History of the “F” Word

katie'sheaderphotoby Katie Freeman

Currently we are in previews for Boston Court’s production of Stupid F**king Bird. The F word is used a lot during the show, which made me curious as to how the word became such a bad word nowadays. Was it always considered bad? I decided to investigate.

The exact etymology of the word is hard to trace, but there are some similar words from history that we can safely assume brought about modern day’s most versatile curse word in the English language. When looking at the word’s early beginnings, we need to look pretty far back.  In an article from the Huffington Post: “The f-word is of Germanic origin, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for ‘to strike’ and ‘to move back and forth'” (Mohr). adeleAnother article from Vanity Fair writes: “[…] the word initially appeared in a satirical poem composed sometime around 1500 that takes aim at the Carmelite friars of Cambridge. […] Drained of its cryptic Latin and less cryptic cryptology, ‘non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk’ begets ‘they are not in heaven because they f*ck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge].'” (Weiner). And yet, Dictionary.com claims: “It is remotely derived from the Latin futuere and Old German ficken/fucken meaning ‘to strike or penetrate’, which had the slang meaning ‘to copulate'” (Dictionary.com).

The general consensus seems to be that the word’s derivatives are descriptive of a verb that means movement. At first, it doesn’t seem like this would be negative. But, according to Slate.com, “F#ck has always been an offensive word” (Tsai). fornicate the authoritesIn Mohr’s article from the Huffington Post, “Only in the early to mid-nineteenth century did it begin to be used non-literally, as most swearwords are, to insult and offend others, to relieve pain, and to express extremes of emotion, negative and positive.” It all has to do with the time period of which the cursing is taking place. “But what determines the words our society categorizes as too taboo to say? Mohr says swearing “reflects our cultural obsessions,” so whatever topic is considered obscene or problematic in our culture can be implicated in the curse words we use” (Bloom, Teich).

In the recent film, Wolf of Wall Street, the word is used 506 times. Many may think that this is used too much. However, ask any American high school-er about the language used in everyday interactions between peers. The word “f#ck” is typically now used almost as frequently as the word “like.” Makes you feel all warm inside, doesn’t it? In the opinion of a CNN writer, “I remember the teachers who tried to convince me that the main problem with the f-word was not its power to offend, but the evidence it gave of your limited vocabulary. I blew that criticism off back then, but I’m beginning to think they were onto something” (Clark).

mpaa-ratings-reasons-PG+Source: Randal S. Olson

The usage of foul language is in forms of media: movies, tv, music, etc. The graph above reveals an interesting trend in the usage of mature elements (language, sex, violence, drugs) in movies rated PG+ since 1991.

Even on TV, during intense scenes that you would normally expect any normal person to curse, the shows contain odd words that are supposed to replace expletives. During an interview with NPR’s pop-culture blogger, Linda Holmes, Neda Ulaby reported, “Maybe you remember all the characters employing their own F-word — ‘frack’ — on Battlestar Galactica. frakHolmes finds made-up curse words distracting. ‘If you know that frack is just f- – – , it feels phony,’ she says. ‘It takes away from the moment.'” Holmes also brings up the fact that many non-cable channels are now looser with language, “ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox don’t allow characters to use the S-word, let alone the F-word. But that said, these days words such as ‘dick’ and ‘bitch’ — which would’ve been found too vulgar just a decade ago — are bandied about even on Glee and other shows that draw younger audiences.”

On cable TV, there are some shows that have a quota for foul language. Breaking Bad has such a rule; once they reach the limit, the expletives are silenced out. It is good to note that because society shifts its values as time marches on, so do the power of curse words. According to Mohr, “other types of cursing, like referencing sex or excrement, ‘were not powerful in the Middle Ages because . . . they did in public a lot of the things that we do privately and are ashamed of.’ When bodily functions are out in the open, society doesn’t need taboo words for them.” However, during the Renaissance, “as privacy increased, words that had been acceptable to use in the Middle Ages became taboo” (Mohr). This shift in values and thus influence of curse words continues today. Which sparks another question: Now that the F word is used so frequently, will it lose its effect? History will agree this is a good assumption, but, how soon will we tire of the F word?

How much longer will we continue to use f#ck until it becomes obsolete?

Sources: A Brief History of Swearing, What the $@** Is Up On Cable These Days?, The F-Word Is Everywhere, A Concise History of “Fuck”, A F*cking Short History on the F-Word, Whence the !@#$?, What is the origin of the F word?.

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