On the Origin of Fuck

One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.

But right now there’s a post going round with a lovely image of a manuscript from Brasenose College, Oxford, proudly declaring it’s the earliest instance of fuck in English (although, it notes, that is apart from that pesky one from Scotland and that one that says fuck but is written in code). But even if we DO agree to discount those two little exceptions, it’s still not the earliest instance. I think the Brasenose fuck was considered the earliest in 1993, and that’s quite out-dated now.

So, for your enjoyment and workplace sniggering, here’s a potted history of fuck.

Instances of fuck before the fifteenth century are rare. Despite it commonly being classed as one of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, Jesse Sheidlower (author of an entire book on fuck, and past editor of the OED so he knows what he’s talking about) suspects that it came into English in the fifteenth century from something like Low German, Frisian or Dutch. While ‘fuck’ existed in English before then it was never used to mean rogering, instead it typically meant ‘to strike’ (which was, way-back-when, related to the word that became fuck because it’s a kind of hitting…). Anything that appears earlier is most likely to be the use of fuck to mean ‘to strike’. If you wanted to talk about making whoopee in a dirty way, the Middle English word to use was swive. [ETA: @earlymodernjohn asked if it's related to Modern English 'swivel' as in 'go swivel' and it is! The more you know...]

Another theory for why there’s hardly any written record of fuck before the fifteenth century is because, if it was around before then, it was just too darn rude to write down. The coded example might have been an early way around actually writing it.

Another theory for its late arrival is that it’s a borrowing from Norse (the Vikings) via Scottish because several early instances are found in Scottish writing (such as the fifteenth-century one discounted in that other article). However, this is generally believed to be unlikely, in part because the Scottish weren’t considered influential enough for English to borrow words from them. Perhaps there were more early written examples in Scottish simply because they were less prudish about writing it.

There are lots of instances of the word fuck from before the fifteenth century drifting around, some of the most notable of which are, chronologically:

John Le Fucker (supposedly from 1278) – While excellent, this name is probably apocryphal. Since it was first written about no-one’s been able to find it and it’s generally assumed to be a mis-reading, perhaps of Tucker, or a variant on fulcher, meaning ‘soldier’. Disappointing.

Fuckebegger (1286/7) it appears as part of the surname of one of Edward I’s palfreymen. Marc Morris posted this excellent photo on Twitter:
Image

However, this is generally assumed to mean ‘to strike’ and can be compared with the Anglo-Norman surname Butevilein meaning ‘to strike the churl or wretch’ (‘vilein’ being related to the English villain which originally meant a person of a lower status).

The place-names Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous (which sounds like a brilliant place to live), both of which are found near Sherwood Forest in a document from 1287. These use the bird-name Windfucker (first cited 1599) which may or may not have something to do with making the beast with two backs. The OED veers towards yes, probably, it’s a kestrel which majestically mounts the wind. So the place-names here kind of have fuck in them by a circuitous route and are possibly the earliest instance of fuck in English.

Simon Fukkebotere and Willm’i Smalfuk (Ipswich, c. 1290). Simon’s ‘fuck’ is almost definitely being used to mean ‘to strike’ and describes his trade, which, I know, is hugely disappointing. Who wants ‘hit-butter’ when you could have ‘fuck-butter’?? William’s ‘fuck’ is a new one and it’s probably related to a fukke, a type of sail first cited in 1465. Sorry.

Fockynggroue – Another place-name, from Bristol in 1373. This was shown in 2007 quite persuasively to be the earliest instance of fuck in English used to mean doing the funny downstairs business. It’s a name akin to Lovegrove rather than one which uses the Old English personal name Focca which appears in the place-name Fockbury, or from Old English Folca as in Folkestone. While the instances before this are possibly to do with getting down and nasty, this one’s pretty conclusive, and predates the Fucking Abbot by 155 years.

The coded poem mentioned above from 1475 called Fleas, Flies and Friars in which ‘fucking’ appears as follows:

Non sunt in celi
quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk
Which, decoded reads: ‘fuccant uuiuys of heli’

‘They [the friars] are not in Heaven because they fuck (the) women of Ely’ (which might be interpreted as a pun on ‘Hell’).

The following are the earliest citations in the OED:

1513 – W. Dunbar Poems, Scottish, ‘Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit’.

The Fucking Abbot (1528) isn’t even the earliest citation that’s widely talked about, predated by ten years by Dunbar, which the link discounts as not being in English, despite appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary.

[THE FUCKING ABBOT COMES HERE IN THE CHRONOLOGY]

1663 – Richard Head, Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin. A comedy, ‘I did creep in..and there I did see putting [sic] the great fuck upon my weef.’ I’ve included this even though it’s quite late because I really like saying ‘the great fuck upon my weef’. And because it’s written by a man called Richard Head. RICHARD. HEAD.

And in 1680 by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in a book of what sounds like LOVELY poems: ‘Thus was I Rook’d of Twelve substantial Fucks’.

So, I think we can definitely say there’s at least three, possibly four earlier instances of fuck in English before the Fucking Abbot. Sorry dude.

Bibliography:

Keith Briggs, ‘Two Thirteenth-Century By-Names: Fukkebotere and Smalfuk’, Nomina (2012), 141-43

Richard Coates, ‘Fockynggroue in Bristol’, Notes and Queries (2007), 373-76

Marc Morris, @Longshanks <https://twitter.com/Longshanks1307/status/432856212363694080>

Jesse Sheidlower, The F-Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Edward Wilson, ‘A “Damned F—In Abbot” In 1528: The Earliest English Example Of A Four-Letter Word’, Notes and Queries (1993), 29-34

78 responses to “On the Origin of Fuck

  1. another enlightening and delightful post. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  2. Great post, and I’m sure you’re right. But given the name of the current Prime Minister in Australia, I think the meme will continue to be popular here.

  3. I don’t have a citation to back this up, but I was taught in my courses on Middle High German that it derived from the MHG ficken, “to rub or grind,” (from the Old Saxon root fickan, meaning a rapid movement back and forth, whence the modern English “fickle”), whence the modern German “ficken” as the equivalent of “fuck”.

    • That’s interesting but I’m not sure whether that’s wishful thinking? Modern English ‘fickle’ is from OE ‘ficol’ meaning ‘deceit’ (also related to the now obsolete ‘faken’ meaning wickedness, roughly), so isn’t related at all.

      The modern German ‘ficken’ is possibly related to the various other Germanic words meaning ‘to strike’ which I mentioned in the post, although the OED is hesitant to concretely link them. It’s possible that all these words stem from the same Indo-European word and the meanings diverged.

  4. Of course, the famous Bristolian fuckgroves, who could forget.

  5. this article is dismally vague

  6. Maybe a simple mistake? After all, S was often written as an F (the soft ‘S’) maybe it started out as Suck? We already have “You Sucker” , maybe we should be saying “Suck Off” Where the original suck comes from, well, I just can’t imagine.

    • The letters were different, they just look the same to modern eyes, and we do have plenty of evidence (particularly comparison with related languages, especially Germanic) that it was an F.

  7. I see the fucking word’s Scottish origins are quicky discounted

    • Not quickly in the scholarship, I just summarised them briefly here. There is more evidence that it didn’t come from Scottish than that it did. The main strength of the pro-Scottish argument is that they were quicker to start writing it than England was, but that’s probably because they were less prudish!

  8. Well, that’s all good but the original word emanated from the early English court system specifically poor bastards would have to attend the For Underage Carnal Knowledge summons and generally they thought they were fucked completely

  9. For those of you interested in doing a little more research, I highly recommend Carl Darling Buck’s _A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages_.

  10. Hahahaha–f*ck, that was funny.

  11. Please, please do ‘Bollocks’.
    Thanks.

  12. I always thought it was an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (meaning “rape”).

  13. Bird watching would probably be much more popular if more birds had names like “Windfucker”.

    Then again, bird names are often rather risque – Blue Boobies and Great Tits, anyone?

  14. For fuck’s sake, will somebody solve this mystery!

  15. The word “fuck”, like other four-letter words is an old Anglo-Saxon word (I thought that was common knowledge). After the Normans invaded England in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon words were looked upon as being common or “vulgar”. It is, however, not technically “swearing” as “swearing” originally meant to take the name of God in vain. As far as I know, it is still in the Oxford dictionary.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. Although, as I said in the post, we have no evidence for it before these instances which I’ve discussed. Common belief is that it arrived in English AFTER the Anglo-Saxon period. We have no evidence at all of Anglo-Saxon swearing because all of the writing was done by monks. Later perception is just as likely to be Norman propaganda as it is fact, and I’d prefer to base my writing on scholarly research than ‘common knowledge’.

  16. Thanks for the illumination. Whatever its origins, it seems to me that its persistence in the language has to do with just how much fucking fun it is to say. Like a lot of profanity, it begins with a fricative—that nice hiss between lip and teeth—and ends with a stop, in the case of the F-word, at the back of the throat, almost like choking. The plosive nature of profanity is what makes it so effective. At least in English. If you’ve the inclination, you can read more about it here http://wp.me/pKFR7-1L.

  17. ‘Instances of fuck before the fifteenth century are rare.’
    ‘There are lots of instances of the word fuck from before the fifteenth century drifting around.’

  18. “While ‘fuck’ existed in English before then it was never used to mean rogering, instead it typically meant ‘to strike’”
    This is going to bring new meaning to hearing characters in movies exclaim, “I’m going to fuck you up!”
    This is the first article I’ve read from you. Must read more! Nice work. :-)

  19. The word goes way, way back. There is no coincidence the originating word in latin starts with “fu,” and likely goes back to the Roman Empire. I expect the pronunciation of the expletive form changed over time, but the meaning never did. The etymology is likely all tied across the term’s meaning and functionality in prose, and became derogatory sometime during a war.
    http://translate.google.com/#la/en/futuo

  20. I’ve always thought the choice of “I’m going to fuck you up!” as two brutes square off to battle an odd choice of phrase considering the general sexual nature of the word. But this history lesson gives more credence to its use in that context versus any other.

  21. “It has never made sense to me that the curse-word fuck was somehow related to the word for sexual intercourse. Of course it’s not related: the two words are homonyms. They look the same, sound the same and are spelt the same. But their origins are different – as different as the bill of a duck and the bill of rights. The curse-word may not be welcome at Grandma’s dinner-table, but it’s not obscene.”

    That is the first paragraph (of eight paras) in a short blog-post of mine on the origin of the curse-word – titled “…and the horse you rode in on”, in “Barlow’s Cayman” September 2013. A later paragraph said,
    “The curse-word is probably related to our word finger – fig, in some early Germanic dialects. One of my grandmothers used to say “I don’t care a fig for that!” In many religions – perhaps most – fingers are used by priests to convey approval. “Bless you, my child!” The sign of the Cross; hands clasped in prayer or greeting; a hand raised in salute or greeting; both hands raised in the gesture of peace. Did I say “hands”? I meant fingers. Even shaking hands with someone in greeting or farewell, or to seal a deal.”

    It’s not unreasonable speculation – though it may be wrong, of course.

  22. I’ve always heard the definition was Fornication Under Carnal Knowledge, which mea by sex with an unmarried woman.

  23. Yes yes, I remember learning ficken in german class, as well as foutre in french (Espèce de connard de merde, vas te faire foutre avec ton trou du cul inutile!(pardon my french). I go to look up these interesting words in my Chambers dictionary of Etymology, and being an american tome, it has nothing at all colourful to glean and beglossed for my philological logophilical consumption. I mean, we are dealing with people whom have problems shewing arseholes on cats and ball sacks on dogs, even on drawings. It’s really quite infantile of them and jolly indecent of them to constantly be avoiding what is really there. Kind of like NASA obfuscating civilisation evidence from Mars orbital imagery. Even if they are awake, what they take in has to be dumbed down and out for their comfort and sense of being globally american. These are merely words, some of which are very old (cunt anyone?). It’s not the word (or arsehole, or other complementary oriface) that should have to be censured by them, but the actual context of how it is being used in a given situation.

  24. Seriously. The Frisian/Dutch answer is boring but right. “Fokken” is the term for how animals do it, the equivalent of ‘breeding’ in English. It’s not a big leap.

    • As I said in the post – the word is connected to the Germanic languages, the debate is about WHEN it entered English, and my focus was not on addressing that question in detail, it was on highlighting some early examples in written English which are often overlooked.

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  26. …it’s from Latin futuere. The Romans brought the word wherever they conquered, which in Europe was, well, everywhere. Even the act is called fuctutio.

    • Unfortunately, that won’t be how it arrived in English. If the words are connected, it’ll be through a common root stemming back to Indo-European. The prevalence of cognates in the Germanic languages shows that it’s unlikely to be a later Latin loanword. The focus on this post was not to answer the issue of its etymology, but to look at some fun early instances of the word in English.

      • Of course it didn’t come from Latin straight away, and of course it has a common root with the German ficken, and that probably from Indogerman. Even the bird reference is reinforced in that. It’s just that an article starting with “On the origin of…” tends to lead people to think it’ll be about, well, the origin, which is what etymology is, for words.

  27. F.U.C.K.= Function Utilizing Carnal Knowledge

    • As I alluded to in the first paragraph, there are a lot of acronym origin myths floating about and there’s no logic behind any of them. Acronyms didn’t come into use until about WWII. These acronyms all use modern English words, and, as my post shows, the word was being used much, much earlier than WWII/Modern English.

  28. Dennis Patterson

    Fornicate Unlaful Carnal Knowlege
    British soldiers raped Irish girls, , and when they were on the rampage, ( give an Irish girl something for nothing) , Irish men would spread the word : The FUCKERS Are Comming !

  29. And then there’s this from a friend who is a history professor: “The stocks were a very early form of punishment and humiliation to ‘evil doers’. The offense was posted above their heads, such as thievery, blasphemy, and adultery. Unmarried persons caught having sexual intercourse were labeled with ‘For Use of Carnal Knowledge’. Eventually shortened to FUCK”.

  30. Happy fucking valentines day y’all (tomorrow) :) $teve

  31. Very good article.
    Why is the old Dutch word Fokken (to breed) or even the German Fricken (to fuck) not cited?
    (the Dutch Wrikken : A way of waddling your oar)

    According to this Dutch definition of Fokken http://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/fokken1 (try Google translate), the word Fokken also means ‘to slap/hit’ in old/mid Dutch as well as meaning ‘a sail’, which funnily enough also ‘flaps / slaps’ in the wind.
    The Dutch Fokken has a few suggestive definitions; fokken : to breed, opfokken : to wind someone up, opgefokt : wound up and old Dutch focken : to play with / fool around with.
    In actual fact English and Dutch definitions of their respective words Fuck / Fokken are very similar, also in their uncertainness of origin, in their Scottish / Scandinavian connection and with a certain “Jhan die fockre [1270; CG I, 188]; mnl.”
    It’s a people thing, like the English acronym LOL, is a word in Dutch AND Welsh meaning Fun/Funny/HaHaHa
    If your talking the English language it’s influences come from all around, Frisian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Danish, French, Irish, British and yes even Scottish ….. so they do ………. you see.

    • Thanks for this. It’s not cited because the focus of this blog post is on early instances of ‘fuck’ in English, not on establishing the etymology. Dutch and English share a lot of cognates, and, as I acknowledge at the start of the post, this is one of them.

  32. I was embarrassed to even click on this link but am glad that I overcame this anxiety. Love your insight in the history of words. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Okay..
    I bet 10 to 1 there was a caveman who dropped a wheel shaped rock on his foot and belted out the four letter word everyone is trying to prove came from their country of ancestry.

    It’s so easy to say when pain fills the body…
    It just rolls off the toungue.

  34. I am surprised that none of you seems to have heard of the word, fecundate, which means: to fertilize. When two people decided to do their thing, the man would ” feck ” her, using the slang term for the longer word. As words are wont to be changed by people who attend public schools, and who frequently sleep through English class, if there is one, the word eventually became ” fuck.”
    An example of how phrases are changed by others who did not pay attention, if any of you have read the book, The Right Stuff, the airmen did NOT say: pushing the envelope. The correct term is: pushing the EDGE of the envelope.
    I am glad to have had a chance to clear up these two mistakes. Intelligent people will understand and take heed.

    • I don’t think “feck” BECAME “fuck” after some lengthy interval. Vowels morph very easily, one into another. Ever hear a New Zealander say “six big pigs”? It sound like “sux bug pugs”. Australians from Sydney (“Seednee?”) tend to say “seex beeg peegs”.

  35. The version I heard is that the mnemonic FUCK came from the old English law definition to prove a rape offence ie, Forcible, Unlawful, Carnal Knowledge. These were the three elements of the offence. These days however, force isn’t a necessity in rape as there is rape by trick and of course consent is always an element. I love the F word spoken at the right time and place, but not too frequently as it is in many movies.

  36. Loved reading this, thanks!

  37. When I was abou12 I looked up the word ‘fuck’ in the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary. It meant to plow , i.e. to fuck a field, in Old English.
    Family comes from Latin and means ‘property of the man.’

  38. The F-bomb was first used or should I say scrolled across the Caveman’s wall every time he tried to light a fire and was unsuccessful. It stood for Flick originally as they all tried to flick their Bic. Trouble is they would have to wait a few Millenniums before this fire stick was built. :-}

  39. Entertaining article thanks. Also gives an insight into how urban myths are propagated and that those who claim them do so with such certitude. Additionally it shows how few people read others’ answers before posting their own .
    The stocks explanation was funny; “….until it was eventually shortened to FUCK”. So until then they had been using very long signs above the heads of the unfortunate prisoners?

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  41. its Onomatopoeia

  42. Yeah, but seriously, did you have to use so much profanity in the article?
    .
    .

    ; )

  43. This was very enjoyable, both your work and the comments.

  44. Loved your article, Kate!
    Unfortunately I’ve seen the acronym myth being propagated by a school teacher to her History class. While she certainly engaged their interest, it’s a shame she had to repeat such obvious hokum to do so.

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  46. You had my attention until the last line of your second paragraph.
    “I think the Brasenose fuck was considered the earliest in 1993, and that’s quite out-dated now.”
    Seriously? 1993?

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  50. I cannot believe that I have owned a copy of the OED since December 1998- (Dad: “Sarah, what do you want for Christmas?” Me: “The OED.” Dad: “What’s the OED?” Me: “It’s a four hundred dollar dictionary.” Long pause. Dad: “Are you sure you don’t want, like, clothes? Or a car?” Me: “Yup.”) AND I HAVE NOT LOOKED UP ALL THE DIRTY WORDS YET. Thank you, you have given me a productive activity for the afternoon.

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  53. Richard. Head. aka Dick head

  54. Pingback: A bit of word history | D Gary Grady

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