The Filth and the Fury

Need a guide to vocabulary in the focative case? Scott McLemee looks at the definitive study of "the F word."

October 7, 2009

Apart from his preoccupation with race, class, and gender -- not to mention his interest in both cross-dressing and cannibalism -- the worst thing about William Shakespeare is, of course, his language. He coined the expression "the beast with two backs." Hamlet refers to the "country matters" that "lie between maids' legs." Characters in another play make penis jokes about how a certain word should be understood as a noun in "the focative case" -- thereby sneaking in a pun on a word that the Federal Communication Commission fines you for using.

I can't believe they teach this trash in schools. It's time for Fox News to do an expose.

And while they're at it, perhaps it is time to investigate another scandal: Oxford University Press (no less!) has just issued the new edition of The F Word, by Jesse Sheidlower, an editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary. Random House published the first version of his study in 1995. But the word itself has only grown in its range of nuances in the meantime. It is often heard in punk rock and gangster rap, and has in recent years enlivened the discourse of the executive branch of the United States government.

The latest edition adds more than 100 variations on the word to its lexicon, draws on a variety of digital databases, and incorporates examples of usage from New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere. Terms once identified as belonging to one part of speech are analyzed in their full range of usages; "fugly," for example, is now treated as both noun and adjective. The nuances of words are now more finely parsed. While previous editions defined "fuckfaced" as meaning "ugly," it can also mean "tired" or "drunk." The military and civilian usages of "clusterfuck," whether as noun or verb, are cataloged.

Sheidlower's introduction undertakes a swift and no-nonsense debunking of some common myths about the word. It is not the acronym of "for unlawful carnal knowledge" (let alone the preposterously stilted "fornication under consent of the King"). More surprising to learn is that it isn't really an Anglo-Saxon word either, as it's usually called. The first known appearance in English is around 1475; its ancestry appears to be Germanic.

This is vulgarity at its most erudite, and vice versa. Although Sheidlower indicates he chose some illustrative quotations because he found them humorous, The F Word itself is a sober piece of scholarship. I asked the lexicographer a few questions about his project by e-mail; a transcript of the interview follows.

Q: This is the third edition of your book, and by far the most extensive. How did you come to make studying the word your life's work?

A: I think that all words are interesting, but especially slang terms, because slang is an area that had been ignored or treated with active hostility by academics for quite some time. Thus, there's still a lot of work to do on slang.

My specific interest in this word came about mostly by chance. I had been working on the Historical Dictionary of American Slang at Random House, and suggested in an editorial meeting that we publish the fuck material separately, for ease of access to what would be one of the most-looked-up words in the book, and this suggestion was taken up with an enthusiasm that surprised me. And that's how it all started.

Q:The word appears in an Italian-to-English in dictionary in 1598 and returns in a guide to English etymology (written in Latin) in 1671. It pops up in other reference works over the following century -- then, after 1775, disappears from general dictionaries entirely for 170 years. How do you understand this deliberate lexicographic blind spot? Was it something that applied to most "swear words" or "vulgarities"? Or was it singled out for repression?

A: No, it was words of this kind in general. The same thing that made the Victorian era so (publicly, if not actually) repressive affected the view of the language as well.

In the Introduction I quote from a legal decision in the 1840s where the judge specifically notes that despite being absent from dictionaries, the word fuck was in common use, so we shouldn't use lexicographers' modesty as a guideline. In the 1890s, a printer refused to publish a volume of a (privately printed) slang dictionary because of its obscene content, and when the dictionary's author took the printer to court for breach of contract, the printer won the moment the jury saw what it was he didn't want to print. A few examples like that are all we need to see to learn about the kind of pressures that existed at the time.

Q:You document an wide range of uses of the word -- including scores of idioms, numerous cognates, a lot of abbreviations (the most famous being SNAFU), and several ways to write it down without quite violating the prohibition, such as "fug" or "f****" or even "XXXX." The variety is astounding. At the same time, the connotation of any given use tends to be hostile or aggressive, as often as it is sexual. How deep is that association? Did the word start out with that overtone, or did it acquire its hostile edge at some point along the way?

A: As far as we can tell, it's relatively recent. For the first several centuries, sexual uses were the only thing we had. Uses such as 'to harm; victimize' and 'to cheat or trick' aren't found until the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries respectively, and these are very rare until the twentieth. With that said, the association of hostility or aggression with sex is not a new development.

Q:T his is the first reference book I've ever seen to cite Usenet as documentation. Would you say a bit about the value -- and the pitfalls -- of using digital resources for this project.

A: People often think that having access to big databases makes it easier to do research. Quite the contrary -- it makes the result better, but if very often makes it much harder. Instead of getting a moderate amount of evidence, that you are able to handle, you get a vast amount of evidence that you have to struggle to process. And if you ignore it, someone else won't.

So you do end up with a much more thorough and comprehensive project, but at the cost of enormous time. There were several simple, one-sense entries that I started to work on thinking that I'd be done in ten minutes, and ended up hours later with a greatly expanded multi-sense entry.

It is, of course, great that all of this is available. And it's a great democratizer -- everyone at a university will have access to the same range of electronic resources, and that's wonderful. But it makes your job as a scholar more difficult when you know that anyone can find something that you missed. That's true for the Internet as a whole, not just in relation to language research.

Q: Last month, a guest on "Saturday Night Live" used the word by accident; she meant to say "freaking," it seems, but the uneuphemized version came out. Around the same time, the anchorman for a New York television station used the curious expression "keep fucking that chicken" while on the air. These incidents would have been a big deal, once upon a time. Now they barely register on public awareness. Do you think the word will ever be just ... a word?

A: I think it's unlikely that fuck will lose all of its power at any point in the foreseeable future. After all, even relatively mild expressions ("darn!" or "bastard," say) still maintain a certain amount of colloquial force. And because fuck is still viewed as the most extreme general word there is, its use on TV will continue to be surprising. So while I do think that the progression we've seen in the last 40 or so years in particular will keep going -- i.e. that it will become ever more acceptable -- it will be a very long time, if ever, before it's just a word.


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