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The Real Origin of the F Word

Professor Steven Cerutti’s (PhD, Duke) master work “The Words of the Day” notes the following on the origins and usage of the “F” word, making it likely that the words was know in the 1820’s, but not used in polite conversation:

“Grammatically, “f**k” can be anything. It can be a noun  (“That was one screaming f**k I got last night!”); or a verb (“I f**ked the shit out of that bitch all night long!”);  it can be an adjective  (“She says he’s a virtual f**king machine!”);  it can be an adverb (“That’s one f**king bad haircut you got today at the mall.);   it need not even have sexual connotation (“That’s a lot of f**king crap you’ve got there!”).  It can mean something good (“I really got f**ked last night!”);  or, it can mean something bad (“I really got f**ked last night!”);  it makes for a great interjection  (“F**k! I can’t find my keys!).  It also functions well as an interruption (“Outf**kingrageous!” or “I underf**kingestimated what an ass-hole you can be!”).  This tells us nothing about the etymology of the word; it is just a commentary on the impressive range of usages the word has acquired over time. To cover all the theories on the history of this word would be to write its own book, which I’m sure has been done, and probably done badly. It would be hard—if even possible—to do it well.

The Dictionary of American Slang (1960) gives as the primary meaning of the word: “[taboo] To Cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly.” It goes on to offer this as an explanation of the relationships between fraud and sex: “All slang meanings of ‘f**k’ and all ‘f**k’ expressions, of course, derive consciously or unconsciously from the old and standard but taboo ‘f**k’ = sexual intercourse. All slang meanings and expressions were widely used in W.W. II military units, became part of the slang vocabulary of many veterans, and spread from them to students and friends. This coupling with the lessening of moral standards and taboos, including linguistic taboos, during and after the war, has contributed to…” blah, blah, blah. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what any of that just meant!

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005) we learn that “f**k” came into the English language by slipping through the Indo-European back door and surfacing as the Germanic word fuk. It goes on to explain that the word took its derivation from the classical Latin root pug, from the verb pugnare, which means “to fight”—generally with one’s fists, scrapping it out in the dirt, as it were (which can’t help but put one in mind of the old Lennon/McCartney song Why Don’t We Do It in the Road). This is an interesting theory, and we might give it some (though cautious) credence. At the very least, they are correct in that the root of the word “f**k” is classical, but it’s not Latin, nor pugnacious in any way.

The simple truth is that “f**k”—obviously one of the oldest words in the language—if not the world—dates back to nearly the birth of writing, back when our ancestors were barely up on their feet, still hunting and gathering. It comes from the Greek verb φυω (say: “foo-owe”), and its Greek root is phu. It’s an agricultural term. It means, literally, to plant seeds—what a farmer does—dropping seeds into a furrow of soil. When adopted by the Romans, its Latin root changed from phu to fu, and the noun fututio soon became part of Roman vernacular.”

The “Old In Out”

Fututio is an example of what linguists refer to as a “frequentative.” That is, a word that describes repeated action—which is the nature of dropping seeds into a furrow, one after another, after another. It’s also a big part of the act of “f**king”—if you’re doing it right!  It takes often considerable repetition to get those seeds to spurt out. Soon, the Roman elegiac poets got hold of the word at a time when erotic love poetry was all the rage in Rome, and fututio became a metaphor for planting a “particular” kind of “seed” in a “specific” kind of “furrow.” This literary debauchery—what the American Dictionary of Slang calls “linguistic tabooism”—began with Catullus in the first century b.c. and then was taken up by his successors, Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid.

When it came to elegy, Ovid was king. Among the many books of poetry that Ovid wrote was one called the Ars Amatoria or the Art of Love, a poem whose main theme is how to pick up chicks in ancient Rome. It’s really a scream, but it, and others like it that came from Ovid’s stylus, were considered too vulgar and ultimately offensive to the emperor Augustus (who was certainly not one to preach about promiscuity given his own reputation!), so he had poor Ovid—who at the time was already in his mid fifties—exiled to an army camp on the southern Steppes of Russia by the shores of the Black Sea, where he would spend the rest of his life. You could say this about Augustus—he really f**ked Ovid!






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