. Oxford University Press, New York.
6. Sundaresan, Sanhya. 2014. Why Swearing Is Just Like Saying ‘Please’ (Kind Of). Slate online; last accessed 30/05/15 at http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/11/18/swearing_saying_please_two_ways_to_imply_an_extra_attitude_to_what_you_re.html.
7. Wickman, Forrest. 2014. Is Wolf of Wall Street Really the Sweariest Movie of All Time? A Slate Investigation. Slate online; last accessed 30/05/15 at http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/01/07/wolf_of_wall_street_sets_f_word_record_we_counted_every_last_f_bomb_in_the.html
8. Zwicky, Arnold (ed.) 1992. Studies Out in Left Field: Defamatory essays presented to James D. Cawley on his 33rd or 34th birthday. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam.
Published 28 Oct 2019

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