A Few Hundred Words About Fuck

07 Aug

I used to have a book about fuck and its variants, as well as archaic words that meant the same thing but which now mean something else entirely or have fallen into disuse. It described “swive” as the female version of fuck, but for any number of possible reasons, it has been lost to history. It’s tempting to attribute it to the attitude that women should not take an active role in sex, but I think it’s probably more likely that “fuck,” with its hard sounds at either end, was more aggressive and so more satisfying as a cuss word.

The book, whose title is lost to some neuron playing hide-and-seek, suggested the possibility that the etymological origin of “fuck” may have something to do with early warfare involving bows and arrows made from the wood of the yew tree. The strings on the bows were plucked with the middle finger, and the men who used bows and arrows in battle were said to have approached their victims with their middle fingers extended, yelling “pluck yew.” As I recall, there was no evidence to support this claim, so while I’m willing to recount this story as an example of how colorful people’s imaginations can get when discussing unknown etymologies, I’m not willing to say that it’s anything more than imagination.

I also saw a sort of documentary called “Fuck,” available on netflix as “The F-Bomb,” but it was more entertaining than informative. Several people, including some famous comedians, tried to say that “fuck” stood for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or “Fornication Under Consent of the King.” Cute, but not likely. There was no evidence to support either as the source for “fuck.” The filmmakers acknowledge that, but spend an inordinate amount of time on it. It’s not that entertaining, and its informative value is almost nonexistent.

As for modern usage, “fuck” (and its variants) has become one of the most versatile words in the English language. I won’t go into its many uses, as I’m sure anyone even vaguely familiar with the word is aware of them.

I wrote the other day about my personal distaste for the use of the names of body parts as insults. I also mentioned in comments that I didn’t have a problem with fuck because it names an action and not a body part. I’m not satisfied with my own position.

It took me a long time to overcome my religious upbringing, and doing so involved, among many other things, the ability to say without embarrassment what religious people call dirty words. It surprises me to this day that people are still stunned to hear me say “fuck.” I don’t swear often. But at this stage in my life, I’m not going to revert to saying “you know” when I mean “fuck.” And if I think something is “fucking brilliant,” I’m going to say so, because “very” just doesn’t cut it as a modifier of “brilliant.”

I rarely say “fuck you,” and when I do, it’s usually to politicians on television saying stupid shit. Sometimes I say it to pundits on television saying stupid shit. I’m sure in the past I’ve written it to someone online, but I don’t recall whom or when (or under which pseudonym). I don’t recall saying it to anyone’s face, but I have thought it plenty. On at least one occasion, I was the very model of restraint in not saying it, but that was then.

I am aware that there are different cultural norms for the use of offensive language. I know that the words for certain body parts don’t carry the same weight in Australia or Scotland that they do in the United States. I live in the US, so that’s my cultural context. I also know that norms vary within countries, and people in the US vary widely in the ease with which they are offended by language. I’m not going to refrain from using foul language just because someone somewhere might get offended. Foul language enriches our ability to express ourselves fully and accurately.

Expressing ourselves fully and accurately does not include begging off the offensiveness of foul language or denying its etymology when someone is offended by its use, especially if its use is directed at them. By the same token, no one has the right not to be offended. It’s a balancing act that I doubt anyone has completely mastered.

As a (currently would-be) writer, I face a dilemma with fuck and its friends every time I write fiction. I have rules for how I use language, but I have to be willing to write characters who use language differently than I do. I don’t call people cunts, but I have to allow for the possibility that a character I write might. I have to decide if that person belongs to a culture that allows for it, or if that person is a sexist shit, or both. Or neither.

If, or more likely when, it happens that I write a character with no apparent limitations on the use of dirty words, I will likely have to rethink my position on my own use. That sort of thing happens from time to time. For now, I think my judgment regarding language use is fair.

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Posted by on August 7, 2011 in language


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