Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV Part II, Act IV, Scene IV, “’Tis needful that the most immodest word / Be looked upon and learned” (Sheidlower). Centuries later, this is still true. The main subject of this essay is not the ‘f-word’, the ‘f-bomb’, ‘f***’, or any other euphemism, but rather the word fuck. Fuck is one of the most taboo words in the English language. Furthermore, fuck is arguably “the most important and powerful word in the English language,” according to the comedian Lewis Black (Sheidlower). In this essay, the nature of taboos will be explored specifically through the word fuck.
Taboo words usually arise because of their register, association, or connotation (Blake). Sigmund Freud believed that taboo reflected two meanings: (1) something that is “sacred or consecrated,” or (2) something that is “impure, prohibited, dangerous, and disgusting” (Fairman). In many cases, taboo words originate from taboo acts, which are often, as Freud noted, “impure, prohibited, dangerous, and disgusting” (Blake, Fairman). Because of the risks and negative connotations associated with sex, words relating to the subject (like fuck) become offensive as well (Fairman). Fuck most likely is of Germanic language, as it is related to words in Old Norse (fukja: to drive), Dutch (fokken: to breed, to strike, to beget), German (ficken: to fuck), and Swedish that have similar meanings, both sexually or ‘to strike’ or ‘to move back and forth’ (Sheidlower). However, it must be noted that studying taboo words is difficult because the very taboo itself limits a word’s use, especially in written form. Scholars have yet to find a use of fuck before the late fifteenth century (Sheidlower). It first appeared in a dictionary in John Florio’s Worlde of Words, a 1598 Italian-English dictionary (Fairman, Sheidlower). In Florio’s dictionary, fucke (along with jape, sard, swive, and occupy) was included in the definition of fottere. From 1795 to 1965, the taboo was so strong that no widely read English dictionary included it (Fairman). Slang words, like fuck (at least for many of its uses), are almost immune to standardizing influences, such as dictionaries (Blake). Despite countless attempts to remove the word from the English language, fuck has not only survived for centuries, it has thrived.
According to Dictionary.com, fuck has 13 different meanings (“fuck”). Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-word (2005) contains hundreds of entries for various senses of the word and various compound words or phrases that include the word – from “absofuckinglutely”, which is defined as “absolutely”, to “zipless fuck”, which is defined as “an act of intercourse without an emotional connection” (Sheidlower). However, Christopher Fairman’s Fuck (2009) narrows the word down to two meanings: (1) Fuck can be defined by its literal use, “to copulate,” as well as its figurative uses like “to cheat,” “to exploit,” or “to deceive,” or (2) Fuck is “merely a word that has offensive force” with no intrinsic meaning (Fairman). Although most of its uses are nonsexual, the taboo, which began with its sexual meaning, still remains.
Why does fuck still carry such a taboo? As Allen Walker Read noted in 1934, “Obscenity lies not in words or things, but in attitudes that people have towards these words and things” (Fairman). In the case of fuck, Richard Dooling wrote that “we carefully and subconsciously gather all the indelicate and unseemly associations we have with the brute act of reproduction, incest, sex outside of marriage, sex without love, selfish sex, child sexual abuse, fatal venereal diseases – and assign them all to a single unspeakable word” (Fairman). The use of profanity, especially fuck, provides the speaker with an emotional reaction, what Read called ‘a fearful thrill,’ simply because of its forbidden nature (Fairman). This reaction is actually an observation of the taboo. In fact, according to psychologist Don MacKay, taboo words, like fuck, cloud rational judgment, causing errors and delayed reaction times (Fairman). Often fuck is used to take advantage of its taboo, thereby utilizing its power. ‘Fuck you’ is often intentionally used for emphasis; ‘forget you,’ however, does not provide the same feeling for either the speaker or the listener. Put more simply by Allan and Burridge, “Cursing intensifies emotional expressions in a manner that inoffensive words cannot achieve” (Allan). Because of this, both the use and the nonuse of fuck can perpetuate its taboo. As Fairman concluded, “Fundamentally, fuck persists because it is taboo, not in spite of it” (Fairman).
Very few words invite judgment and censorship like fuck does. When Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator “Go fuck yourself” and when Vice President Joe Biden referred to healthcare as “A big fucking deal,” they both received huge amounts of attention and criticism – vice presidents are expected to be above the use of profanity. However, as Allan and Burridge note, “To dismiss [swearing and cursing] as the act of an uneducated person or as linguistically inadequate performance is gross prejudice, with no basis in fact” (Allan).
Despite these objections, fuck has an important role in our culture. Along with OK, fuck is one of the most versatile words in our language, which contributes to its widespread use, especially over other, more limited taboo words (Fairman). Fuck has been used by people of all demographics, including politicians (as previously mentioned), poets (Allen Ginsberg and Philip Larkin), writers (D.H. Lawrence, Charles Bukowski), comedians (George Carlin, Lewis Black), musicians (NWA, the Sex Pistols), and countless others. In defense of profanity, Schulz wrote, “There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it.” Not only used with hostility, profanity can also carry a casual tone. Sometimes friends use nominally abusive language to each other in a lighthearted manner (Blake). Schulz considers profanity common and inoffensive in New York. “Profanity flows from New Yorkers as the East River flows into the sea: constant, filthy, strangely magnificent. It’s not just our ability to cuss each other out; it’s the blasé and cheerful vulgarity of everyday speech.” As Allan and Burridge recognize, “Swearing can act as an in-group solidarity marker within a shared colloquial style” (Allan). On top of its role in casual conversation, fuck has a much greater importance. As Professor Fairman understood, “Words are ideas. If the government can control the words we say, it can also control what we think. Ultimately my concern is for the preservation of our most basic liberty – a freedom of the mind. To ensure freedom of the mind, fuck must be set free.”
Fuck is one of the most recognized, most taboo, and most powerful words in the English language. The word is extremely complex and has a wide variety of uses, which makes it all the more important to examine. In further understanding fuck, we can further understand the nature of taboo and how society views and reacts to taboos. Whether one thinks the word should be embraced, censored, or somewhere in between, fuck is an important word to study. Fuck has survived for centuries despite countless attempts to remove it, and we can only assume that it will endure for centuries to come.
- Allan, Keith, and Kate Burridge. Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
- Blake, Barry J. Secret Language. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
- Fairman, Christopher M. Fuck. Naperville, IL: Sphinx, 2009. Print.
- “fuck.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 31 Oct. 2012. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fuck>.
- “Lenny Bruce.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0115533/>.
- Schulz, Kathryn. “An Ode to Using Profanity in Literature.” NYMag.com. New York Magazine, 05 June 2011. Web. 29 Oct. 2012. <http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/adam-mansbach-2011-6/>.
- Sheidlower, Jesse. The F-word. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.