A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the origin of the "F" word?

August 31, 1984

Dear Cecil:

The following question isn't something I could send to Action Line, but I've always wanted to know: what is the origin of the "F" word? A friend told me it's an abbreviation of "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,'' which was supposedly stamped on the foreheads of couples who were locked up in the stocks for fornicating without benefit of matrimony. Also, whither the expression "fuck you"? I've always agreed with George Carlin, who says "unfuck you" would be a more appropriate curse, indicating you hope the person you are cursing would never enjoy the pleasure of sex again, rather than wishing them the opposite.

Cecil replies:

This is going to be a little crude, folks, but let's try to keep a stiff upper lip. I've heard a number of variations of the "fuck-as-acronym" story, none of which, in my opinion (and that of most linguists), is even remotely likely: (1) It stands for "fornication under consent of the king," which was supposedly tacked up over the doors of government-approved brothels in early England. (2) It stands for "for the use of carnal knowledge," which allegedly was stamped on condoms, or, alternatively, used the same way as "for unlawful carnal knowledge."

This passion for preposterous acronyms seems to be peculiar to Anglo-Americans, and some believe it started around World War I, about the same time many acronyms began popping up in government. Others I've come across include P.O.S.H. ("port outward, starboard home"), said to have been stamped on the tickets of first class passengers on India-bound British ships who wanted their cabins on the shady side of the boat during the passage through the tropics; C.O.P. ("constable on patrol"); and T.I.P. ("to insure promptness"). All are rubbish. The best guess is that "fuck" comes from the Middle English fucken, to strike, move quickly, penetrate, from the German ficken, meaning approximately the same thing. A related word may be the Middle Dutch fokken, to strike, copulate with. We get a clue here as to the level of delicacy and tenderness that has characterized the sex act down through the ages, and which is recalled by the charming epithet "fuck you."

Many other possible etymologies have been offered. Some claim the F-word (sorry to have to resort to this lame expression, but you have no idea how tiresome it can be to type "fuck" a million times) is a truncation of "fecund." Richard Spears, author of the splendid Slang and Euphemism, says the word may be a disguise of the French foutre, same meaning, which comes from the Latin futuere. Another possible origin, Professor Spears says, is the Latin pungo, to prick. Give me a break, doc.

Having totally ODed on gutter epithets, let us move briefly to the cheerful world of euphemism. Professor Spears has amassed an awesome collection of synonyms for the generative act (under "occupy," p. 278, in case you're the type who likes to look up dirty words in reference books), including the following, which gives you an idea of the never-ending richness of the English language: bang, batter, beef, bumble, blow off the loose corns, bounce the brillo, dance the buttock jig, do a dive in the dark, flimp, flurgle, foin, foraminate, futz, get one's leather stretched, get one's nuts cracked, get one's oil changed, go bird's nesting, go bush-ranging, go like a rat up a rhododendron, go star-gazing on one's back, have a bun in the oven, have a game in the cock-loft, have a leap up the ladder, have hot pudding for supper, hide the ferret, hide the salami, hide the sausage, hive it, jazz it, knock it off, lay some pipe, light the lamp, lose the lamp and pocket the stake, make her grunt, mix one's peanut butter, palliardize, pestle, pheeze, pizzle, play cars and garages, plow, plug, plook, ram, rasp, ride below the crupper, shoot between wind and water, strop one's beak, varnish one's cane, wet one's wick, wind the clock, and work the hairy oracle--some 675 synonyms in all. The ingenuity displayed in this, ahh, well-plowed ground is nothing short of awesome.

The Bard gets into the act

Dear Cecil:

I hate to point this out, but you failed to mention something in your recent discussion of the origin of a certain four-letter word. I did some research and found one of the origins in a book called Shakespeare's Bawdy, which says that the word comes from "foculation," meaning to engage in intercourse. The book I mentioned is a look at sex in Shakespeare.

Cecil replies:

Thanks for writing, but if next time wait till the drugs wear off first. Shakespeare's Bawdy, a comprehensive listing of every dirty word in Shakespeare by language expert Eric Partridge, contains nothing about "foculation." On the contrary, Partridge says the word "f*ck," as he puts it, derives from the German ficken, to strike, which is what I wrote. Perhaps you were thinking of Partridge's discussion of Shakespeare's pun involving "focative" from The Merry Wives of Windsor, act four, scene one, lines 42-46, in which the somewhat stupid Sir Hugh Evans is quizzing the even stupider William on his Latin:

Evans: What is the focative case, William?
William: O, vocativo, O . . .
Hugh: Remember, William, focative is caret.
Mistress Quickly: And that's a good root.

Caret (literally, "it is missing") equals carrot equals root equals penis equals f*ckative case, get it? Don't worry, I didn't either. They were going to hang Shakespeare for this pitiful effort, but he pleaded temporary inanity.

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