Where Did the F-Word Come From?
In its various incarnations, the F-word can be a noun, verb, adjective, and even an infix. The Swiss Army Knife of the English language, this word has been adding spice to our conversations for centuries, even if our forbears were loathe to write it down. So where did it come from?
First, to dispel a widely touted myth- you’ll often read the origin of one of the most useful words in the English language is an acronym based on either “Fornication Under Command/Consent of the King” (purportedly the King trying to increase birth rates or alternatively restricting the act to put a halt to the spread of disease) or “[booked] For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (for those being arrested for such). However, beyond there being zero evidence of either of these (or any other acronymic origin of the F-word), it’s worth pointing out that prior to the mid-20th century, while abbreviations were prevalent in text, pronouncing them as words was not something people did. This is actually an extremely modern phenomenon. In fact, according to linguist David Wilton,
There is only one known pre-twentieth-century [English] word with an acronymic origin and it was in vogue for only a short time in 1886. The word is “colinderies” or “colinda”, an acronym for the Colonial and Indian Exposition held in London in that year.
Combined with the lack of evidence supporting such an origin, we can safely dismiss origin stories like these.
Moving on from there, the first documented instance of some version of the F-word appears in a name- that of John le Fucker in 1278. The problem with this one is the original record of the name has been lost, so we have only a reference to it, rather than any context. It’s been speculated given the lack of others with this surname around this time, this may have been a typo of sorts, with, for example, “Tucker” being meant. It’s also been suggested it was a variant of Fulcher, meaning soldier. And even if it was correctly spelled, again, we have no context to what was meant.
Whatever is going on with le Fucker, about a decade later in 1286 there is an individual with the surname Fuckebegger, recorded as one of King Edward I’s servants who managed his horses. As to what Fuckebegger’s first name was, we’ll leave you to discern as we can’t really tell from the image of the document. As with le Fucker, it’s not clear from this name what the “fucke” part was referring to, with the leading hypothesis being a “striker” of some sort. Or, if how we would use it today… poor guy was desperate apparently.
Picking up steam, in 1290 in Ipswich we have not one, but two Fuckers- one Simon Fukkebotere and Willm’i Smalfuk. Unfortunately for the amusement of our inner 12 year old selves, Simon having a last name pronounced “Fuck Butt…er” was probably just referring to striking/churning of butter. Or, we suppose, he could have enjoyed churning that butter with his appendage, rather than using a churn dash- we’re not here to judge, you do you Simon- just given his customers probably wouldn’t have wanted to buy his butter if he was churning it with Señor Willy, most linguists go with the “striking/churning” origin. Similarly, Mr. Smalfuk, probably wasn’t a little Fuck, speculated to perhaps be referring to small fukke sails.
Moving on, we have one Roger Fuckebythenavele. The record of poor Roger was uncovered by Medieval History professor Dr. Paul Booth in 2015. At the time, he was researching an entirely unrelated thing when he came across a December 8, 1310 court record from Chester England in which Mr. Fuckebythenavele had that name applied to him thrice, getting rid of the possibility of any typos or the like. Of course, even here it can’t be definitively said the “Fuck” party meant as we’d think of it. But given the rest of the name, it certainly seems possible. As Dr. Booth states, “This surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”
Either way, let’s all pause and appreciate the fact that all that will ever be remembered of poor Roger was that he maybe was an idiot or just really, really bad at sex…
And incidentally, what makes this one even more humorous is that around the 17th century, “to Roger” came to mean “to have sex” or “to penetrate”, from a slang for “penis” at the time. Meaning if you combine the two slang terms across centuries, he was “Penis Fuckebythenavele”.
This also perhaps gives a new perspective on the “Jolly Roger” pirate flag name, though its origin isn’t definitively known.
Anyway- so that’s a lot of speculation. When did the word we all know and love today more definitively come to be? The first documented explicit use of the word fuck appears in a poem by Scottish poet and one time friar, William Dunbar, who wrote around 1503 in his Ane Brash of Wowing, “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit”; or in context and translated:
He embraced tight, he kissed and groped,
As with the feeling he was overcome.
It be his manner he would have fucked [fukkit];
You break my heart, my lovely one!
In yet another example around this time, this one encrypted, the unknown author of the poem Flen flyys accused the friars of Ely of getting down and dirty with the ladies, writing sometime in the late 15th century, “Non sunt in cœli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk. …Fratres cum knyvys goth about and txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt.”
After the key to the cypher is applied, this results in a poem that is a mix of Latin and English, and the pertinent word being “fuccant”. Notably here the author is Latinizing the then English word “fucc”, which was common at the time when the person didn’t know the Latin equivalent of the English word, or if one didn’t seem to exist. Translating fully to English, the passage is:
The Carmelite Brothers sail in a boat by Eli
They are not in heaven since they fuccant the wives of Eli.
All became drenched, for they had no steersman,
Brothers with knives go about and swive men’s wives.
This early documented account also hints at how fuck became a swearword in the first place given that “swive”, literally meaning “swivel” but figuratively meaning “sex”, was also censored in the passage. In essence, fuck was a taboo word simply because it directly referred to sex.
That said, not everyone so censored themselves with the f-bomb. Fast-forwarding to 1528, an unknown person wrote in the margins of a copy of Cicero’s De Officiis, (On Duties– more or less a moral guide), “O D fuckin Abbot”. It is generally thought the “d” here stood for “damn” or “damned” and was a curse word too far to the individual who wrote this.
Given the context here, it’s not clear whether said individual was referring to the fact that the Abbot was perhaps having sex with women, and thus damned, or whether he was using it sort of like, “damned fuckin’ Abbot man, he’s the worst…”
Whatever the case, just 7 years later Sir David Lyndsay wrote in his Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits, “Bischops … may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit”, giving us the first known instance of the common spelling of the four letter version of the word today.
So this all brings us to where the word came from. Given the timing and location of these first known definitive instances, the two leading hypotheses are- first, that it probably derived from one of the many flavors of the German “fuk” or “fukkon”. For example, the German “ficken” meaning, “to make quick movements to and fro”. This line of words, in turn, is speculated to come from the Proto-Indo-European *pewg meaning “to strike/hit”.
Somewhat similarly, the other leading hypothesis is that, given the term seems to have come from around Northern England or Scotland, whose language would be influenced by Viking invasions, the word may have Old Norse origins. Those advocating for this hypothesis point to the Norwegian “fukka”, meaning to “copulate”, or the Swedish “focka” to “copulate, strike, push”, which in turn may have derived from an Old Norse version of the words, which may have birthed the English “fuck”.
Whatever the case, the word would soon find its way into John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, such as defining a “fottitrice” as a “woman fucker, swiver, etc.” and seems to have been pretty ubiquitous at this point.
That said, an interesting note on this one is by the late 18th century the word almost completely disappeared from pretty much every prominent English dictionary until around the middle of the 20th century when, in 1965, The Penguin Dictionary decided they didn’t give a fuck, and so gave its readers “fuck”.
Of course, despite this moratorium on the word in print during this rather lengthy period, it seems to have still been commonly used in speech. For example, it is noted by John Brophy in his 1930 Songs of Slang of the British Soldier, the use of “fuck”
became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express this emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, ‘Get your fucking rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.
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You might at this point be wondering where various phrases that include the F-bomb came from. We’ll start with “Flying Fuck”. The first known instance of this appears in Thomas Rowlandson’s early 19th century poem New Feats of Horsemanship. which also helpfully included an illustration of a man and a woman having the historic version of car sex. In the poem, he writes:
Well mounted on a mettled steed
Famed for his strength as well as speed
Corinna and her favorite buck
Are pleas’d to have a flying fuck.
While o’er the downs the courser strains,
With fiery eyes and loosened reins,
Around his neck her arms she flings,
Behind her buttocks move like springs.
While Jack keeps time to every motion,
And pours in love’s delicious potion.
As for “not giving a fuck”, we have the earliest documented instance of this in a 1790 poem by George Tucker, in which it states, “‘God-your books!’ the testy father said, ‘I’d not give a fuck for all you’ve read’…”
The next known instance of this basic sentiment didn’t pop up until just under a century later, in 1879, in a pantomime titled Harlequin Prince Cherrytop and the Good Fairy Fairfuck. The general story here is of a prince by the name of Cherrytop, who ends up a slave to the evil Demon of Masturbation. In to save the day is the Good Fairy Fairfuck and the Princess Shovituppa. In this work, which would be social media gold if properly performed today, appears the following line- “For all your threats I don’t care a fuck. I’ll never leave my princely darling duck.”
As for the sense of screwing someone out of something, we have an 1866 affidavit in which it states a man by the name of “Mr. Baker” “would be fucked out of his money by Mr. Brown.” Interestingly on this one, the notary who recorded this sentence states, “Before putting down the word as used by the witness, I requested him to reflect upon the language he attributed to Mr. Baker, and not to impute to him an outrage upon all that was decent.”
As for someone telling another to “go fuck themselves”, an early documented account of this can be found thanks to one Mary Hamilton in 1836 being charged with obscene language, after calling a group of women on the streets “bloody whores” and telling them to “go and fuck themselves.”
Moving on from there, thanks to Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, we know the first known case of “fucking bitch” was written in an 1857 story written by an abolitionist where he writes of a slave holder beating one of his slaves. Said woman then cries out, “O Lord!” In response, the slave holder tells her, “Hush you fucking bitch, will you take the name of the Lord in vain on the Sabbath day?”
Finally, the crowd favorite, “motherfucker” was first written down in the transcript of an 1889 Texas murder trial, in which it was alleged the person murdered had exclaimed to the person who then allegedly murdered him, “God damned mother-fucking, bastardly son-of-a-bitch.”Expand for Further References
- A Brief History of the ‘F’ Word
- A Concise History of F*ck
- The Concise New Partridge Dictionary
- F*ck (Etymology Online)
- F*ck (Wikipedia)
- Roger Fuckbythenavele
- A F*cking Short History of the F-Word
- Grammar: A Student’s Guide
- James Joyce Dies
- The Modern History of Swearing
- Three Equine Etymologies
- The Very First Written Use of the F Word in English
- On the Origin of Fuck
- What is the Etymology of the Word Fuck?
- A False Etymology
- A Brief History of Swearing
- Ane Brash of Wowing
- Butter Churn
- Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing
- Etymology of Roger
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