This might be outside what you usually write about, but internet searching is giving me mixed results, so I thought I’d turn this question to you. What is the origin of the word fuck? Growing up I heard it was an acronym for “Fornication Under Consent of the King” and it had to do with marriage licenses in the feudal age or something. My roommate says she heard it was “For Use of Carnal Knowledge” and it was either that you had the official OK to bang or that you were being punished publicly because you had some sex you weren’t supposed to have, or something like that. My boyfriend says it’s neither of those and not even an acronym at all. What’s the truth?
You’re right that this is a little outside my typical topics, but it’s your boyfriend who is right about the etymology. Fortunately, I’m horny for research and happen to be the daughter of an English professor so I’m happy to tackle this query.
Let’s start with the most glaring hole in the stories you and your roommate heard, both which say fuck was an acronym from Ye Olden Times. Acronyms- pronounceable words created out of the initials or major parts of a compound term- weren’t really a thing before the 20th century, so neither of those pseudo-historical tales hold water. Same applies to the fable about fuck about standing for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” which was used as the name for the 9th studio album by Van Halen. The earliest known use of an acronym in print was 1844, and the word acronym itself didn’t come into use for another century.
There are plenty of apocryphal origins shared around fuck, so you’re not alone in having heard those stories. Another popular one links the use of “fuck you” and the middle finger gesture to a war between the French and British in 1415. The story claims the French were going to cut off the middle fingers of all British soldiers they captured, making it impossible for them to use their longbows in battle in the future. According to the tale, the French lost and the Brits mocked them by holding up the notorious middle digit- or in some versions both the index and middle- while chanting “pluck yew,” mockingly demonstrating that they were able to still use their bows. Something something history something something “pluck” became “fuck.” Regardless, the story is malarkey.
The actual origins of fuck are murky; they’re complex enough to warrant an entire episode of a docuseries hosted by Nicholas Cage. Most likely, it’s a Middle Dutch word mixed with old Swedish and Norwegian dialects that means “thrust” or “copulate.” Possibly it was an inoffensive Germanic word that was made naughty when the Normans overtook the Angles. Or maybe it’s Indo-European.
One researcher thinks he found the earliest use of the word with a sexual connotation it in a court plea roll written in 1310 in reference to a man named Roger Fuckebythenavele, which is, you have to admit, one fucking hell of a name.
Our modern usage of fuck has been steady since the 19th century and boy howdy does it have versatility. It can be used as nearly every part of speech and can convey such an incredibly wide range of concepts: having sex (“we fucked”), screwing someone over financially (“I’m getting fucked by these property taxes”), as a means of emphasis (“holy fuck!”) or to convey one’s level of concern about something (“I give zero fucks”). It’s a word that is both extremely common and yet manages to be powerfully offensive. Until we had a walking trashcan as a President whose routine use of curse words made reporting the news complicated, the FCC would fine a TV station tens of thousands of dollars for broadcasting an F Bomb.
Interestingly, fuck barely registers compared to some other curse words, depending on whom you ask. Take, for instance, cunt. It’s ok, I can say it- I have one. While the origin of the word vagina is decidedly male-centric (it was Latin for “sheath,” as in where one stashes one’s sword), cunt has a far more feminist origins and just directly refers to female genitalia.
Some researchers say cunt comes from the Hindu goddess Kunti, whose beauty and tales of decidedly feminine power were detailed in the Mahābhārata. Like fuck, it made its way into Old Norse dialects and eventually surfaces in English in the 13th century. In 1478, cunt makes an appearance in the Canterbury Tales, though euphemistically, as “queynte,”which also meant “clever device.” The word took on an abusive, negative tone in the modern era especially in the United States, likely reflecting the implicit misogyny and sex negativism of the culture.
Some more saucy terms with fun origins are related to oral sex. In the Victorian era, the word “bagpipe” was used to refer to fellatio- but it was considered far too obscene to be printed, even in books that were about vulgar words. Later the Victorians adopted the term gamahuche, which they apparently found less distasteful since it was French. It was also more inclusive, because it meant “mouth on genitals.” Another fairly gender-neutral phrase “giving head” first was popularized in the 1950s by rock musicians like Lou Reed, which has since morphed into giving brain, lettuce, and a zillion other euphemisms.
Blow and blow job took on more salacious meanings only in the 1960s, although sex workers might have used it as early as the 1930s. A more obscure but very delightful phrase, “tipping the velvet,” was first used in the 18th century to refer to tongue kissing, but then evolved to refer to cunnilingus. Personally, I’m hoping that one makes a big…. comeback.