Oxford University Press sent me a copy of the new third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s magnum opus, The F-Word. Before I continue, I should point out that the book, and therefore this post, is chock-full of examples of the most notorious curse word in the English language. You have been warned.
As I say, this is the third edition. Some of you who have acquired one of the earlier editions may be wondering “Do I need the third?” The answer is: Yes, yes you do. If you care enough about the history and use of the word fuck to own the book, you owe it to yourself to get this edition. This is not one of those pro forma “revisions” that correct a few errors, toss in a few added items, and add a new preface; no, the text of the dictionary is twice as large as the second edition, over a hundred new words and senses have been added, and coverage is far wider. The first edition included only American uses; the second added some U.K. and Australian examples, but more as flavoring. This one aims to cover the entire English-speaking world, a project greatly aided by Sheidlower’s having gone to work for Oxford UP and thus getting access to the files of the OED: “uses that are specifically British, Australian, or Irish are included in their own right, and a very large number of quotations have been added from non-American sources to illustrate all entries, not just those associated with a particular national variety. The reader will thus find vastly more British examples (including Welsh and especially Scottish in addition to English), and also quotations from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere.” A word that has circled the globe deserves no less.
The introduction is worth the price of admission all by itself. Beginning with the etymology (which continues to be unknown, and my one criticism of Sheidlower is that he starts off by spending two paragraphs debunking the silly explanation that makes it an acronym for various fanciful phrases—the debunking, while necessary, should have come later, preferably in a footnote, because people’s psychology is such that they are likely to remember the prominently displayed fake etymology and forget the debunking), he goes on to discuss the word’s taboo status, its earliest uses in print and movies, its appearance in dictionaries (first in John Florio’s Worlde of Words, a 1598 Italian-English dictionary, and first as a main entry in Stephen Skinner’s 1671 Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae), and the general phenomenon of taboo avoidance (citing David L. Gold’s comparison to Marcus Terentius Varro‘s dicite labdeae ‘tell him/them to lambda,’ lambda being the first letter of laecasin—a Latin equivalent of ‘tell [someone] to go to hell’ was laecasin dicere, literally ‘tell [someone] to suck’); in this last section, he discusses the trick of spelling out F-U-C-K as “if you see Kay” (used by Joyce in Ulysses!) or, in Britney Spears’ 2009 version, “If U Seek Amy” (not, as Sheidlower has it, “If You Seek Amy”).
But the meat of the book, of course, is in the collection of entries with their wealth of citations. From absofuckinglutely (adverb, absolutely… 1921 Notes & Queries (Nov 19) 415 [refers to WWI]: The soldier’s actual speech…was absolutely impregnated with one word which [...] the fastidious frown at as “filthy”…. Words were split up to admit it: “absolutely” became “abso – lutely”) to zipless fuck (noun, an act of intercourse without an emotional connection… 1971 E. Jong Fear of Flying 11: My fantasy of the zipless fuck… Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like petals), there are 270 pages of exhaustive documentation of every well-attested expression using the f-word, including 35 pages of the star word itself, as noun, adjective, verb, and interjection (in this last section alone we get citations from Ian Fleming, Robert Stone, Peter Benchley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Norman Mailer, Armistead Maupin, and Stephen King, inter alios). I say “well-attested” because it doesn’t even attempt to include all existing uses:
Even a quick look at, say, www.urbandictionary.com will show that there are very many words or phrases with fuck that are not included in this dictionary. Opening the book up to every word or compound for which examples can be found on the Internet would make it very much longer than it is now, with uncertain benefits. The editor has thus done his best to try to determine which of these is most likely to be in truly broad circulation… The editor encourages readers to write in with suggestions for words that are omitted, especially if there is solid evidence for their genuine use, for possible inclusion in future editions.
A few random things I enjoyed: the first use of the verb fubar (derived from the adjective, an acronym for “fucked up beyond all recognition”) is 1946 “J. MacDougal” in Astounding Science Fiction (Oct.) 55/1: “Well, there are a lot of minor ones, which must have fubared things in all directions once Co-ordination accepted them”; it delights me almost as much as it must have delighted James Blish and Robert Lowndes (the writers hidden behind the pseudonym) that they managed to slip this past the notoriously prudish John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding. An acronym I’ll have to add to my own vocabulary is DILLIGAF (“do I look like I give a fuck?”). The first cite for go fuck yourself is from an 1895 police report (“He said, ‘Go on, fuck yourself, you son-of-a-bitch; I will give you a hundred dollars’; he tried to punch me, and I went out”); the last is Dick Cheney’s famous 2004 use (in the perhaps unprofessionally snarky words of the Washington Post: “‘Fuck yourself,’ said the man who is a heartbeat from the presidency”). And there are nine citations, ranging from ca. 1950 to 2006, for the expressive hotter than a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire (immediately followed by frak, the euphemism coined for Battlestar Galactica, also with nine citations, ranging from 1978 to 2009).
So far, I’ve only found one typo (on page 261, under tarfu ["things are really fucked up"], the 1944 quote from Ernie Pyle should have “mystic” instead of “mytic”), which is pretty darn good these days. This book is a gem, and it makes me proud to be a part of a civilization that could produce such a thing. Fuckin’ A!