Origins of The F-Word

In days of old
When men were bold
... And horny
... Also the women!

Every age and culture has its repertoire of expression for sexual activities; usually a very extensive repertoire. Some are considered obscene, some technical, some crude, some cute, some simply matter-of-fact. In the past millennia some have started with the letter "f", most have not. But what are the origins of the modern F-word that we have all come to love and hate? The one that was considered so crude that it was not spoken in polite company or published until a few years ago (except in the crudest pornography that was circulated slyly). Is it of ancient origin or did it appear in the English language only recently?

Most authors and internet posters assume an origin predating 1500 usually based on some word starting with "f" that could have been used to describe sexual activity. I have strong reservations with their constructions, and find what I consider to be adequate data that the F-word did not exist at that time in any of its current usages.

I divide the search into three periods: (1) The Olden Days before about 1630, (2) The Two Century Gap, and (3) The Modern Era starting with Queen Victoria.

But first we need to dispose of nonsense that occurs much too often.


One supposed acronym assumes that in some unspecified era, under some unspecified king, royal permission was required for copulation of any type. Thus:

fornication under consent of the king
fornication under command of the king

Any king who attempted to implement such a policy would have a very short reign - and life! Anyone claiming that these acronyms were ever used should identify the era and king, and identify reference documents. The closest resemblance was the requirement of royal approval to marry for the royal family and grand nobility. Not directly concerned with sexual intercourse, just legal marriage. Royal marriage was used to cement alliances; also to limit future claimants to the throne. Illegitimate children had no legal standing.

Another states that illegal intercourse was so popular that an acronym was used to reduce labor of writing the judgment. The origin has be attributed 1) Puritan England, 2) Puritan American colonies, 3) English navy (16th - 19th centuries), and 4) American navy (19th century). Thus:

for unlawful carnal knowledge
forced unnatural carnal knowledge

This can easily be dismissed. Criminal punishments were routinely recorded in naval logs or court records. Many of the logs and records are still available. No one has identified any specific document that contains the acronym. Thus the word almost certainly did not exist.

Even more absurd is pluck yew. This myth states the the French military would cut off the middle finger of captured English archers. The English archers, and later all English, would show the finger to the French saying "I've still got mine." This is absurd for several reasons: (1) The finger gesture predates France and England; it goes back to the Roman Republic if not earlier. (2) There is not the least documentation of this. (3) The French would probably have removed the entire hand; it is much easier than removing one finger. (4) It would not be effective; a trained archer could easily adapt to the loss of the middle finger.

In Olden Times

In attempts to force an ancient origin for the F-word, individuals have referenced almost every word with the initial letter "f" in the Germanic language family that, by the remotest chance, could have had any sexual connotation. I will spare you the list; it extends to many hundreds of words, probably thousands. The English language alone consists of about one million words. At least one tenth, and probably one fourth, have been used in some sexual context. Probably at least five and ten thousand of these start with "f." Choosing one and saying that it is the origin for the modern F-word simply demonstrates a lack of imagination. To prove that a word is the ancestor of the modern word requires a period citation of both words - not recent speculation.

What is missing: A citation of the word being used in a sexual context in the English language. Even the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary [ed. 1973] falls into this trap in referencing the Middle English word fuken as the origin of the F-word. The primary meaning of fuken appears to be to breed cattle. While it could, and probably sometimes was, used for human copulation, without a citation it is only speculation and should be identified as such by the author. But consider the well documented use of tup meaning to breed sheep for human copulation. It was used from the early 15th until the beginning of the 20th century at least. It apparently was never considered obscene even when used for human sexual activities.

Almost surprising by its absence is an attempt to attribute the origin to the Japanese city of Fuchu. Many of the attributions to other words starting with "f" are more tenuous.

Properly cited sources for f-words denoting sexual activities are rare. Three instances are reasonably well documented.

In Brash of Wowing William Dunbar wrote: Yit be his feiris he wald haif fukkit The poem Flen flyys contains the line: Non sunt in celi quia fuccant uuiuys of heli. This is frequently translated as: They [the monks] are not in heaven because they f*ck the wives of Ely. Not necessarily that they had sex with them, possibly the monks ran a brothel and employed the wives. Church run brothels were not uncommon. Flen flyys is anonymous but in a style similar to Dunbar. Both were written abound 1500. Possibly Dunbar wrote both but not likely. Dunbar was the poet lauerate to James IV and possibly the court fool. He wrote many beautiful poems but also many others that can only be described as facetious, satirical, scurrilous and invective; all with the approval - and possibly on the order - of the king. Dunbar and similar writers created many words that were never used again. Possibly fukkit and fuccant should be included in this group. There is no other reference to the words.

In Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.i) Shakespeare uses what may be a sexual pun "focative case." Shakespeare used many sexual allusions in many, if not all, of his plays; some explicit, some well concealed.

These citations are frequently used to claim that the F-word was in common use, and was considered as obscene at the times of the reference. Not necessarily valid; none of these words are the modern F-word although they may all refer to copulation. The OED has two well attested words, either of which could have been the source of these citations. One is not highly probable but the second one is.

Fouche literally means fork but the fork referred to is rear or lower limbs of an animal or sometimes a person. The best translation as a sexual term would be crotch. Possibly it could have occasionally been used for copulation [speculation]. It was in use during the 15th through the 17th centuries.

Fucus, fucate and other spelling variations mean beautified with paint, counterfeit, falsified, and other related terms. Painted woman was most likely a designation for a prostitute then as it is now. The citations seem to indicate that it was so used, but I don't have a definitive reference. It would be only a small step to use either word for having sex with a prostitute. Fucus was used in the cited sense at least until 1800. Notice the close correspondence: fucus ~ fuccant and fukkit, fucate ~ focative. Flen flyys could be rendered as: They are not in heaven because they use the wives of Ely as prostitutes.

I have probably been misleading you [deliberately] to believe that the F-word did not exist in the 16th century. It certainly did exist with spelling variations that include the modern one. Fuk, fukke, fuck and fucke are alternate spellings but had no sexual connotation. Fuksail, fukmast and fuksheet were technical terms used on sailing ships. The words could be used as compounds or separately [fukke mast]. The word was apparently replaced with "fore" [foresail, foremast, foresheet] around 1600.

Far from becoming to obscene to print from the early 1500s, this F-word was in common use, at least within the sailing community, until 1600 and probably much later. It simply had no sexual connotation. Is it possible that a word can be simultaneously in common use - both written and spoken - while being too obscene too print? Frankly, I find this absurd.

The Gap

The infamous gap or chasm confronts any claim that the F-word is of ancient origin. There is no reference to the F-word during this period; not even a hint or an allusion. No; not one! For at least 200 years. And this was heyday of the bawdy song. There were singing clubs over the entire of Britain and the American colonies for men and for women; sometimes separate, sometimes together. The most popular songs like Sweet Sir Walter [Sir Walter Enjoying His Damsel] and Inigo [The Wedding of Inigo Jones] were sexually explicit without directly using any word that could be considered obscene. Any word by itself that is, in context the songs could be very obscene. In addition there were the rhyming songs that omitted the obscene word. Consider this example:

{Several lines of nonsense}
My reply was wondrous blunt
I would rather be stabbed in the ___

People who wrote and sang these songs would consider it a challenge to include an allusion to the F-word, if it had existed. No ban could have prevented the inclusion if it were done with finesse and delicacy. They certainly included sexually explicit references into many [most] songs. My opinion is that the word did not exist. Other sexually explicit words definitely, but not the modern F-word.

Another type of archive for obscenities is graffiti in taverns. In England, several ancient taverns have been subject to archeological studies. Many contained sexual explicit graffiti from the 13th - 18th centuries. The subject of the graffiti was the same as that in modern school toilets and the artistic merit was the same. But the F-word was not seen in any study.

Could a word have survived the gap without leaving any traces? Normally I would have said, "No!" Then I remembered an incident from around 1971. In the mid sixties I read the Middle English poem Alas, Alas the Wyle, That Ever I Cowde Daunce in which a young woman describes her seduction in graphics terms:

He prikede and pransede, nolde he never lynne,
Yt was the murgest nyt that ever I cam inne.

And in the next verse:

Wan Iak had don, tho he rong the belle.

The editor speculated that the last line meant he spread the news. I recognized it as impregnation; successive verses supported this, but the editor had obviously never heard this expression. I had never heard it until 1971 when an older coworker described his wedding. Nasty Mind! No, not the intimate details, but the reception and the parties. They did not get to the hotel until the wee hours. Then he finished with: "I must have rang the bell that first night; our son was born nine months later." Very strange, I have never heard the expression since and have never seen it in any other book. A very rare expression somehow survived a gap of 500 years, but I still doubt that one as common as the F-word is presumed to be could survive without traces.

The Modern Era

In came Queen Vicky, and with her excessive modesty, or more correctly, repressive prudery. The language of polite company became very delicate. Even the simplest body functions could not be described directly.

Women glow
Men perspire
Horses sweat

Repression of this type always seeks an outlet. And one, or several, was readily available. The Victorian Era saw large groups of men cut off from normal contact with the opposite sex. Mining, logging, ranching and standing army are types of these groups. Prostitution was the only sexual outlet for many men for a substantial part of their life.

Is the use of the modern F-word always, or even primarily, a sexual reference? Hardly. It is used as an explicative, a curse, to indicate incompetence, and, yes occasionally, to indicate sexual activities.

An explicative is used to let off steam. The word does not necessarily have any meaning. When the F-word is used as an explicative, it does not have any direct sexual context. A curse is directed against someone or something. "F*ck you" is the crudest equivalent of "damn you". Again this does not necessarily imply any sexual context. Confusion, danger, disorder caused by incompetence calls for the strongest language. Did anyone ever believe that fubb [WWI] stood for fouled up beyond belief, or that snafu [WWII] meant situational normal all fouled up?

Perhaps I should distinguish cursing from blackguarding but has anyone under 50 ever heard of blackguarding. Essentially cursing has a religious context: Blackguarding is obscene in the sexual or scatological sense.

To return to the camps: the men had few outlets; violence, drinking, gambling, prostitution and crude language were about the gamut. But drinking, gambling and prostitution were expensive and dangerous; and violence was simply dangerous. Crude language was available to everyone and in constant use. These men were hardly angels and used language even cruder than the current military. A man could demonstrate his manhood by having an extensive repertoire of explicatives and curses. It was a challenge and an honor to continue for half an hour or more without repeating anything. Quite possibly, creating new ones would gain him respect within the camp.

As men left the camps, their crude language diffused into the general population as obscenities not to be used in polite company. Mark Twain, who had a very extensive repertoire, characterized its use by: "Strong language should be reserved for strong occasions. Using it for trivial events debases its value so that you don't have anything sufficient when a strong occasion occurs." (My paraphrase)

I suspect that this is how the F-word acquired its current usage. How the word originated is still very speculative. However, note the resemblance between fucus and f*ck up or f*ck it. Since fucus was still used for a painted face around 1800, the connection is possible. But not necessarily so; it could have started as a play on words related to almost anything; a personal name, a place name, a tool or equipment, a trivial incident, etc. The only requirement is that it be repeated often and become popular. After all, sideburns originated from General Burnsides and hooker came from General Hooker's camp followers: Both US Civil War origins.

The poetry and songs of this period reflect the absence of the F-word until the later part of the 19th century. Almost everyone knows Robert Burns as a writer of great sentimental poetry. Few realize that many Burns poems had an alternate version that was sexually explicit. In the commonly known version of John Anderson, my jo a couple gracefully ages together. In the alternate, the wife laments the loss of his sexual capability. Burns does not use the F-word in any of his works nor does he provide any hints that he knew the word. The John Henry cycle of songs contains sexually explicit references in almost every verse; at least in the versions before 1920. John Henry is not a labor song: It is strictly sexual but the F-word is never used. Hints of the F-word appear in the cowboy songs of the late 1800s. The cowboys who herded cattle along the trails did not sing songs like The Old Chisholm Trail. Their songs were crude, profane and sexual. When songs based on the true cowboy songs were published, they were strongly sanitized. Consider a verse from the The Old Chisholm Trail.

Stray in the bunch and boss said kill it,
So I shot him in the rump with the handle of the skillet.

Not obscene? Consider a parallel verse that ends with bucket. With the obvious rhyme the F-word would be used in its most common context - profanity not necessarily sexual. This type of hint should occur it the word were known.

In summary, the F-word of the 16th century was not sexual or obscene. Nor is it related to the modern F-word. The word in its modern spelling and usage originated around the middle of the 19th century among men who's only sexual contact was with prostitutes. It was extremely crude. Most of its modern usages originated in the same period. The real mystery is how the word came to be used for normal martial sexual intercourse.

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