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Q From Heres Snijder, Canada: I remember someone telling me once, long ago, that actually the F-word is an abbreviation. The last two letters of the word were, I believe, contracted from the words Carnal Knowledge. Could you help me out here, perhaps with some additional etymological data?

A Fuck, the most-used item of vulgar slang in the language and still one capable of shocking even in these linguistically tolerant times, has always fascinated the know-alls of etymology, especially those who see acronyms everywhere.

Jesse Sheidlower, in The F-Word, his magisterial examination of the word’s origins and usage based on the researches of Professor Jonathan Lighter, says that acronymic suggestions for its origin only began to appear in the 1960s, at about the time that the traditional taboos on printing it were beginning to decline. If you hunt about you will find quite a number, all variations on a theme:

There are others. All are nonsense, of course, as is a story I’ve heard, told to a World Wide Words subscriber during his journalism training by a law lecturer, that fuck was commonly used in Chaucerian times in the sense of “dibble”. A farmer would use his thumb to dibble the soil, to make a hole into which he then dropped a seed. There is, as you may surmise, not the slightest evidence that the word was ever used in this sense.

It is often classed as one of the archetypal Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, but it isn’t Anglo-Saxon — it’s not recorded until the fifteenth century. The first known appearance is in a Latin poem dated sometime before 1500 that satirises the Carmelite friars of Cambridge. It includes the line Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk. The code can easily be broken to read Non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vvivys of heli. Being translated, this says “They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely”. Fuccant (in modern spelling) looks like Latin, but it’s a humorous fake — fuck is actually Germanic, related to Middle Dutch fokken, Norwegian fukka and Swedish focka.

The word seems from the start to have been regarded as unacceptable in polite company. It remained almost entirely unprintable other than in privately circulated material until the 1960s, though it has been in sustained and constant use in coarse speech, of course. In 1948, the publishers of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead forced him to bowdlerise it as fug, leading to the (surely apocryphal) story that Dorothy Parker remarked on meeting him, “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck?”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 May 2005

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 May 2005.