THE BOOKSHELF: THE F-WORD.

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!

Comments

  1. And wouldyalookatthat, a foreword by Lewis Black. Count me the fuck in.

  2. scarabaeus says:

    Many moons ago flying back to Blightie from Aden, the flying waitresses did say they would serve cocktails when English be spoken, else only water be handed out. Squaddies lingo was ripe, as it be fully seeded with the biological impossibilities.

  3. John Emerson says:

    Fuckin A George! This is fuckin copacetic!

  4. I wouldn’t call the Erica Jong example from Fear of Flying to be “without an emotional connection”, after all, her relationships with the three men described in just this one small journey pretty much fit that description. It’s more like the physical inconveniences and realities that lead to fumbling (like trying to get zippers to function) are lacking.

  5. Re “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)”. I have never previously encountered this expression, but Erica Jong’s explanation does not seem to tally very well with the preceding definition. To my mind, “zipless” in this context would suggest that no pair-bond subsequently ensued — i.e., that the two parties involved failed to “zip together” emotionally as a result of their act of congress.

  6. I was quite surprised in 2005-ish to see the big signs in the windows of the French Connection clothing stores in London that read:
    F. C. U. K.
    (i.e. French Connection, United Kingdom).
    Any word that’s displayed in shop windows in Oxford Circus and Regent Street is by definition not taboo in England, I’d say. I heard that Norwegian replaced all its Cs with Ks simply to avoid any public celebration of King Cnut.

  7. I never claimed to be good at spelling.

  8. Some of us oldies still don’t much like FCUK, or T-shirts that have various expressions using fuck in them. Gross …

  9. What I remember most vividly about Fear of Flying were the Bremsstreifen (braking marks) left on the sheets by one of her men. At the time I thought: gross, but not exactly engrossing. How all this stuff depreciates by repetition. You can hardly shock anyone any more, except prudes – and that’s like pulling the wings off flies, hardly worth the effort.

  10. skidmarks, auf Englisch
    Stu, I’m no prude by most standards, but your reference to fly-wing-off-pulling got to me.

  11. Or as they say (or should say) in Germany, Fliegenflügelwegreißen.

  12. Success! That was a controlled experiment, empty. I wanted to discover if it is still possible to shock by suddenly switching the context of indignation. I am tentatively calling it schlock tactics.

  13. Pedantic comment: as so often in German, nobody could say that’s wrong, but Fliegenflügelabreißen would be a bit more natural, to me anyway. Wegreißen is what a purse-thief does, or the winner in a dispute between two people both grasping something (tear away), or (intransitive) what the side of a building might do in an earthquake (tear away). Abreißen is a bit more violent: tear/pull/rip off a coupon, a limb. Intransitively it means “(suddenly) stop”: Die Unterhaltung riß plötzlich ab, als Grumbly das Zimmer betrat.
    Isn’t German cute? Just like English!

  14. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a dictionary with, for each entry, sample sentences in different “registers”, and (in some sense) alternative formulations! Duden is OK, but not a patch on the OED. Grimm is more like it, but out-of-date.
    As an organizational principle, there could be say 10-20 situations or scenarios towards which most of the formulations would be oriented. There’s a fabulous dialog example at Sig’s site from Méthode à Mimile, L’argot sans peine. I find the example easy to remember, because it’s funny. The structures of jokes are easy to remember. Although it is short, I learned new words, and old words with new meanings: au pieu, avoir la crève, crevée, à dix plombes. I can repeat the dialog in my head, and so practice the words.
    The introduction says, tongue firmly lodged in cheek:

    Pour parler en peu de temps un argot coulant et naturel. Indispensable aux étrangers qui veulent connaître la langue de Paris comme aux personnes distinguées désireuses de s’exprimer en termes vulgaires”

  15. An well-known epithet relating to a game of soldiers springs to mind at the thought of reading this thing, but the exact form escapes me.

  16. as so often in German, nobody could say that’s wrong, but Fliegenflügelabreißen would be a bit more natural, to me anyway.
    If nobody could say it’s wrong, I feel I have triumphed. My Sprachgefühl is (ironically) terrible in German; I knew I needed a separable prefix there, but I just took a stab in the dark as to which might be appropriate.

  17. Formulating rules(-of-thumb) about this weg- and ab- business, or about anything else in language, is as much a hindrance as a help. They can be seen to describe certain things – but which things exactly? Where are the boundaries of applicability? The rules for when to apply the rules?
    After a certain point, it’s easier just to speak the language, albeit scratchily, than to learn more rules. In my semantic analysis above, I thought of the examples first, then made up a spiel to go with them – not the other way around.
    In the case of abreißen and wegreißen, I noticed how remarkably well ab renders “off”, and weg “away”. But better forget I said that!

  18. But better forget I said that!
    Never! The next time you tell us that translation is an illusion, that words are too effing ineffable for words, that reality is a rudderless boat ride in the fog with rocks, we will remind you how you flexed your ab at us today.
    Sorry, don’t know what came over me. Anyway, I am happy to have been a pawn in your little game of shockspiel.

  19. <* squirms, suddenly aware of being hoist on his own patter. Checks vitamin pill schedule, decides provisionally to shroud himself in silence (Ger. loc.) *>

  20. to decideprovisionallytoshroudoneselfinsilence
    Is that with ab or weg?

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Definitely abreißen.

  22. To me, neither “weg-” nor “ab-” but “ausreißen” seems to be the most natural word in this case. Tearing limbs off is almost always that. For instance, you would say “reiß mir nicht den Arm aus” if somebody pulled you too hard; “sich kein Bein ausreißen” means not making a particularly hard effort.
    I would use “abreißen” for tearing off loose or marginal parts mainly of the same material (if I had to define it narrowly), as in a coupon from a page in a magazine, a bit of string, a flaky nail. However, it’s also used for tearing down a building (alternatively: niederreißen).
    Apart from that, I also really enjoyed this 3rd ed. of “The F Word”. One of the few things I (sort of) missed in Sheidlower’s book is Anthony Burgess’s taboo-avoiding spelling, in the Enderby-novels, “for cough”, which he retained as an idiosyncrasy of the title-character even after “fuck off” had become printable in the late 1960s (as Burgess mentions somewhere).

  23. Good point, syro0. We’re discussing a German equivalent of “when would you say tear out, when would you say tear off?”. My examples for wegreißen (tear away) were intended to show that Hat’s use of wegreißen is not “wrong”, but unidiomatic. It sounds in German like this English expression would: “to tear the wings away from flies”, as if the flies were holding on to their wings like handbags. (Remember that this is a descriptivist site, so I could hardly say that Hat was wrong)
    (r)ausreißen is indeed idiomatically what could be done to an arm or leg, literally or as a figure of speech (sich kein Bein ausreißen, as syro0 cites it). The aus … (her)aus image is predominant. One thinks of a voluminous thing (body) in which another thing is anchored (arm or leg). The arm or leg “wird herausgerissen” (torn out).
    syro0 characterizes abreißen in the same way as I would: “tearing off loose or marginal parts mainly of the same material”. It was because I was thinking of a fly as a small thing to which a wing is merely attached, not “anchored in” the fly, that I used abreißen – as if the wing were a coupon. The expression “pull the wings off flies” suggests this “marginal part” image. If the image were more of the “anchored in” type, one might say “pull/rip the wings out of flies”.
    For instance, if I saw the action (pulling the wings off a fly) under a strong magnifying glass, I would be seeing the body of the fly, and the wing anchored in it, and might then prefer to call the action a tearing-out of the wing: (r)ausreißen.

  24. As for the strong magnifying glass, little boys tend to have such a thing. These are the little boys who proverbially pull the wings off flies. But instead of using the glass to see better what they’re doing to the fly when pulling off its wings, they would more probably try to use it to fry the fly, to make it shrivel in heliotic agony.

  25. My compact OED magnifying glass was lost due to similar activities regarding ants.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    Ah, so there’s an antecedent.

  27. It’s closer to a humano-magnifying-glass universal than to a mere antecedent.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    this is a descriptivist site, so I could hardly say that Hat was wrong
    This is a misunderstanding of the word “descriptivist”: you can always point out to a non-native speaker that a word is wrong, or a usage is wrong, if it is something that no native speaker would say, or not with the meaning intended, especially if you can suggest a suitable alternate wording (as Grumbly is indeed doing). This is different from labelling a certain common usage as “wrong”, rather than frowned upon in some circles.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Just for the record, Grumbly Stu is right about ausreißen and abreißen.

  30. Oh, damn. Now he’ll be insufferable.

  31. Now, now, JE. I’m always insufferable! Merely being occasionally right is not going to change things.

  32. Just a moment of sufferability now and then would be nice.

  33. He had a sufferable comment once, but I had to delete it for fear of the cognitive dissonance it might cause.

  34. Anyway, suffering builds character.

  35. I guess I should have said “suffering builds fucking character,” just to keep it on topic.

  36. I for one will not stoop to the cheap device of using the word fuck in my comment.

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