WORDS OF 1916.

Having posted on the first two installments of Dave Wilton’s “word of the year” series (words of 1911, words of 1912), I hadn’t been planning to continue, but his latest post, on words first attested in 1916, contains one so dear to my heart I can’t resist: proto-Indo-European, n. and adj. Another striking entry:

fuck-all, n. and adj. The so-called f-bomb may be the most versatile word in the language, appearing in countless forms and contexts. This particular variant, meaning “absolutely nothing,” appears in a British trial transcript from this year, indicating that despite the popular opinion that our use of the language is coarsening, fuck has been in wide and versatile use for a long time, only publishers wouldn’t admit it.

As I did in the related Wordorigins forum thread, I’ll quote the full sentence from the trial transcript to give the flavor of army English of the day: “He then said, ‘You are a fucking coward & you will go to the trenches—I give fuck all for my life & I give fuck all for yours & I’ll get you fucking well shot.’” (From Record of the Trial of H. Farr, quoted in Jesse Sheidlower’s invaluable The F-Word, which I reviewed here.) Some other interesting words first attested in that year: ambivalent, dealership, dysfunction, National Socialist, red giant, and tank.

Comments

  1. Henry David would not approve:
    “When Henry overheard a student cursing, Thoreau called the class together and said: “Boys, if you want to talk business with a man, and persisted in thrusting words having no connection with the subject into all parts of every sentence—boot-jack, for instance,—wouldn’t you think he was taking a liberty with you, and trifling with your time, and wasting your own?”
    Thoreau then demonstrated the superfluous nature of swearing by randomly interjecting “boot-jack” into a series of sentences. It was a humorous lesson, more memorable and more effective, surely, than a rap on the knuckles. (I propose bootjack, by the way, as a useful alternative to the contemporary penchant for like and you know as all-purpose connectives and modifiers.)

  2. dearieme says:

    My favourite description of an inoperative item of equipment: “The fucking fucker’s fucked”.

  3. David L says:

    I thought it was “The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.” Depends on the degree of upgefuckedness, I suppose.
    Henry Thoreau was a fucking boot-jack, in any case.

  4. dearieme says:

    Is this a competition? “Fuck me, the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked to fuck, fuck it.”
    The most fuck-intensive cursing I’ve ever heard from a woman, or at least a respectable, sober woman, was from a friend of my wife’s: “Fuckety fuckety foo!”.

  5. Another polite version of “fuck-all” was “Sweet Fanny Adams.
    I’ve read that pre-WWI cursing was more a case of “hell” and “damn” (and “bloody” for the Brits). “Fuck” was used in its literal meaning, but not as a general intensifier.
    In the carnage and idiocy of WWI, existing cursing techniques were inadequate for the situation, and this is where “fuck” was developed into its modern form.
    I’ve read some contemporary accounts that hint at the trenches being the place where that usage was first encountered, although in those days you could only hint in print.
    I heard an interview with the creators of Deadwood where they were challenged on this point. They said they had to use “fuck” because authentic 1880s cursing wouldn’t have the same emotional charge today that it did in its time.

  6. Another one of his 1916 words is “blimp”, but the origin given is dubious.
    I’ve heard that came from “B-limp”, short for “Balloon-limp”. Blimps have no internal supports structure, as opposed to dirigibles, hence they go limp when deflated.
    The musical instrument “blarge” has a similar origin, perhaps consciously based on it.

  7. “…I’ve read…I’ve read…I heard…I’ve heard…”
    Don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m certainly as guilty of doing this as anyone, but a few citations would help. Without them, there’s no way of judging the value of the info.

  8. The full sentence is horribly painful, isn’t it.
    But … how does the “something all” form come about? Fuck all, sod all, bugger all, damn all – I don’t know of a polite version. It’s clear as day what it means, but the syntax seems odd to me.

  9. National Socialist… 1916 it referred to a non-Marxist, nationalist, socially progressive, political party in Germany. The party had been founded in 1896
    Didn’t know that. The “tank” origin is quite interesting, if true. Ambivalent comes from, according to the OED, ambivalence, and thence ambivalenz

    [ad. G. ambivalenz (Bleuler 1910–11, in Psychiatr.-neurol. Wochenschrift Nos. 18–21), after equivalence, equivalency.]
    (α) In Psychology.
       1912 Lancet 21 Dec. 1730 ‘Ambivalency’, a condition which gives to the same idea two contrary feeling-tones and invests the same thought simultaneously with both a positive and a negative character.    1913 Amer. Jrnl. Insanity 880 This ambivalency leads, even with normal people, to difficulties of decision and to inner conflict.   
    β    1939 L. Trilling M. Arnold iv. 123 Rousseau’s Confessions had laid the ground for the understanding of emotional ambivalence.    1948 M. Joos Acoustic Phonetics 23 The principle of ambivalence, which states that any thing which is capable of emitting acoustic power linearly will also absorb acoustic power according [to] the same rules that govern its behavior as an emitter.    1953 Times Lit. Suppl. 9 Oct. 645/2 What social anthropologists call ‘plural belonging’, what literary critics call ambivalence of attitude, and what the proverb calls having your cake and eating it, is a common human phenomenon.    1956 A. L. Rowse Early Churchills p. vii, There is much to be said for a certain judicious ambivalence.    1959 Times Rev. Industry Mar. 4/3 There is an ambivalence in the claims on promotional moneys, for the furtherance of distribution on the one hand and for the extension of advertising on the other.    1963 Oxf. Mag. 6 June 353/1 The ambivalence of Arnold’s attitude to the Romantics.

    Someone should revive the American Journal of Insanity. What a great title.

  10. …Then it could be bought by another magazine which would become (eg) The New Republic – The American Journal Of Insanity.

  11. the syntax seems odd to me.
    I’m not sure that there is any syntax about it. It seems to me that “fuck all” functions as a single word meaning “nothing”, and the same is true of the other kinds of “_____ all”, which are modeled on it (if “fuck all” is the oldest of the group). Does anyone know how it all started, though?

  12. Dylan Thomas’s quaint Welsh town Llareggub is derived from Buggerall.

  13. mollymooly says:

    Does anyone know how it all started, though?
    I will guess as a blend of “not worth/give a curse/damn” and “curse/damn it all”, followed by loss of negation on the lines of “could care less”.
    But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of the missing link “not worth a damn-it-all”, which should be plausible on the lines of “as adj. as all-get-out”.

  14. The most fuck-intensive cursing I’ve ever heard from a woman, or at least a respectable, sober woman, was from a friend of my wife’s: “Fuckety fuckety foo!”.
    Incruckingfedible.
    Does anyone know how it all started, though?
    A pox on all their houses.

  15. @Picky:
    > Fuck all, sod all, bugger all, damn all – I don’t know of a polite version.
    I think “jack all” is relatively polite. (It’s not as common as “fuck all”, though.)

  16. AJP Crown: If I were writing an academic paper, I would invest several hours in searching for a citation for a book or article that I read perhaps twenty years ago, some of the content of which has stuck in my mind. But that seems an overly high standard for posting a comment.
    I use “I’ve heard”, etc. because I don’t actually know the statement to be a fact. Sometimes the things I’ve heard turn out to be misconceptions.
    I’m sorry if it strikes you as an irritating verbal tic. But would it be any less annoying if I developed a wider repertoire of equivalent statements?
    The discussion of “Deadwood” was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” a few years ago. It was while “Deadwood” was in its original run. One of the “contemporary sources” I mentioned was, I believe, a Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon in one of his collections, which I have packed up in a box in my attic somewhere. But it may have been some other cartoonist. I believe it was titled “The Universal Adjective”, but I may be confusing it with the song of the same title. In any case, the cartoon only had dashes for the adjective, which is why I say it was only a hint. Also there was a book about WWI soldiers’ songs that I remember I read, about 1994, in a university library that I didn’t have borrowing privileges at. (I happened to be unemployed in 1994, which gave me time to poke about university libraries following my varied interests.)
    If I can come up with a good citation in a 10-15 minute search, which would include the books that I own (but not magazines packed up in the attic), I will do that. I don’t think a comment is worth more than 15 minutes’ research.
    If my brain contains some information on a particular topic, I may consider it might be of some value to inject it into the discussion, even if I can’t identify the source. If my best effort to do so would be a long and ultimately vague recollection, I consider it better to omit it.
    I’m sure that a lot of people here are much smarter and better informed than I am, so if I throw out an idea, I’m hoping to find out what the big guns have to say about it.
    There are plenty of times when I start in to comment on a topic, then give it up because I don’t feel I have that much to contribute.
    Every forum has its conventions. If “I remember reading somewhere that …” is considered inappropriate here, I can avoid it in the future. My philosophy up until now has been that the more ideas, the better to refine the result.

  17. Maidhc, you’re quite right and I’m very sorry. There’s nothing wrong with “I heard” or “I read”. I write it all the time myself. I’m always glad to read your comments, and I must have been very grumpy when I wrote that. Please accept my apologies. It was only because I found your comment so interesting that I wanted some background.

  18. dearieme says:

    That’s a handsome apology, you old goat-fucker.

  19. I’ll just chip in to encourage maidhc to comment freely, perhaps more freely than he or she has so far.

  20. If “I remember reading somewhere that …” is considered inappropriate here
    Far from it; it’s one of my standard conversational gambits. I agree with John: comment away!

  21. In the carnage and idiocy of WWI, existing cursing techniques were inadequate for the situation, and this is where “fuck” was developed into its modern form.
    Given the choice between believing that, and believing that “fuck” has been used as a swearword almost since it entered the language, I’ll go for the latter: I can’t believe that, eg, in the carnage on board a British man-o’-war being raked by close-quarters cannon-fire in the 18th century no Jack Tar ever watched his mate cut in half by chainshot and didn’t yell: “Fuck!” However, in times when even the word “damned” is turned into “d–d”, it’s unsurprising any widespread use of “fuck” went unrecorded.

  22. You’re displacing modern cursing habits onto the past. Remember that pre-modern English speakers had a much wider spectrum of curses available to them; religion, bastardy, and infidelity, inter alia, were all taken far more seriously than they are now, and “God damn you!” carried far more oomph. As far as we can tell, “fuck” was used for, well, fucking until modern times.

  23. As far as we can tell, “fuck” was used for, well, fucking until modern times.
    Can we draw that conclusion from absence of evidence in this case, when the evidence is likely to be absent for other reasons, namely serious horror at recording the word? Our ancestors didn’t record a lot of things, which were undoubtedly going on: I’m not aware of, eg, much evidence for priestly sexual abuse before the 20th century, but I certainly wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t happening because there was nothing about it in 19th century newspapers, journals and diaries.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    As far as we can tell, “fuck” was used for, well, fucking until modern times.
    Can we draw that conclusion from absence of evidence in this case
    Absence of evidence is not events of ebstinence.

  25. Before Sigmund Freud sex was not regarded as very important and people only cursed God, the Virgin Mary, and each other’s mothers. His theories raced through the trenches like the plague.

  26. Before Sigmund Freud sex was not regarded as very important and people only cursed God, the Virgin Mary, and each other’s mothers. His theories raced through the trenches like the plague.
    Indeed, although there were some influential non-Freudians around, eg the fighter ace Max Immelmann (he of the Immelmann Turn), who argued so forcefully for the ideas of the school of individual psychology that he became known as der Adler von Lille.

  27. At the time that Deadwood came out, there was some serious criticism of the modern-type swearing.
    If you read Kipling’s discussion of the way teamsters swore in India, you can get a good idea about the nature of swearing in Punjabi even though he doesn’t use any impolite words. If you read similar passages in, say, Mark Twain about American teamsters, you find circumlocutions like “consigning them to the infernal regions”.
    I’ve heard people say things like “Jesus fuck!” which creates blasphemy by the use of a taboo word. This may have been around pre-WWI, but I never heard any reference to it. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t done though.
    There’s no doubt that “shit” has been around for a long time and has been considered impolite. If my buddy were hit by a cannonball, I might say “Shit!”.
    But I wouldn’t use it in a construct like “What shitting idiot created this shitting mess?”
    I have a diary by Alfred Doten, who came to the California Gold Rush in 1850, and he uses “fuck” in reference to what whores do. Not in any other sense.

  28. Yeah, I know it seems counterintuitive from today’s point of view, but scholars have really studied this stuff, and it seems people really didn’t swear the way they do now.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    I think I learned something about the history of cursing just this weekend. We stopped for lunch in Grimstad, the town of Ibsen’s youth, where my son got himself a pin-back button with this quote from A Doll’s House: I’ve had the most extraordinary longing to say ‘Bloody Hell’!.
    It didn’t ring a bell with me, nor with my wife, but we found the original to be Jeg har sådan en umådelig lyst til at sige: død
    og pine.
    “I have such an immense urge to say: death and pain.”, which isn’t nearly as striking. These days død og pine! is a quaint curse, on the level of German Donnerwetter, so if the translation is faithful it must have been much stronger when it was written.

  30. “Bloody hell”
    Fytti rakken, my feeling about Et Dukkehjem is if they can’t even get the name of the play right in English it’s no wonder the swearing is verkakte.

  31. IIRC, “fuck” comes from an old German word meaning “strike,” and “shit” has the same root as “scissors” and “schism” and means approximately “something that is cut off or separated.”
    Neither of these ideas being inherently objectionable (they correspond to our present “bang” and “droppings,” which may be coarse but are not obscene), I wonder if “fuck” and “shit” were once euphemisms for more biologically specific words, long forgotten. Has anyone looked into this?

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Remember that pre-modern English speakers had a much wider spectrum of curses available to them; religion, bastardy, and infidelity, inter alia, were all taken far more seriously than they are now, and “God damn you!” carried far more oomph.

    In some parts of the US, it still does. I’m sure you’ve encountered aitch ee double hockey sticks, and mind-boggling numbers of Internet censors forbid hell the same as shit and fuck.
    Keep in mind, however, that religion and fucking aren’t mutually exclusive. My dad regularly claims to be fucking the sun, the god who created him (and is thus ultimately responsible for every mess that has ever existed), the dead (!) mother of God… indeed, the oldest attestation of the particular word he uses is in a religious context.

  33. Were you around when I posted this?

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