originally published December 28, 2012
A sizzling labio-dental fricative, a punchy open-mid back unrounded vowel, followed by a triumphant voiceless velar plosive. It’s a single syllable with the cartilage-crunching mule-kick of power.
It is fuck.
On the one hand, it represents the beautiful act of love; on the other, it is the perfunctory summation of rage and frustration. Few words carry so many contradictory meanings, can inspire so much emotion, yet cannot be uttered on network television. It’s versatile, multi-purpose, and potentially harmful to the delicate sensibilities of souls too fragile to withstand the tart fruit-punch of profanity.
But fuck those people. Let’s talk about Fuck.
First off, fuck doesn’t top the list of most profane words. A 2000 survey among the British public (and I feel I should point out here, the word ‘fuck’ sounds so much more potent through either a British or New York / New Jersey accent) placed Fuck at #3 on the list. Motherfucker (albeit a derivative of Fuck) was #2, and the dreaded Cunt caused the most squirms.
But those two don’t come close in the race for which nugget of profanity gets the most mileage. Even Shit, a likely second-place finisher (depending on whether you still consider words like Ass, Bitch or Larry The Cable Guy TV Special to be obscene), doesn’t come close to the prolific nature of Fuck.
The origin of Fuck is so hazy and convoluted, it will probably never be definitively identified.
One fact that appears to be indisputable is that Fuck predates standard writing. Some believe that in England and Ireland Fuck was an acronym, referring to the crime of adultery: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Forbidden Use of Carnal Knowledge. Another thought was that couples required royal consent to reproduce during the Black Plague era, which meant they needed to hang a sign that read ‘Fornicating Under Consent of King’.
Those theories are… well, they’re all fucked. Urban legends, little snippets of false trivia people have passed on in hundreds of thousands of workplace emails when they didn’t feel like doing actual work.
As I pointed out six months back, Fuck probably originated with the German ‘ficken’ (to fuck), the Dutch ‘fokken’ (to strike), the Norwegian ‘fukka’ (to fuck) or the Swedish ‘fokka’ (to fuck or to strike – those Swedes like it rough). Just about every European language, from French to Latin to Spanish to Italian to Catalan, has a word for Fuck that starts with an ‘F’. That must be – for whatever reason – the go-to consonant sound to refer to copulation.
Apparently a look at the administrative records from 1278AD reveals a ‘John le Fucker’ who had been imprisoned for the murder of two men in Peterborough. Some believe this to be a spelling variant of ‘le fulcher’, which means ‘the soldier’, but I’d like to think this guy was just a fucker, and they wrote it down like this on purpose.
The word pops up in some of those Olde Englishe poemes with seemingly arbitrary silent ‘e’s and a vocabulary that is roughly 98% undecipherable by the average reader, as in “Flyye to wynd-rose, southe no to Gyllingan ‘ere ye blacke brooke ande fuck.” (copyright me – I see Olde Englishe Poemes as the next big comeback fad)
When English Baptist minister John Ash compiled his 1775 A New And Complete Dictionary, he felt Fuck to be important enough to warrant an entry. It was listed as a ‘low’ and ‘vulgar’ word, and I suppose it’s this reputation that prevented Fuck from being included in any subsequent English-language dictionary until 1965. It didn’t even make the Oxford English Dictionary cut until 1972. What the Fuck?
In the 20th century, Fuck began to appear as a Special Guest Star in a number of prominent authors’ works, including James Joyce, Henry Miller, and as a frequent occurrence in D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Movies were a little late to the game, as the MPAA (and before them, the Hays Code) sought to protect Americans from words that could hurt them (Fuck was known to cause severe internal bleeding and spontaneous eyeball hemorrhages, at least among the rumors that were bandied about the Hays Code office).
There is some debate regarding the first film to flaunt a Fuck. Ulysses, a British film based on the James Joyce novel of the same name, shocked audiences in 1967. British censors gave the film an ‘X’ rating – only for the language, mind you – which prompted Joseph Strick, the director, to replace all offensive words with atonal screechy sounds. Those scenes were rendered unintelligible.
New Zealand audiences for the film had to be over 18, and screenings could be for men or women – not both. Just hearing the word might have turned the theatre into an orgy den, I guess. Another contender for First Fuck would be the British film from the same year, I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname, starring Orson Welles. But that one had other concerns – notably an implied oral sex and/or masturbation scene. Hard for the censors to give a fuck about Fuck when there’s fucking afoot.
After Paul Robert Cohen was arrested in 1968 for wearing a ‘Fuck The Draft’ jacket, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, declaring that the public display of Fuck is protected under the First Amendment. So if local wildlife is pissing you off, waking you up too early and/or destroying your garden, feel free to display a ‘Fuck Squirrels’ sign in your front yard. It’s totally legal!
You can feel free to substitute ‘frick’, ‘frig’, ‘frack’, ‘feck’ or ‘farg’ if you’re worried about the sensitive nature of those around you. But if you’re a big Fuck fan (and I would consider myself to be in that category), grab yourself a good Fuck-ful movie and enjoy.
Apart from Fuck, a 2005 documentary about the word, the biggest Fuck-fest in film is 2008’s Gutterballs, a rape-heavy bowling/horror film shot in British Columbia. For the most Fuck-heavy movie I might actually want to sit through, there’s Spike Lee’s Summer Of Sam, with 435 Fucks uttered. Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, 1997’s Nil By Mouth, has 428, but it’s a shorter film so the Fucks-per-minute ratio is much higher (3.34 – that’s a Fuck every 20 seconds).
If you want more of Fuck (and who doesn’t?), head to Youtube and type in “George Carlin Fuck”. The man was probably the greatest interpreter of pop-culture language, and he picks the word apart in awe-inspiring detail. Me, I applaud the Fuck, I embrace the Fuck, and I supply the Fuck with steady employment, especially whilst navigating through traffic.
Don’t shy away from it, don’t hide from it. It’s just a quartet of harmless letters that possess the skill to say so much. Long live Fuck!