Some time ago a friend gave me The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower. Published by the Oxford University Press, of all places, the book is both a history of the Queen Mother of Curses and a dictionary of its many uses. It’s a fascinating read.
The origin of the f word is muddled by urban legend. It’s not an acronym (sorry, Van Halen!) nor does it have anything to do with the French taunting English archers by encouraging them to pluck their yew bows. Instead, the word is related to terms found in German, Dutch, Swedish, and Flemish with meanings like “to strike,” to “move back and forth,” and “to cheat.” Although the precise source of the word is shrouded in the mists of time, it entered the English language (pun intended) in the fifteenth century. It immediately became taboo — and also replaced the Middle English vulgarity for sexual intercourse, which was “swive.” Powerless against the curtness and bluntness of the f word, “swive” fell into total disuse. The f word went on to become the most obscene word in the English language, banned during the Victorian era and the most reviled of the “seven dirty words” George Carlin addressed. Recently, as barriers to indecent speech have fallen and even Vice Presidents have lapsed into regrettable coarseness when congratulating Presidents, the use of the word in American society has become much more common.
The F Word provides an exhaustive listing of the many different uses of the f word. As someone who tries to avoid casual obscenity — and fails utterly when referees make a bad call against my team in a big game — I was amazed by the broad utility of the word. In addition to adding emphasis by being dropped, in its gerund form, into various parts of sentences (consider the different meanings conveyed by the question “When are you going to move your car?” if the f word is placed before “when,” “going,” “move,” and “car”) the word has been used to convey hundreds of different connotations, always with that shocking edge.
As the dictionary component of The F Word demonstrates, the versatility of this vulgar word is astonishing. How many other words have been combined with “bum” to refer to a remote location, “cluster” to denote a disorganized mess, “flying” to signify a minimal amount, “holy” to indicate surprise, and “off” to tell someone to get away? And, of course, those are only a few of the inventive applications of this powerful word.
The F Word is worth reading. Just be sure to keep it away from your teenagers.