[fΛk]: The Ultimate Four-Letter Word
Elizabeth Dudley Weston
Writer's comment: In LIN 001, Introduction to Linguistics, Professor Jason Schneider presented the class with a list of topics to choose from for a term paper. I briefly contemplated “dialects and mainstream,” but after a lecture on taboo language, I could not resist the temptation to suggest my own topic. I have always been fascinated with “bad words” and here was my opportunity to write about the four-letter word. I took a risk and much to my delight, Jason approved the topic. My research journey began on-line, where I quickly discovered that one must be very careful searching for this word on-line. I learned about several available books dedicated to taboo language, including The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower, and found it and several others at Shields Library. I sent an e-mail questionnaire to almost everyone on my e-mail list, and a few friends were so excited about the topic that they forwarded the e-mail to some of their friends. I received some especially interesting and valuable responses. Still, I was concerned that simply due to the subject matter the paper might be offensive to some readers. However, thanks to the support of Jason and TA Frank Araujo, I was able to present this topic in an appropriate manner.
—Elizabeth Dudley Weston
Instructor's comment: When Elizabeth told me she wanted to explore taboo language for her final paper in my Introduction to Linguistics class, I readily agreed. I knew she was a student who would be able to write an interesting academic paper on the topic. Also, I knew that she understood the implications of her project: By looking in detail at “the ultimate four-letter word,” she was keying into the idea that all instances of human language, regardless of context, style, or social acceptability, have inherent structure and merit careful analysis. For me, Elizabeth succeeds in her essay for at least two reasons. First, she manages to present a prickly topic in a way that is both scholarly and entertaining. Second, in the space of only a few pages, she touches on several of the topics students learn about in Introduction to Linguistics, including morphology, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics. As an instructor, I find Elizabeth’s paper particularly satisfying because it’s clear she had a wonderful time writing it and learned a great deal in the process. In this sense, Elizabeth’s essay strikes me as an ideal example of what can happen for a student when doing a class assignment.
—Jason Schneider, Linguistics
This document contains a commonly used obscenity and may be offensive to some readers.
O ne of my mother’s favorite stories is that shortly after I embarked on the first year of my public school education I announced during family dinner one evening that, “Some kids at school today said that fuck is a bad word. I don’t think fuck is a bad word. Do you, Daddy?” As my mother tells the story, my father was rather less than pleased. While I have no direct recollection of this infamous family event, I have maintained my fascination with the f-word. The word fuck has long been considered a highly offen-sive vulgarity. When volume “F” of the original Oxford English Dictionary was compiled in the 1890s, the word fuck was omitted. Although prohibited in print in 1857 by the Obscene Publications Act in England, and in 1873 by the Comstock Act in the United States, fuck remained in common conversational English lexicon (Online Etymology Dictionary). While there is no linguistic basis for why certain words or phrases are consi-dered appropriate—such as breasts, intercourse, and testicles, and others are taboo—such as tits, fuck, and balls (Fromkin 479), many people feel fuck is a repugnant word. However, in spite of its history and usage, one can see that in Modern Eng-lish fuck is an especially versatile word.
In Modern English, we can use the word fuck as a transi-tive verb: “1. Vulgar Slang To have sexual intercourse with. 2. To take advantage of, betray, or cheat; victimize. 3. Used in the imperative as a signal of angry dismissal” (American Her-itage Dictionary). We can use it as an intransitive verb: “1. To engage in sexual intercourse. 2. To act wastefully or foolishly. 3. To interfere; meddle. Often used with with” (American Her-itage Dictionary). Fuck can be used as a noun: “1. An act of sexual intercourse. 2. A partner in sexual intercourse. 3. A despised person. 4. Used as an intensive: What the fuck did you do that for?” (American Heritage Dictionary). Consider for a moment that one may call a sexual partner a fuck, and one may call a despicable person a fuck. A person with whom you share one of the most intimate things two people can share, and a person you loathe, can both be described by the same word. Fuck can also be used as an intensifying infix, as in un-fucking-believable, which can be used to express extreme pleasure or displeasure. For example, an amazing musical performance and a shocking event both can be labeled as un-fucking-believable. Fuck can be used as an adjective, for example, “I am so fucked,” which can mean to be in a terrible situation. Conversely, to be fucked also has a positive associ-ation (which is left for the reader to interpret). Fuck is fre-quently used as an expletive, such as “fuck you!” or “fuck off!” Such imperatives are used to express an angry dismissal. To fuck off can also mean to goof off or to masturbate. When one errs on a grand scale, one has fucked up. Moreover, fucked up can mean to be in a gross state of intoxication or a severe emotional or physical state. When at a loss for words, some-times the simple expletive “fuck!” is the only thing that will do. These are but a few examples of how the word can be used. There are hundreds of variations in the English lexicon; some may be considered amusing and many can be quite derogato-ry.
Likely due to its taboo status, the exact origin of this word is difficult to trace. Fuck first appeared in the English language in approximately 1475, though the word is believed to have originated much earlier. This delayed appearance in written literature may be because fuck carried such a strong taboo that it was forbidden from being printed (Sheidlower xxv). Early examples of the word come from Scottish sources, thus sug-gesting a Norse origin, possibly from the Norwegian word fuk-ka (to copulate), or Swedish focka (to copulate, strike, push), and fock (penis) (Online Etymology Dictionary). According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fuck originated in Middle English, first appearing prior to 1500, and attested in pseudo-Latin fuccant, deciphered from gxddbov (American Heritage Dictionary). Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary lists the etymology as “akin to Dutch fokken to breed (cattle), Swedish dialect fokka to copulate” (Mer-rian-Webster Online). Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F Word, states that fuck is related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words that have sexual as well as non-sexual meanings. Sheidlower doubts a relation to the Latin futuere and bases his conclusion on “complicated linguistic rules that are outside the scope [of his book]” (Sheidlower xxiv). Additionally, many ur-ban legends or “folk etymologies” exist regarding the origin of the word. Some of the most common are that fuck was an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” and “Fornication Under Consent of the King” (xxiv). Sheidlower argues that these urban legends are false because prior to the 1930’s acronyms are rare (xxiv). All languages and cultures have obscenities, or “dirty words.” Anthropologists often find that some cultures fear that obscenities can lead to illness or other troubles. Columbia University Professor Allen Walker Read, in his introduction to Anatomy of Dirty Words, states, “Obscenity emerges out of unhealthy attitudes towards sex and bodily functions. Not only are ‘dirty words’ a symptom of those attitudes, but they serve to perpetuate the attitudes” (Sagarin 9). James McDonald, in A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo, and Euphemism writes that words become taboo by majority consent (McDonald vi). Hu-mans often respond to taboos by developing euphemisms such as frick, frigging, fuggin, or freakin which are sometimes used in place of fuck in Modern English. Words such as fornicate, copulate, and sexual intercourse share a common meaning with the word fuck; however, these terms are considered acceptable language in certain circumstances, such as a medical or legal setting. More commonly used and socially accepted phrases include to sleep with, to do it, or to make love. Some suggest that the word fuck is so offensive because it sounds harsh. The word initial position is the labiodental voiceless fricative /f/, the medial position contains the central low vowel /L/, and the word final position is the velar voiceless stop /k/. However, many minimal pairs exist in English that dif-fer only in the word initial sound segment, including buck, duck, luck, muck, puck, suck, tuck, and yuck. None of these words carries a comparable stigma to fuck. Since the only difference in these minimal pairs is the first sound segment, some argue that perhaps /f/ is the offensive sound. Certainly there are many unpleasant words that begin with /f/ such as fart, fag, feces, or filth. However, this argument fails when we look at other common words that begin with /f/, such as faire, festive, fond, food, fun, and many others that have generally positive associations. A similar argument may be applied to the other sound components as well. Thus, it seems clear that it is not simply the way the f-word sounds that makes it so offensive. In contrast, consider what Jesse Sheidlower has to say about it: “Sounds a little like a suction-cup arrow hitting a wall . . . It’s a fun word to say” (Sheidlower xvii).
Unless the word is used in an intentionally hateful way, I do not find it to be terribly offensive. However, I acknowledge that others do find the word offensive and I respect this by limiting my use of it, especially within earshot of those I know will be offended. To get an admittedly very limited sense of how others may feel about it, I inquired among family, friends, and other acquaintances about their opinions and use of the word. In all, seven women and five men chose to respond. While this informal, small survey does not provide statistically significant results, it does provide a few interesting and surprising insights. The respondents, consisting of seven females and five males, ranged in age from midtwenties to late sixties and came from varied backgrounds. The level of education ranged from high school diploma to doctorate degree. Four respondents are currently reentry college students working on a first bachelor’s degree. Five of the women and three of the men are native Californians; the remaining respondents are originally from the eastern states of Delaware, New York, Vermont, and Virginia. All respondents are quoted anonymously from e-mail correspondence received December 1 to 5, 2004.
Most respondents stated they personally are not particu-larly offended when the word is used, unless it is in the imper-ative case directed at someone or if it is used in the presence of someone who is known to be offended by the word. One female indicated that an occasional “F bomb” did not offend her, but when used excessively, “It just grosses me out. To me it’s a class issue. Guess I’m a bit prejudiced about it. Some would call it classist [sic].” One male and three female res-pondents admitted using the word frequently. One male stated, “Colloquial use of the word ‘fuck’ does not offend me in the slightest. As a matter of fact, I myself use it quite prodigiously.” One female commented, “You know it’s my favorite word!” Another female responded, “As a native New Yorker, we throw around words like –uck and shit all the time without a second thought. Both words are natural expressions of strong emotions for which other words could never substitute.” The third female answered, “I use the F word with some frequency, despite being a mother of two, and find it to be an indispensable member of my vocabulary.”
Nine of the twelve respondents acknowledged that the word is considered inappropriate, at least in certain circums-tances, and these nine stated that they curb their use of the word in those circumstances. I found it interesting that several respondents said they were not offended, but when referring to the word used euphemisms such as the “f word,” “–uck,” and “f——.” Most respondents feel that the word has lost its shock value, and this was well summed up by one male respondent: “I think the fact is that while it’s still generally inappropriate, its constant usage has made it less offensive. I think if we were suddenly all walking around naked, we’d eventually lose our fascination with that as well.” Only two respondents, both male, addressed the sexual meaning of the word. One commented: “I’m not offended in the least by that word; in fact, I think it’s rather cool. ‘Fuck’ is such an appropriate expression! I love it. I mean, there are times when you want to make love, and then there are times when you want to FUCK!” The respondent who was most offended by the word offered the following insight: “I consider it ill advised . . . It is often used in the context of ‘taking’ sex from a woman . . . forcing her to accept a violation, not as a mutually responsible and fulfilling act.” Human beings have been having sex for as long as hu-man beings have been on this planet. To perhaps grossly oversimplify the issue, some people love sex, some people fear sex, and some people are somewhere in the middle. Some people believe they must pray to God for forgiveness when they indulge in sex and that under God’s law they may only have sex for the purpose of procreation. Many of the strongest English verbal taboos concern sexual behavior and genitals. Some cultures find fuck, cunt, and prick acceptable and intercourse, vagina, and penis unacceptable. James McDonald asserts the logic behind these distinctions lies in the attitudes of the people who introduced the words. According to McDonald, sailors and traders who considered sex a natural body function introduced the first set, while the second set of words was introduced by Christian missionaries, who regarded sex as sinful (McDonald v).
The fact is that the word fuck has been part of the English lexicon for centuries. At various times throughout the course of history, ruling parties and majority populations have attempted to eradicate the word and on some levels succeeded. It seems reasonable to assert that we are likely to see this in the future as well. However, since humans have a fascination with sex, bodily functions, and “dirty words,” I believe this versatile word is here to stay whether we like it or not. The key, then, is to strike a balance between the freedom of speech we hold so dear and censure.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Company. 29 November 2004. <http://www.bartleby.com/61/95/F0349500.html.>
Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams. An Introduction to Language. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2003.
McDonald, James. A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo and Euphemism. London: Penguin Group. 1988.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 29 November 2004. <http://www.mw.com/cgibin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=fuck>
Online Etymology Dictionary. 29 November 2004. <http://www.etymonline.com>
Sagarin, Edward. The Anatomy of Dirty Words. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962. Sheidlower, Jesse. The F Word. New York: Random House, 1995.