The Very First Written Use of the F Word in English (1528)

F-wordfirstusage

English speakers enjoy what seems like an unmatched curiosity about the origins and historical usages of their language’s curses. The exceedingly popular “F word” has accreted an especially wide body of textual investigation, wide-eyed speculation, and implausible folk etymology. (One of the term’s well-known if spurious creation myths even has a Van Halen album named after it.) “The history begins in murky circumstances,” says the Oxford English Dictionary‘s site, and that dictionary of dictionaries has managed to place the word’s earliest print appearance in the early sixteenth century, albeit written “in code” and “in a mixed Latin-and-English context.” Above, you can see one of the few concrete pieces of information we have on the matter: the first definitive use of the F word in “the English adjectival form, which implies use of the verb.”

Here the word appears (for the first time if not the last) noted down by hand in the margins of a proper text, in this case Cicero’s De Officiis. “It’s a monk expressing his displeasure at an abbot,” writes Katharine Trendacosta at i09. “In the margins of a guide to moral conduct. Because of course.” She quotes Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, as declaring it “difficult to know” whether this marginalia-making monk meant the word literally, to accuse this abbott of “questionable monastic morals,” or whether he used it “as an intensifier, to convey his extreme dismay.” Either way, it holds a great deal of value for scholars of language, given, as the OED puts it, “the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century” and the “quotation difficulties” that causes. If you find nothing to like in the F word’s ever-increasing prevalence in the media, think of it this way: at least future lexicographers of swearing will have more to go on.

via io9

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.


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  1. Greg Bellucci says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 8:40 am

    Who cares?

  2. LeAnn Shultz says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 8:56 am

    When he was in high school my brother did research on the progression of the English language for his senior research paper. During his searching he found the letters “f. u. c. k.” in court documents from colonial times and they were used as an acronym for “fornicating under carnal knowledge.” I love history!

  3. Fred Herbert says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 8:59 am

    Greg,

    Why are you reading a cultural studies website?

  4. Greg McDonald says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 9:35 am

    For several decades, I have been under the impression f*ck was an original Angles (German) word. There is no attempt here to address the question of origin. Interesting but disappointing.

  5. Howard Bowman says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 9:57 am

    ‘Nothing’s either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
    So why would one write: “the f word” when one would say “fuck” – a word said so often to mean so many things that there’s no shock value.
    I mean: who the fuck cares?

  6. simone gad says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 10:03 am

    i love history too. and fuck is a very descriptive word-can be used in all kinds of situations. it was my first english word that i learned in boyle heights as a very young child newly from europe, my native language being french. and i found it to be the perfect word for how i was feeling at that moment-very upset.

  7. Linda says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 10:44 am

    LeAnn, the use of acronyms as words is primarily a twentieth century phenomenon. People in colonial times weren’t in such a hurry that they needed to use acronyms. Nor were they motivated by expensive calling plans to shorten the words in their text messages. Plus, the ability to read or spell was not a given, so acronyms would have been lost on most people. Perhaps your brother would have done well to use sources other than 80’s arena rock hair-band albums for his “research.”

  8. Rene says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 2:22 pm

    Ever heard of Geoffrey Chaucer?

  9. Jay New says . . . | February 11, 2014 / 3:00 pm

    Why is “fucking abbot” written so differently from the rest of the text??

  10. dusty says . . . | February 12, 2014 / 7:18 am

    the wire did a complete scene where the only word was the f word, said in many ways without any other words, classic…

  11. Daibhid C says . . . | February 12, 2014 / 10:35 am

    Jay –

    It’s marginalia. The church provided this monk with a copy of Cicero; he wrote his opinion of the abbot on it.

  12. Jan says . . . | February 12, 2014 / 4:54 pm

    English and Dutch are two closely related -but slightly different- languages. I wonder if the origin of the f-word in English has to do with the meaning of the dutch word “fokken” (breeding of animals. Anecdote:

    Joseph Luns, Dutch minister of foreign affairs, once tried to tell John F. Kennedy he bred horses as a hobby. It came out as “I fok horses”.

    Kennedy then replied “Pardon?”, to which Luns responded “Yes, paarden!” (Dutch for horses.)

  13. Edward says . . . | February 20, 2014 / 1:51 pm

    Shock value is only part of the effectiveness, and fun, of swearing. There is still a meaning that is, or at least was, out of the ordinary. It’s like saying “those”. No wait I mean, “Fuck those”.

    As long as it is defined as a bad word. It will be. Unless someone changes the definition of bad that is.

  14. Trickster says . . . | May 19, 2014 / 4:20 pm

    Ya know Aziraphale has the original of that book

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