What the Fuck?

What the fuck… don’t fuck with me… fuckin' A… flying fuckfuck off… fuck you… fuck….

I was doing a check through my referrers yesterday and checking searches that pointed people to Madfish Willie's. A google search for historical origins of fuck yields Madfish Willie's Cyber Saloon: Fuck You! as #5 result. Only #5?!? Well, we must do something about this. Therefore, I will do a recap of some of the top results and we'll all know where the fuck fuck came from.

Here's the first fucking day of fuck:

Lauren Mahon
English 512
Prof. Anne Curzan
November 30, 2000

Four-Letter Folk Etymology and the “Bald Anglo-Saxon Epithet”

The cultural and historical descriptor “Anglo-Saxon” as a way to classify the common four-letter obscenities has been in use for at least the last seventy years. The Oxford English Dictionary cites one of the first recorded uses of the adjective in this sense from 1927, printed in the 1928 linguistics journal American Speech: “Several Laborites were suspended in the House of Commons. . . to the accompaniment of. . . the hurling of bald Anglo-Saxon epithets traditionally classed as unparliamentary.” [1] This delightfully descriptive phrase reveals that it was a class of words rather than an exact set of pinpointed terms which fell under the rubric “Anglo-Saxon”—although in that same year the Saturday Review of Literature could refer to “[a]ll nine of the tabooed Anglo-Saxon monosyllables” and presumably bring to mind a specific list. But is this usage a case of folk etymology run rampant? Which of the common four-letter words do stem from Old English? More importantly, why would a descriptive word pointing back a millennium—to an etymological origin shared by a great number of the most common words in modern English—come into usage at all?

In his satisfyingly thorough investigation of the history of an often overlooked area of language, Geoffrey Hughes attempts to ascertain precisely which of the four-letter words can be traced to Old English. Hughes’ use of the term “four-letter words” seems to apply expressly to words relating to excretion or sex—his list of the earliest recorded instances of the use of individual “four-letter words” includes words of varying lengths describing the male sexual organ (cock, tarse, weapon, limb, yard, tail, tool, prick, and penis) but excludes some actual “four-letter” words that are perhaps less offensive today (hell, damn) (Hughes 25). With those limitations, Hughes proclaims that “[o]nly shit, arse, and turd can genuinely be termed ‘Anglo-Saxon’ words on an etymological and historical basis” (25). While it seems clear that any determination of how many of the four-letter words originate in Old English depends entirely on which words one classifies as “four-letter words,” what is certain is that any list of the common obscenities will include both words of genuine Anglo-Saxon etymology and words of a different historical background altogether.

Following Hughes, then, we know that turd, shit, and arse can definitively be traced to Old English. To this list we can add cock (which, at least according to the recorded use, was not used to refer to the penis until the 17th century) and hell, along with the lesser four-letter term fart, which first appears in Middle English but has been hypothesized to have its root in the extrapolated Old English verb feortan (Hughes 27). Words that do not have a direct origin in Old English include fuck, of uncertain etymology but with possible roots in both Latin and Old Norse, the Latinate terms cunt and damn, and words of definite later origin (crap, dick). If the majority of the four-letter obscenities do come from Old English, then, perhaps the association is not as “erroneous” as Geoffrey Hughes would have it: Hughes cites the judgment in the case of The United States v. One Book Called ‘Ulysses’ to comment disparagingly on the “simplistic. . . equation of ‘four-letter and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ [which] is surprisingly common, even in educated circles” (Hughes 35).

The widespread acceptance of the idea that four-letter obscenities stemmed from Old English actually contains more reasoning than Hughes cares to admit. In the first place, the very nature of these words made them less likely to be researched or discussed: in her psychoanalytic investigation into “dirty words”, Ariel Arango points out that fuck, cock, and cunt “are, of course, expelled from any decent dictionary, and it would be unimaginable to hear them issue from the lips of the teacher in any classroom” (Arango 120). The currency of the idea that obscenities were Anglo-Saxon flourished during a time in which dictionaries did not include such words, and the etymologies would have been both difficult and potentially viewed as perverse to pursue. The 1933 supplement to the OED excluded words such as “cunt ‘female sex organs’; the curse ‘menstrual period’; to fuck ‘have intercourse with’” (A. S. C. Ross, quoted in Hughes 238-239). In the second place, the term “Anglo-Saxon” was already in use, according to today’s OED, as referring to forms of English that were “plain, unvarnished, [and] forthright.” The OED provides an 1866 quote making this use clear: “Occasionally a word of honest, hearty Anglo-Saxon, or a ‘bit of the brogue’, to remind you that you are not in Naples, but in New Orleans.” While many critics (including myself) have dissected the reference to “Anglo-Saxon monosyllables” as an attempt at folk etymology, what we may in fact have is a folk etymology derived not from a theory of precise historical origins but from the idea that words originating in Old English are in general more direct and plain than those imported from the Romance languages.

This generalization can in fact be backed up by an investigation into why the four-letter words as monosyllables beginning with a typical set of letters have remained active for, in some cases, over a thousand years. Geoffrey Hughes’ suggestion runs along these lines: “Many of the most used [swearing] terms in English now start with the letters ‘b’ and ‘f’, for reasons which are not easily explained. Could it be that voiced bilabial plosives and fricatives are the most satisfactory phonetic expression of emotional release?” (23) Burges Johnson’s contemplations in The Lost Art of Profanity follow along similar lines: he quotes the “wise philosopher, William J. Boardman”, as a source of the idea that man’s “first threatening aggressive noises were full of G’s and K’s and P’s and H’s and harsh sibilants. Such noises had the effect of a blow; they needed no dictionary to prove they were primed with all the bad magic of an evil wish” (Johnson 22). H. L. Mencken’s introduction to Johnson’s reflections implies in a more comical sense that particular words demand to be used in this manner: [W]e have lately seen the heroes of a great moral war march home with a repertory of invective almost tragically thin and banal. Like any other Christian soldiers they used a great deal of foul language in field and camp, but very little of it got beyond a few four-letter words. These four-letter words were so cruelly overworked that, though they went to war with narrowly restricted significances, they returned meaning almost as many things as muszage-guabzu, the Babylonian Word from the Abyss. (Johnson 9)

Even minimal contact with Old English points out the frequency of plosive and fricative consonants, and observation alone demonstrates that the inflected forms of Old English tend to be briefer (perhaps as a result of the use of vowel changes rather than suffixes) than the inflected forms of a language such as Latin. These characteristics of Old English may alone suffice to make the connection of short, blunt words with the Anglo-Saxon tongue not very far-fetched.

If we agree that words in Old English tended to be shorter and begin with more powerful consonants, it seems clear that the Old English versions of those four-letter words it did provide to modern English would be likely to have an entirely different sense in the Old English period. What limited information scholars can determine about word usage seems to reinforce this idea. The words for the definitively Old English terms turd, shit, and arse (tord, scite, and ears) occur most frequently in medical texts and leechdoms—scittan in the sense of diarrhea, for example, occurs in Bald’s Leechbook as a descriptive term, without any obvious colloquial qualities: “Lacedomas wiÞ Þon Þe mete untela mylte & cirre on fule & yfle wætan oÞÞe scittan” (OE Corpus). Tord and ears, as well, occur in these sorts of texts as straightforward descriptions of functions and anatomy. Robert Burchfield points out that “[t]he medical writers of the period used a wide range of mostly explicit terminology for the excretory and sexual organs and functions,” but correctly adds that “[t]he degrees of intimacy or delicacy implied in such terminology. . . are difficult to determine” (Burchfield 21).

Norman Blake’s investigation of how the English language was used in medieval literature explicitly proposes that it is precisely colloquialisms and so-called “dirty words” that are less likely to remain in what we have today of the Old English corpus. As the use of Old English in teaching colloquia points out, the most formal and respected language for use in writing was Latin, and English was most likely to be used textually as a tool to attain mastery of the classical tongue. Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, English was only beginning to be used as a language in which serious work might be written. Blake argues that [w]riters of English suffered from an inferiority complex in regard to both Latin and French, an inferiority engendered by its comparative poverty and instability . . . . Far from making his written language more colloquial, an author was intent on giving it the dignity and status which he attributed to Latin and French. (Blake 43)

Burchfield’s list of Old English words for parts of the body having to do with sex or excretion gives the most common terms for male and female genitalia as gesceapu, getawa, geweald, and gecyndelic. A search of the Old English Corpus for these terms makes it evident that they were most likely euphemistic words: gecyndelic, which can be translated directly as “proper body” or perhaps “noble body,” occurs 72 times in the Corpus, with the majority of those uses (all references outside the leechdoms) referring to a sacred quality of God.[2]

If words describing sex or excretion were—so far as we are able to tell a millennium later—used straightforwardly in Old English, the question with which we are left is how and whether the Anglo-Saxons encountered the idea of obscenity and which words were weighted with taboo or vulgarity in the culture. Of course, for the very reasons Norman Blake presents, it is very difficult to determine the answer to this question. In his focus on the “Germanic heritage” of swearing, Geoffrey Hughes seizes upon charms, oaths, vows, and the ritual exchange of insults known as “flyting” to determine the ways in which what Burchfield calls “sceandword (opprobrious words)” (Burchfield 20) operated. He chooses these foci precisely because it is nearly impossible, given the limitations of the Old English texts remaining, to single out words that may have had negative or vulgar connotations in the period. The very focus of later “obscenities” on the major taboos of sex and religion, however, point to precisely why it might be meaningless to search for Old English variations of “four-letter words.” Our modern-day definition of what constitutes a “four-letter word” is based on our own choice of obscenity. As Geoffrey Hughes reminds us, “societal taboos. . . reflect differing attitudes towards major forces which sustain, alter, or threaten life. These can be very diversified or specific, but commonly involve the deity, death, madness, sex, excretion, and strangers” (11). Thus what is obscene in the 21st century may in fact be precisely that which is most unlikely to have been taboo a millennium earlier. Due to the limitations of the texts remaining from the Anglo-Saxon period, it may be that we will never know what word might have been rude or vulgar from the point of a Byrthnoth or a Beowulf. The only assumptions we can make are that based on the nature of the culture as we know it, vulgarities or obscenities were likely to be oriented toward certain aspects of society—and according to Hughes, the relevant arena for Old English swearing lies in “Germanic heroism” and its “intense commitment to language and honour” (52).

Works Cited:
Arango, Ariel. Dirty Words: Psychoanalytic Insights. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1989.
Blake, Norman. The English Language in Medieval Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons,
Burchfield, Robert. “An Outline History of Euphemisms in English.” Fair of Speech: The Uses
of Euphemism. Ed. D. J. Enright. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985. 13-31.
Hughes, Geoffrey. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in
English. London: Penguin, 1998.
Johnson, Burges. The Lost Art of Profanity. Intr. H. L. Mencken. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.
OED Online. 2nd ed. 1998.
The Oxford English Dictionary. 29 Nov. 2000 .
Old English Corpus. Ed. Antonette di Paolo Healey. 2000 release. April 25, 2000. Dictionary
of Old English Project, Centre for Medieval Studies, U of Toronto. 29 Nov. 2000 .

[1] OED definitions and quotations come from the online version; see Works Cited page for details.
[2] It may be worthwhile, however, to note the similarity of the syllable ‘cynd’ to cunt, which is generally traced to the Latin cunnus.

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Willie you little fuck. Why don't you quityerbitchin' and go fuck yourself!

Posted by: Mike the Marine on January 24, 2004 02:49 PM

Fuck that's fucking funny.

Posted by: Simon on January 26, 2004 03:12 AM

Posted by: eric on January 26, 2004 02:15 PM

Intercourse & coitus.

Speaking of which, how come the door to the Champagne Room is locked?

Posted by: Harvey on January 27, 2004 06:30 AM

Hey, that's my fuckin' friend's fucking paper you fucking stole! Or did you fucking ask her if you could use it?

Posted by: tiger on January 27, 2004 09:53 PM

Hey... fuck you... it's fucking clearly fucking marked where this fucking info came from.

Posted by: The Bartender on January 28, 2004 12:53 AM

I'm... I'm so proud. SO DAMN PROUD! Good thing that you copied it over here, too, because now that I'm out of grad school my UW page has vanished. Thanks for the giggles. :>

Posted by: lauren on March 26, 2004 06:06 AM
Let's hear your bullshit

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