Statement of the problem
Almost each word in a language possesses different features, is of different origin and needs a throughout analysis. This is the job of linguists and philologists to identify the nature and meaning of words to further widening and completion of English written and oral vocabulary. The F-word is one of such words. Nowadays, the “F-word” (or “fuck”) is considered to be one of the most widespread and, at the same time, one of the most unusual, contradictory and extraordinary words in English language. And it has not only negative and vulgar meaning, as it seems at the first sight and as it is given in a modern world. In particular, this word allows people to express their emotions: enjoyment, joy, hatred, love, ache; they apply it in various spheres: in literature, cinematography and the radio, in medicine, in conversations, in music, etc. Moreover, the F-word forms a lot of derivatives, like, fuck-off, fuck up, fucking, fucker, motherfucker, and each derivative has it own tint, not always negative or insulting.
However, there are still a lot of hot debates over this word among scientists, linguists, researchers, philologists and defendants of morality. The most important argument of moralists is that the F-word is closely connected with sexual relations and sexual revolution, and thus, has a negative influence on young generation and children. Contrary to moralists, scientists try to prove that the word has a lot of other positive meanings and find proofs from ancient and medieval literature with necessary explanations. The government is also concerned with the problem and makes all it can to prohibit or at least to limit the use of “fuck” on TV, radio and in press. Special censorship measures are implemented in mass media and Internet in order to prevent negative influence on growing young generation and stop the widespread of violence. Governments adopt necessary rulings to improve the cultural environment among their citizen; however, not asking other people’s opinions. Everybody seems to be right from his or her own points, but the aim of the paper is to prove the non-offensive and positive nature of the F-word and provide evidence from literature and linguistics that the word can be used in everyday life.
Origin of the F-word
It is not known exactly when the F-word was excluded from the status of ordinary and polite words and acquired the status of vulgarism. Some sources indicate that it was considered polite up to the 17th century in a few English regions, while other sources provide a hypothesis that the vulgar use of the word appeared at the beginning of the 16th century. This way or that, the F-word is closely connected with the peculiarities in cultural and regional dialects and traditions, and thus, the attitude of various peoples to the word meaning is different.
Therefore, it is necessary to find out the origin of the F-word. The earliest mentioning of the F-word occurred in the name of “John Le Fucker” somewhere in the 13th century, but it is unclear why the said person was given such a strange name. Currently, there are several different theories as to the origin of the word “fuck”. One group of scientists considers that the word “fuck” (like many other English words) came into English language approximately in the 15th century either from a low German word “fliechen” which stands for “strike” or “penetrate”1 or from the middle Dutch word “foken” which means to “thrust” or maybe from the Norwegian “fukka” in the meaning of “copulate”. That is, the basis of the word tends to be of sexual orientation. Due to these meanings, the word has been some kind of a taboo for quite a long period of time and people were even afraid of writing it, let alone, to pronounce it in public. According to Jesse Sheidlower, the F-word has been restricted for several centuries, starting from the Middle Ages2.
The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, draws a parallel between the verb “fuck” and the satirical poem in English literature under the name “Flen, Flyys” which makes fun of Carmelite mendicants of Cambridge. The poem itself is both written in Latin and English languages and contains the word fuccant, the mixture of English and Latin. Initially, this word appeared in the form of gxddbov, but was then deciphered by the replacement of each letter in this word with the previous letter.
There is also the F-word in the poem “Brash of Woving” which was written by William Dunbar in 1503, in the following line: ” Yit be his feiris he wald haif fukkit:/Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane”. William Shakespeare tried to avoid the evident use of word “fuck”, but still, he made gentle implications, using this word in some comic situations in his well-known plays, like focative case in The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.i) or firk (in the meaning of strike) in Henry V (IV, iv). One more interesting example with the F-word is the strange name “windfucker” – in this way the bird kestrel was called in the 17th century.
As for English professional widespread dictionaries and encyclopedias, the word “fuck” didn’t occur in any of them within the period of several centuries: from 1795 up to 1972, and only in 1972 the Oxford English Dictionary firstly mentioned the word (together with the word cunt); however, saying nothing definite as to the origin of the F-word: “Early modern English fuck, fuk, answering to a Middle English type *fuken (weak verb) [which is] not found; ulterior etymology unknown, synonymous German ficken cannot be shown to be related”3.
Another group of researchers insists on the acronymic origin of the word and suggests its explanation. They claim that in colonial times prostitutes were accused of with the words: “For unlawful Carnal Knowledge”. As the phrase was too long, the word “fuck” appeared as an abbreviation. Another version for a fuck abbreviation appeared in 1960s and was later published in the newspaper East Village Other. According to this version, the word came from the following phrase: “Found under Carnal Knowledge” and was used to identify soldiers with venereal diseases in British Imperial Army. The acronym F.U.C.K was stamped on the documents of such soldiers. One more variant which is proposed for the abbreviation evidence originates from the times of an ancient England. According to one saying, a person was not allowed to have a sex or baby until he or she didn’t receive permission from the King (unless one was not from the royal family). If the King was not against, he provided a couple with a poster which was put on the door with the words: “Fornication Under Consent of the King”. This was the permission to copulate.
However, the editor of the book “The F-word” Jesse Sheidlower disagrees with this hypothesis, as he is sure that the acronyms were rarely used until 1930s, and that’s why, they can’t have a direct parallel towards the word “fuck”. These are mainly modern inventions that are primarily used among computer programmers and internet fans.
Modern usage of the F-word
Modern use of the F-word is mostly connected with offensive and negative meanings; however, those who apply it do not always mean to be insulting or offensive in any way. For example, it is almost impossible to imagine any sport program on TV without hearing from a football or basketball player the word “fuck” in case he looses the game or misses the ball. It’s just the way he expresses his own emotions. Therefore, the attitude towards the word “fuck” changes a little to the positive effect and its forms widen more and more. Today, the word is used both as transitive (“John fucked Shirley”) and intransitive verb (“Shirley fucks”), as an adverb (“Shirley talks too fucking much”), as a noun (“I don’t give a fuck”), as an adjective (“John’s doing all the fucking work”) and, of course, as an exclamation for expressing emotions. It is obvious that the word becomes very popular and, as an essayist Lance Morrow from Time Magazine claims, “Somehow, the whole sociology of the word has changed”4, that is, the outlook of modern generation changes as well.
As a rule, English-speaking countries tend to censor the word “fuck” either on TV or in press, while other countries do not have such strict rules and do not consider this word as rude and, therefore, they allow the usage of the word in mass media. For example, European radio plays all American songs with the F-word freely and without any limitations and changes. On the contrary, the United States of America put a ban or censorship on mass media and, in particular, on the application of the word. Due to this censorship, the titles of many foreign films that are shown on American screens are interpreted or translated in a different way and this sometimes influence the whole idea of a film.
For instance, the French film Baise-moi, which appeared in the United States in 2002, was translated as Rape me, instead of the initial literal name Fuck me, and the name of the Swedish movie calling Fucking Amal was changed into Show me Love. Special Federal Communications Commission (FCC), operating in the United States, still prohibits and puts fine on radio stations for the use of swear words; however, sometimes they make exceptions. This was just the case with the Golden Globe Award for a group U2 when their member cried, “this is really, really fucking brilliant” upon getting a musical award; it was just an expression of joy and pleasure, and not some violation of law and order in public. As a result, FCC made up its mind to allow the use of “fuck” on TV, if it has no relation to sex and is just an expression of delight. This is how its members explain their decision: “The F-word may be crude and offensive, but, in the context presented here, did not describe sexual or excretory organs or activities….the use of specific words, including expletives or other ‘four-letter words’ does not render material obscene”5. But not everybody agrees with the decision – the so-called Parents Television Council wants to dispute the decision of allowing swear words to appear on TV and radio.
Writers, script writers, poets, playwrights and producers have to change or remove the F-words from their works, too. For instance, in 1948 Norman Mailer had to paraphrase the “fuck” into traditional “fug” in his novel “The Naked and the Dead”. This name was later chosen for a rock group The Fugs. However, modern writers and essayists possess more freedom in expressing what they want and how they want, like, the plays written by John Kuntz and Susan-Lori Parks include the F-word in its various forms in the titles. David Mamet comments the situation in the following way: “In the right hands the word is a powerful intensifier; in the wrong hands, it is simply numbing”6. The first American play with the word “fuck” made by Genesis Productions Worldwide appeared in New York only in autumn of 2004 under the name Sex, Fucking and Making Love. A little earlier (in 1996) a play with an unusual name Shopping and Fucking was shown in London and later in the United States.
Internet developers also take some steps towards the word censorship or limitation. The owners of several web sites put automatic filters which serve to change “fuck” into similar words; for example, Fark.com transforms the word “fuck” into its individual name “fark” or just substitutes the F-word with asterisks. Notwithstanding numerous limitations and bans, the F-word continues to be used very often not only among lower-class workers, but among professional white-collar workers as well. Moreover, a lot of high-class college students tend to apply this word in communication with each other, but they use it quite rarely in conversation with their lecturers and with other people who possess academic degrees.
The frequency of the F-word use also depends on the kind of this or that profession. For example, it will be most ordinary thing if a driver uses some “fuck” word during lunch with his colleagues; instead, a manager will not definitely apply the word in his or her presentation, even if he/she uses it in more common environment7. In this regard, teachers in schools and colleges claim that the word “fuck” becomes so widespread in comparison with the former years that if a student says it in his conversation he will not be punished or accused in any way; similar, other people will leave the room if they hear somebody pronounces or even cries this word. It is, as a rule, some kind of protest of young generation against existing system, against ordinary and usual order of things, against the established customs and traditions. And it does not show that a person who uses the word “fuck” is bad and the one who doesn’t use it is definitely good, things may be different. People can’t be just characterized by the words they use, as it is only one side of the coin.
At the same time, nowadays the use of the F-word is considered almost a normal phenomenon for a well-known politician and it may have a damaging effect only in case the politician expresses some racial disregard – this may even spoil his career and his personal life as well. During the recent interview of the correspondent from Rolling Stone Magazine with the democrat John F. Kerry, the latter couldn’t avoid mentioning the word “fuck”, while criticizing President Bush’s acts towards Iraq.
Further, Kerry was asked by the White House to make apologies; however, he refused to do so. As a result, the New Yorker accepted this refusal as some kind of permission to act and started putting this F-word on its pages. One more political case took place in June 2004 when Vice President Dick Cheney during his conversation with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said: “…go fuck himself” and that was commented like a mutual interchange of thoughts and ideas, and in no way as offence or rage.
In addition, in 1971 the Supreme Court of the United States of America made the conclusion that, according to the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the USA Constitution, Americans had an absolute right to publicly say “fuck” and it shouldn’t be considered as criminal behavior and wouldn’t lead to arrest. This is the promised freedom for every citizen, independently of age, race or a person’s outlook. So, this shows that sometimes swear words do not mean that a person is not educated or poorly brought up, it is just how people live and communicate with each other, the way they express their thoughts.
Use of the F-word in literature
The word “fuck” is applied in literature mostly in various phrases which have quite different meanings. And therefore, attitudes towards swear words, and, in particular, towards the F-word, are different. The meaning of “fuck” may even change, according to its place in the sentence, and thus be transformed from a negative into positive tint. For instance, book Practical English Usage provides two different examples that support this idea:
– What are you doing fucking in my bed?
– What are you fucking doing in my bed?
The first sentence expresses the notion that somebody conducts an act of copulation, while the second one means just a person’s irritation or anger that someone is lying on his or her bed without his or her allowance. Of course, it is clear that the second sentence is used more often that the first one and has a more traditional conversational style8.
There are not many contemporary writers and scientists who consider the word “fuck” as a positive one and who are ready to study it in detail. The work of a well-known writer and editor Jessy Sheidlower “The F-word” is very useful and reveals the whole nature of the F-word and its derivatives and phrases, like mother-fucker, bearfuck, ass-fuck, buddy-fuck. Moreover, it gives a lot of examples from literature which are written by famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Burns, Anne Sexton, E.E.Cummings, etc. Writing this highly-specialized book, Jesse Sheidlower wants to pay attention to the fact that deeds but not particular words influence the spread of violence.
“The F-word” is considered to be the most throughout and complete educational collection for the word “fuck”, some kind of ABC for those who are interested in languages, and, in particular, in the F-word. It starts from the 15th century use and up to modern application of the F-word, including the use of the word in such countries as Australia and Ireland. The editor is sure that the word has been an integral part of English language for about several centuries and that a lot of people show a great interest in its further learning. Unfortunately, Jesse Sheidlower claims that “fuck” losses more and more power and significance since its first use in the 15th century. In this regard, he tries to renew the word’s former meaning and show positive sides of “fuck”, providing necessary evidence for that.
Here are just some examples with sentences from this superb book For instance, the noun ass-fuck has two meanings: 1. An act of anal copulation (“I want to give you a tremendous ass fuck” – 1976 Johnson Oriental Festival 136) and 2. An instance of cruel victimization (“No way he was gonna take this ass-fuck forever” 1977 Shrader Blue Collar 14)9. There is quite an interesting meaning of the word “bearfuck” – which is applied in military sphere and stands for “a confused or chaotic undertaking” – (” The Mission turned out to be another disappointing bearfuck” – 1983 K.Miller Lurp Dog 92)10.
One more example, with the verb “buddy-fuck” which means to deliberately impose upon or betray (a close friend): (“Buddy fucker, play. Take someone else’s date away. Buddy-fuck. Take someone else’s date away” – 1968 Baker et al. Col. Undergrad. Slang Survey 89) or (“Wash your mouth out…buddyfucker” – 1985 Tate Bravo Burning 161)11.
Contrary to Mr. Sheidlower, James O’Connor has quite an opposite opinion, concerning the use of the F-word. He insists on the fact that people’s language reflects their self-beings and their inner souls; and the use of offensive, bad and swear words will negatively influence human beings’ life and especially their thoughts and deeds. He claims that people think that “they are just words.’ But it’s much deeper than that. Too often, the words are hostile, sour sounding, belligerent and threatening. There are a lot of negative thoughts, expressions and attitudes behind the words”12. According to O’Connor, a lot of educated people still take the word “fuck” as one of the most insulting swear words, and he is surprised that one can hear the word even in such elite places as restaurants, museums and exhibitions.
Mr. O’Connor adds that modern people begin to forget etiquette, that they use more common methods of communications and don’t like to use Mr or Ms these days. This is because there is a lot of freedom and that’s why people think that they can do and say whatever they want. Here, is what Mr. David McGowan – the author of Understanding the F-word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion – thinks about this: “The current political system in place in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century is fascism. Of course we don’t call it that. We like to call it democracy, but it looks an awful lot like fascism”13. That means that McGowan compares the word fascism with the F-word and points out that it causes the same shocking effect as the F-word saying in public by a well-educated person.
Remember, the despair of the boy Holden Caulfield – the hero of the novel The Catcher in the Rye when he saw the word “fuck” on the wall and he made the conclusion that it was impossible to be innocent in the world people live in.
Mr. O’Connor also considers that only lazy human beings replace usual words with swear words as they do not want to explain something or be specific. At the same time, Jesse Sheidlower disagrees with James O’Connor, claiming that “sometimes, you can’t be specific or don’t want to be and there is nothing wrong with using vague words. If someone says he feels s….., it’s possible the person just doesn’t feel very good. If they say lousy or bad, they are not more specific”14. That is, Mr. Sheidlower is sure that swear words are more expressive and specific and can reflect different moods and emotions of people. It is necessary for everybody to understand when and where to use this or that word.
In summary, the use of the F-word causes a lot of controversial debates and arguments among various social groups. Some people apply it in everyday life to express their emotions and moods; others oppose to its use and dispute against the growing power of the word, forgetting about its secondary and literary use. They ignore the fact that this word is an integral part of English language, a part of their culture, of their history and thus, is a part of their life. It is easy to criticize something or somebody, but it is much more difficult to find a positive side, to convert impolite and offensive into a polite form, in other words, to find other aspects of the F-word usage and apply them. The words are just words, acts and deeds of people are important; a person is charged by his deeds and not by his words. A lot of bad and awful things can be made without using swear words, and opposite, using swear words does not make people bad or malice.
It is the task of scientists and linguists to find out and prove that the F-word may have numerous different meanings and that it can be used in various spheres in a positive sense or in expressing emotions or as a substitute for other words. In any case, the F-word is more expressive in both written and oral speech and therefore, needs to be widely applied, taking into account the circumstances and environment of human beings in order to avoid bad influence or consequences that the word may have, especially on young generation.
1 Online Dictionary Com, 05 Mar. 2005
2 Jesse Sheidlower, The F-Word (2nd ed. Random House, 1995) xx-xxi.
3 James Murray, ed. The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884-1928).
4 Don Aucoin, “The Big One”, Globe Staff, 02 Dec. 2004, 06 Mar. 2005
5 “FCC Clears Bono’s Golden Globes F-Bomb”, 07 Oct. 2004, 06 Mar. 2005
7 Wikipedia encyclopedia, 06 Mar. 2005 <http://enwikipedia.org/wiki/Fuck>
9 Sheidlower 48.
10 Ibid 50.
11 Ibid 51.
12 Ellen Tomson, “Tame your tongue”, Knight Ridder Newspapers, 06 Mar. 2005
13 David McGowan, Understanding the F-word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion (Writers Club Press, 2001) 34.
14 Sheidlower xx.
Aucoin, D. “The Big One”, Globe Staff, 02 Dec. 2004, 06 Mar. 2005
“FCC Clears Bono’s Golden Globes F-Bomb”, 07 Oct. 2004, 06 Mar. 2005
Online Dictionary Com, 05 Mar. 2005
McGowan, D. Understanding the F-word: American Fascism and the Politics of Illusion. Writers Club Press, 2001.
Murray, J., ed. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884-1928.
Sheidlower, J. The F-Word. 2nd ed. Random House, 1995.
Tomson, E. “Tame your tongue”, Knight Ridder Newspapers, 06 Mar. 2005
Wikipedia encyclopedia, 06 Mar. 2005 <http://enwikipedia.org/wiki/Fuck>