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The worst word

How F**K became our top taboo term -- and why we need it to stay that way
By TIMOTHY GOWER  |  April 7, 2009

This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on April 1, 1994


Imagine you're a music writer assigned to cover the Grammy Awards. You've been sitting for hours in a crowded basement room beneath the auditorium at Radio City Music Hall, watching the event on a TV monitor. The scene is a strange mix of excitement and paralyzing boredom: after all, the room is crawling with mega-stars. And after all, it is an awards show.

Then it happens: you look up at the TV screen and see Bono, the lead singer of U2, step up to the podium to accept a statuette for recording the Best Alternative Music album. "We shall continue to abuse our position," he says, "and fuck up the mainstream."

Hello, front page!

BONO NO-NO SHOCKS GRAMMYS read a Boston Herald page-one headline the next morning. For reporter Larry Katz, who wrote the accompanying story, the Irish rocker's glib use of the F-word helped turn another dull ceremony into a night to remember.

"There were whoops and hollers of glee in the press room," he says. "It provided us with a tremendous amount of amusement."

Members of the press corps sprang to life because they knew instantly that real news had just happened. The next day, giddy water-cooler and e-mail discussions around the nation would start with "Did you hear what Bono said?" The smirking fellow with the scraggly beard had just stood up before an estimated TV audience of 1.4 billion people worldwide and uttered the worst word in the English language.

Or course, if Bono had dropped his trousers or babbled pig Latin for 30 seconds, that would have made news, too. But the special brand of incredulity that swept over the land underscored the special role this mean little word plays in our culture.

But why fuck? Why, of all the terms we've concocted for sexual intercourse, did one become "the most reviled word in the English language," according to linguist Richard A. Spears in his book Slang and Euphemism?

The answer is really quite simple: because we made it the worst word--and we need it to stay that way.

Fuck: A brief history

"Any word is an innocent collection of sounds until a community surrounds it with connotations and then decrees that it cannot be used in certain speech patterns," writes Peter Farb in Word Play, his classic study of spoken communication. "This is what happened when the English speech community relegated fuck to forbidden status about 1650."

That means that the F-word enjoyed at least a few centuries of inoffensive daily use before it was considered a dirty word. Its precise origin isn't clear, although fuck is usually traced to the Germanic word ficken, for "strike." Ficken seems to have developed its alternate sexual meaning (referring specifically to male penetration) in the 1400s, probably in Scotland, according to Slang and Euphemism.

The distinguished anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote an entire book on cursing, The Anatomy of Swearing. In it, he reports that the first print appearance of fuck was in a poem published in 1503 by Scottish poet--and former Franciscan friar--William Dunbar. Dunbar's fellow Scots, including poet Robert Burns, used the word uninhibitedly for most of the 16th century.

But by the late 1500s, fuck largely disappeared from print, indicating that it had become taboo. It's probably no coincidence that its vilification occurred at the same time the church took on a greater role in Great Britain. Holy men undoubtedly linked the term with forbidden pleasures of the flesh, rendering it verboten.

But fuck's downward slide may have begun even earlier, and for reasons having less to do with morality than elitism. Some etymologists find its root in the Old English word fokken, which originally meant "to strike against" and "to breed cattle." Author Diane Ackerman points out in A Natural History of the Senses that when the Normans crossed the English Channel and conquered the Saxons in 1066, they replaced many Old English terms with French words, believing their own idiom more refined.

Eventually, Ackerman explains, the crude-sounding fokken, with its undignified double meaning, was displaced by the more elegant "fornicate," which itself is derived from the Latin fornix, an architectural term for a vaulted basement room in ancient Rome often rented by prostitutes. "So 'to fornicate,'" explains Ackerman, "is to pay a visit to a small, warm subterranean room with arched ceilings."

But even if fuck fell out of use in polite society, it never fell from favor among common folk--unlike other slang synonyms for "copulate," in old England, such as jape, sard, swive, and occupy (the latter reappeared with its present meaning several centuries later).

Fuck was sufficiently familiar in 19th-century England to spawn a slew of variations. Many sound like clumsy made-up words today: sexually desirable women were said to be "fucksome"; to be sexually aroused was to feel "fuckish"; and a lecherous man might have been called a "fuckster." To engage in the act of coitus itself was to "fuckle."

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Related: Another damn study, Words, words, words, Year in Books: Word plays, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Bono, Bono (Musician), Boston College,  More more >
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