The F Word
Lecturing in 1851 on The Morality in Words, Richard Chenevix Trench — dean of Westminster and pioneer of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary — referred to “the language of the vulgar”, in other words, slang. He testified, reluctantly but surely with some admiration, as to “how much cleverness, how much wit, yea, how much imagination must have stood in the service of sin, before it could possess a nomenclature so rich, so varied, and often so heaven-defying as it has.” It is unlikely that fuck, the longest-serving slang synonym for copulation, was at the forefront of his thoughts, but of all slang’s lexicon, this curt monosyllable, the “dirtiest” of “dirty words”, is for many people emblematic of an entire vocabulary.
It is certainly the one slang word that might be deemed worthy of an entire book, thanks to its taboo status (however that has been diminished in a more libertarian world), the vast range of its compounds, derivations and phrasal uses, the endless debate over its etymology, and its history of clashes with censorship.
It may be, and I consciously play the faux-naïf, that such a book is slightly otiose: as the ads currently visible in the London tube suggest: “Some people are gay — get over it.” Some people, most people probably, say fuck. What’s the problem? But of course there is a “problem” — at least for Anglo-Saxons; the French do things rather differently — and while I have long tired of what always seems the highly manufactured moralising that seems to accompany any use of the word by someone even remotely in the public eye, thus is life.
Jesse Sheidlower, New York-based editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, published the first edition of The F Word in 1995. A second appeared in 1999, and now comes this major revision, twice the size of the original. The book offers uses of fuck from the major anglophone countries and backs up the lexicography (270 pages of headwords, every one underpinned by citations drawn from the earliest discovered use onwards) with a weighty introduction that provides a masterly analysis of every aspect of the word. The author deals with the word’s etymology (and the variety of palpably inept folk etymologies that have accompanied it), its incorporation into the list of taboo terms, its appearance in every form of media and (it seems) in every century. The information is solid but never without wit: his discussion of its role, usually euphemised, in pop titles such as Britney Spears’s If U Seek Amy is particularly pleasing.
However, as a fellow lexicographer (and, I must admit, a friend — slang is a small world) what impresses me most is the excellence of the overall treatment. The subject happens to be fuck, but this is how any such study should be conducted and sadly so rarely is. Not via the slipshod infantilism of the Net’s Urban Dictionary, but disinterestedly, seriously and in depth. The F Word, I would suggest, is a template that we would all be wise to follow.
I offer two criticisms: although he has a number of euphemisms (frig, fug, frak) he has resisted, perhaps deliberately, naf, as in Princess Anne’s much-reported exclamation Naf orf! Nor can I find the dismissive fuck that for a game of soldiers. But that doesn’t mean he has overlooked it, it simply doesn’t appear as a headword. Dictionaries, naturally, do not offer indexes.
In short, The F Word is a gem in its lexicographical expertise and its scholarly explication. There will be nothing better, at least until Jesse Sheidlower produces a fourth edition.
[Jesse Sheidlower [ed], The F Word; Third Edition; published by Oxford University Press, New York, September 2009; hardback, 270pp; publisher’s list price $16.95; ISBN13: 9780195393118; ISBN10: 0195393112.]