Fuck- A Short History of a Sacred Word

By Dan Morrison

Fuck, or should it be FuCK, is one of my favourite words, much used by some generations, much perceived by others as unnecessary and crude – and true it can be thrown around too much and is crude when used as a violent verb for the art of love-making – there is nothing quite like its form in the past tense to sum so completely that some event is irrevocably messed up and past the point of being solved- “it is fucked”.

How is it that sometimes the word is a cringe-inducing adverb in which rock’stars’ and desperate to-be-cool and not-teenage teenagers seek to set up home through misuse and overuse, can also be perfect and without rival in others, when not mistreated as a word that becomes both spectacle and commonplace, but when it is neatly and carefully placed at the point you realise something was or is beyond repair?

Where did you come from?- and your children , Fuckery and Fuckwittery?

And why can’t I say you in front of my Mum?

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A lot of the stuff I read in researching this piece started by telling me where the word fuck did not originate, which seems a pretty strange way of starting- have I just done something similar?- but it highlights the confusion about where the word started.

Fuck came into use around the late 15th and early 16th century. There are lots of solid ideas about where the word came from, which, alongside the myths, means it has been difficult to say where the word originates.

My favourite is its potential Egyptian origins. As Christopher M. Fairman wrote in Cardozo Law Review, the legal documents of the last Egyptian dynasties “were sealed with the phrase, “[A]s for him who shall disregard it, may he be fucked by a donkey”. The potential Egyptian root would have been petcha, meaning “to copulate”, while the hieroglyphic for the phrase sealing the documents was fairly unambiguous- “two large erect penises”.

Other, and unfortunately probably more credible, theories indicate that fuck came into English from either Frisian, Dutch or Low German. Kate Wiles says that if the word was in use before the 15th century, it would have meant “to strike”, only taking on its more fornication-related meaning from the 15th Century onwards.

This fornication-relation may also originate in its meaning “to move back and forth”, one could surmise.

As for the word’s first reputed use, this, again, is disputed. Often it is claimed that it was first used by an anonymous monk, who scrawled “O d fuckin Abbot” on the manuscript of Latin orator Cicero’s De Officiis– a guide to moral conduct. Given that John Burton, the abbot being referred to, was a bit of a player by monastic standards, “fuckin” could relate to copulation or could just be used as an intensifier. Helpfully, the monk wrote the date of his annotation- 1528.

Appearances of the word before then are generally more ambiguous, with place names and surnames resembling or including “fuck”, but little to suggest any real correlation to fuck’s modern usage.

However, there is another strong candidate that comes from the end of the 15th century, when the word appears in a coded poem having a pop at the Carmelite Friars of Cambridge, called Fleas, Flies and Friars. Once decoded, the line reads “[T]hey are not in Heaven because they fuck (the) women of Ely”, which Wiles sees as a potential pun on hell.

The conventional wisdom on fuck’s origins were turned UPSIDE DOWN last year, however. In an article for Inverse, Peter Rudd has written about how Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University stumbled across the word in a 1310 legal document.

In Chester Crown Court records, Booth discovered the story of “Roger Fuckebythenavel”, which today would mean old Roger was a navel-fucker.

As Vice reported, Booth said this was likely a legitimate nickname, either referring to sexual incompetence on the part of Rog or the idea that he was a certified wally/halfwit/idiot/numpty.

After being included in 1598 Italian to English dictionary, fuck was not deigned particularly appropriate for official records and dictionaries for the next several centuries. Dr. Samuel Johnson did not include it in the first dictionary, due to its supposed obscenity. Naturally, this meant fuck developed into a taboo word and now not only means “to copulate”, but also “to deceive” and often has no intrinsic meaning at all.

Many psycholinguists have attributed this taboo status to societies’ deep-rooted feelings and insecurities about sex. All this does is to further underscore the taboo, so fuck continues maintain its rogue status.

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Now I’m in a quandary of sorts.

The fuck word’s strength lies in a kind of scarcity guaranteed by its obscenity, that it is norty– it is a sin to say the word after all, as Luke Banks pointed out– and carrying a power that pops as you whack the FU against the C and K, up from the bottom of your mouth to the top of your mouth- fuck is exciting to say when you are just getting to grips with its bounds and liberating to say when you have mastered it. We can all win by saying it.


If we all say it, then the taboo value underwriting each and every fuck bottoms out and leaves our liberating locution just like any other- like bad and good and the worldfuck becomes just as irrelevant as all the other articles that filled Dr. Johnson’s dictionary.

It is fairly commonplace within younger generations, but still carries clout and the ability to be obscene in some contexts, maybe strengthened by older generations’ reluctance to use it verging on offence. Fuck is a form of rebellion then as well, not just against the word of God (uh oh) but our elders and wisers too.

Let’s all keep saying it, just not too much though, please-