There’s nothing so to the point as one particular four-letter expletive. It’s offensive, vulgar, inappropriate, and often too coarse for polite company. It can be used as a verb, a noun, an adjective, an adverb, an interjection, or as an expletive infix. While many people do not hesitate to use the word in private circles, some feel the need to completely replace it with a seemingly less offensive euphemism, such as “frick,” “freg,” “fudge,” or even “fart.”
I’m talking, of course, about the F-word—“fuck,” to be more specific.
The exact etymology of this particular obscenity is still being debated, mostly because the word has been used far more often in common speech than in written form. However, numerous scholars suspect that the word has Germanic origins. Of course, a plethora of other theories abound, most of which are little more than urban legends.
Some suggest that “fuck” is actually an English acronym dating back to sometime between the tenth and nineteenth century (sources vary). There’s “Fornication Under Carnal Knowledge,” “Fornication Under [the] Consent of the King,” or “False Use of Carnal Knowledge.” Then there’s the supposed acronym pulled from Irish law, which purports that couples caught committing adultery were punished “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge In the Nude,” or rather for “FUCKIN.”
The word’s first noted usage was in the poem “Flen flyys,” which was written around 1470 CE. In 1503 CE, poet William Dunbar included the line “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit” from his poem “Brash of Wowing,” and would use “fukkit” in several of his other poems in years to come.
More recently, poet and novelist D. H. Lawrence brought the word to the forefront of public scrutiny in his 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In 1938, Eddy Duchin’s release of the Louis Armstrong song “Ol’ Man Mose” sold incredibly well, and included the lines “He kicked the bucket and ol’ man mose is dead, / Ahh, fuck it! / Buck-buck-bucket.” And though its usage continued to increase, “fuck” was not included in a dictionary of the English language, aside from a brief mention in John Ash’s 1775 A New and Complete Dictionary, until 1965, and wasn’t included in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1972.
As the years progressed, the word “fuck” began to slowly work its way into the public foreground. Director Robert Altman’s 1970 film MASH (which would later spawn the popular television series) was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to include the word. In 1971, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” fell victim to censorship because of its usage of “fuck.” Nine years later, Saturday Night Live cast member Charles Rocket was fired for using the word during a live broadcast in what was one of the earliest instances of its use on television.
Since then, “fuck” has become ever more popular, be it in private circles, public forums, on radio or television, in film or music, or in prose or verse. But few take time to consider those responsible for bringing the word out of the closet, so to speak. If not for poets, novelists, filmmakers, musicians, and other artists, “fuck” would be far less acceptable.
And it would be wrong to assume that those artists were able to popularize the word merely by using it more often. On the contrary, those responsible for bringing our favourite expletive into popular usage did so by using the word wisely.
I’m reminded of British poet Philip Larkin whose last book of poetry, High Windows, gained much notoriety because of his use of “fuck.” One poem in particular, “This Be Verse,” has become a fan favourite among readers. It’s first two lines read “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” The pun – that parents both ruin and create their children – is ingenious, though not merely because it’s clever. Larkin’s use of “fuck” fully captures the narrator’s resigned and almost complacent misery; “fuck” is the only word that could have captured the meaning so completely and so powerfully.
Pound for pound, “fuck” is one of the strongest words in the English dictionary: it commands attention; it conveys the immediacy of our heaviest emotions, be it love, hate, longing, or even lust; and, like it or not, it stands for a great deal of who we are as a society. The problem, however, is that this word is now often spoken without any second thought; in truth, it just isn’t being used to its full potential, and is simply going to waste. And that’s a shame, because, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t knowledge that’s powerful, it’s language.
Rowing For Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.