By Chris Rhyss
Sigmund Freud suggested that civilization was founded the first time a man hurled an insult instead of a stone, implying that mankind ascended its Neanderthaloid roots the day we recognised the benefits of wielding words as weapons rather than the weapons themselves. The age of verbal warfare had begun, and one of the most persistent weapons in the war is a four letter word that is appearing with increasing regularity on television, in music and in print, and on the lips of everyday people throughout the world.
Back in less politically correct times words were the weapon of choice in enlightened circles. Insults became an art form, rather than a form of invective. Within the upper classes of society, the ability to publicly use insults when engaging in verbal warfare with ones opposer was celebrated, so much so that our history books are littered with the accounts of politicians, philosophers and royalty using words as weapons.
As far back as the late 1400’s, Martin Luther chose to publicly describe Henry VIII as “a pig, an ass, a dunghill and a lying buffoon.” A century later Peter Wentworth, a Member of Parliament, referred to Mary, Queen of Scots as “the most notorious whore in all the world.” Even the less bold, those who didn’t dare decry a fellow statesman’s hygiene or sexual promiscuity for fear of being branded a heretic, had weapons to employ, choosing to use less offensive and punishable pejorative labels like blockhead and numbskull.
But history has proven the maxim that what was once heresy becomes commonplace. Words that were once rude and offensive soon lost their venom after entering the wider lexicon, to be replaced with more contemporary words. However one word predates the once popular insults of blockhead (circa. 1549) and numbskull (circa. 1697), the famous f word. It first appeared in a poem titled “Flen flyys” (circa. 1475) as a verb to describe sexual intercourse, but it wasn’t long before the word began to be used less literally and started being used as an insult.
The f word was absent from Robert Cawdrey’s 2,500 word dictionary Table Alphabeticall when it was published in 1604, an absence caused by the word being deemed too vulgar for inclusion. But when it became more widely used within society – even Shakespeare used it, wittily including the euphemism firk in Henry V – it was formalised, appearing in John Ash’s A New and Complete Dictionary along with the c word when it was published in 1775.
But it’s only in the past century that society has witnessed the growing popularity of the f word, for whereas the c word is still taboo, the f word is now become paradoxically recognised as offensive in social contexts but also ‘palatable’ in informal and domestic situations.
Just how this has occurred is open to debate; has the f word gained acceptance through the influence of public personalities, its ability to be used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and interjection, or for more esoteric reasons? Filmmaker Steve Anderson tried to answer the question of the words popularity in his 2005 documentary F*CK.
The documentary provides some relevant history and etymology of the f word, revealing facts like the word probably originated from the Germanic word flicken, and that popular urban-legends suggesting the f word is a backronym for phrases like “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” are false. There’s even some reference to how the word is currently at the centre of the debate on Free Speech in the U.S. which is interesting food for thought.
Politically and legally speaking, the f word has been recognised as a part of today’s world since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1970’s that it was protected under the First Amendment. Additionally, the word was further legitimised in the 1980’s by the FCC when they instituted federally recognised policy to regulate it. This institutionalisation of the word by the federal government may be the closest thing to an answer as to why the word is so popular today. Could it be that the government is in some way responsible for its success?
Very few books or movies, including F*CK, are available to answer why the word has become an almost permanent part of the wider lexicon, and even though we may not be able to answer how it became so popular, there’s no denying the popularity of the word in all walks of life. It’s a word that transcends cultures, education, languages and even wealth.
The one thing we know about the f word is that the word that once caused people to blush now barely makes us blink. It’s the paradoxical word of the century; it’s lost its power in some circles – where it has been reduced to life as a general expletive or intensifier – whilst remaining a taboo word in others. So irrespective of whether you like it, love it or loathe it, unlike some cultural memes that pass through the mainstream vocabulary very swiftly, there’s no doubt the longest running, most persistent vulgarity in the English language is here to stay.