Saturday, August 22, 2009


Get that smirk off your face, kid; this is serious etymology.

Jesse Sheidlower, the formidable Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, now favors us with a third, much expanded edition of The F Word (Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95), a thoroughgoing exploration of the most celebrated verb/noun/adjective/adverb/interjection/infix* in English, with ample citations of its use over the past five and a half centuries.

Here we have a point of some delicacy. Anyone who has sat within earshot of me near deadline can stipulate that I am without reticence in employing this flexible word in various permutations. At the same time, while blogging at The Sun and here I have maintained a reasonably decorous tone. (I once published an article in The Sun on swearing — highly favorable toward the practice — without employing any term more unsavory than the damme of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pinafore.) I can’t quite bring myself to cut loose here. Bear with me.

I can at least correct a common error. The word is not of Anglo-Saxon origin; it has not been discovered anywhere in Old English or, for that matter, Middle English. It appears to have emerged in English sometime in the 15th century, adapted from Low German, Flemish, or Dutch. One reason for the murkiness is that etymologists until quite recently had to rely on written sources; but words often emerge in speech before they appear in writing, and, beyond that, there are taboos against writing down objectionable words such as our subject. So what the lexicographer calls attestations may be sparse.

But Mr. Sheidlower has ferreted out many sources, from a manuscript poem of 1450-1475 attacking the Carmelite Friars of Ely to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in February of this year. A man of stamina, he has evidently, in the course of his researches, read an astonishing amount of Victorian pornography. This revised edition goes well beyond his previous findings in American and British (English, Scottish, Welsh) profanity to include sources from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and beyond. I challenge you to find an expression that he has omitted. (If you do, send it to him.)

Serious students of the language will find this book invaluable, particularly in the citations, which amount to a social history of the English-speaking peoples from a limited but intense perspective.

*An infix is a syllable (affix) or word (tmesis) inserted in the middle of another word or phrase, such as Homer Simpson’s saxamaphone. Often as an expletive, e.g., guaran-damn-tee.