Tag Archives: middle english

On the Origins of Fuck Part 2: But what about the D?

Last week I got to visit the manuscript that started it all. The one with the brilliant little note in the margin insulting some unpopular cleric with one of the earliest recorded instances of the word fuck:

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Brasenose College MS 7, f.62v [photo mine, with thanks to Brasenose College, Oxford and Llewelyn Morgan]

What this picture shows is one full page of a fifteenth-century manuscript. The two main columns are a section of Cicero’s De Officiis – a moral treatise on good behaviour – which was the second-most frequently copied text of the Middle Ages. And at the bottom of these two columns someone has come along and written the following:

1.  false are the works wich this Abbot writ in the abbie of Osney alias Godstow 1528
2.  O d fuckin Abbot

This handwriting is found on several pages throughout the manuscript and, very unusually, it gives us a date – 1528 – so we know exactly when it was added.

Writing notes on manuscripts was common practice. Manuscripts weren’t viewed as they are now, and they weren’t equivalent to our modern books. We see a printed book as a complete object; to write on it is to defile it. Medieval manuscripts, despite being rarer than our mass-produced books and MUCH more expensive, were constantly added to, first by editors and correctors, then by later readers or students. In fact, this was a practice which continued for centuries, as described in this excellent post about Mr Bennet’s library. 

On this manuscript there are actually two layers of annotations: the handwriting shown here, and the work of a second, much more prolific person, who wrote all over it, clearly engaging very closely with the main text.

But to get back to the fuckin Abbot.

The first line tells us something about the possible identity of the abbot: the Abbot of Osney in Oxford in 1528 was John Burton and, as it happens, he wasn’t a particularly popular abbot.

At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet). 

‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE D?’ I hear you cry.

 close up

The only mention of it that I’ve found suggests that it’s an abbreviation of damned or damn, as in, ‘O damned fuckin Abbot’.* This isn’t an unreasonable thought: as I discussed in an earlier post, medieval scribes loved abbreviating. They loved it more than they loved doodling in margins and sharpening their quills.

However, when they abbreviated they typically added a mark – a dash, or a squiggle – to show that something had been missed off. Not always, but enough that the absence of such a mark here is unusual.

But how likely was it that damn would be used then?

Unlike the so-called Anglo-Saxon four-letter swearwords, the gritty, grubby nasty ones which we like to imagine hark back to a harsh medieval life, damn is originally from Latin, and came into English via French. In Latin, damnāre meant ‘to inflict damage upon something’ or ‘to condemn to punishment’.

When damn arrived in English, some time before the fourteenth century, it had a <p> in it, as you can see in these two examples:

‘For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede’ (For had God commanded maidenhood, then he had damned marriage with the act (of consummation)). Chaucer, The Wife of Bath (c.1386).

‘He wolde pray god for hym that he myght knowe whether she was dampned or saued’. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England (1484). 

There are a few theories to explain the appearance of <p> in damn and in words like it (although I should note here that as damn arrived in English from Old French dampner it’s not, strictly speaking, exactly the same).

In Latin, Old French, and Middle English the second syllable of damn when declined was still pronounced (e.g. ‘dam-NED’). The addition of that syllable changes the way the ‘-mn-’ is pronounced. Now, the ‘n’ is silent, but in Middle English it was pronounced.

This consonant cluster falls at a tricky point in the syllable break between making an /m/ with your lips and an /n/ with your tongue on your alveolar ridge (the hard bit behind your upper teeth and before your palate), where you need to coordinate the switch between the two. The mouth’s way of getting around this is to insert a ‘transitional sound’ between them (this is officially called stop epenthesis). In the case of /-mn-/, a /p/ is produced because, like /m/, it has bilabial articulation (both lips). In English this <p> is first seen written down in the thirteenth century, particularly in the West Midlands, and when damn arrived from French it fit in quite nicely with the existing pronunciations.** The <p> was even included in damn when it wasn’t declined. In 1400, ‘I damp þe’ was ‘I damn you’.

You can see this process at work in words like dreamt or empty, where the mouth has to make a /p/ in the process of going from /m/ to /t/. Both dreamt and empty gained a <p> in their spellings in Middle English, but empty is the only word to still have it preserved in its modern spelling. It’s quite a nice fossil.***

Damn started out as a verb, to damn, and over the centuries it has become more versatile, doing all kinds of damn things, like:

becoming an adjective in the fourteenth century (appearing later in, for example, ‘Out damned spot’),
a noun by the seventeenth century (e.g. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘),
and an interjection (‘Damn!’).

Then, as today, to damn had two main meanings: the first is to imply damnation, to suggest that someone is condemned to Hell. The second is a profane intensifier much like very, as in, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! (it performs the same function as a slightly swearier very (‘YOU VERY DIRTY APE!’). By the 1500s, the date of the tricky D, this second meaning was definitely in use and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see it in this manuscript.

I just don’t think it was.

Instead, I think this is a mistake, or a false start. You can see in the picture that the ‘d’ is smudged but nothing else is. There are no other smudges on any of the other things written by that person and the letters around it aren’t smudged. I think that this was a half-hearted attempt to rub out the D which may have been an intended damn, or some other word.****

Normally a scribe will correct a mistake by scraping the vellum (animal skin) with the point of a knife. It leaves that spot a bit roughed up, but you can write over it and, if you don’t look too closely, no-one will ever know. Here, for whatever reason, the Sweary Scribbler hasn’t fully erased the mistake. Maybe because there wasn’t a knife-point to hand, or maybe because it’s time-consuming and delicate work and this isn’t formal writing meant to be presented neatly, it’s just a note.

I’m not saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it’s unlikely.

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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:

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.

EDIT [15th Sept 2015]: Roger Fuckebythenavele (1310) A new discovery! I spoke to Vox about it here.

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.


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.

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