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Talking dirty is hot, but being etymologically informed about your naughty verbiage is even hotter. Lexicographer (that’s a professional dictionary writer) Jesse Sheidlower is the editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, the president of the American Dialect Society and author of The F-Word, an exhaustive history of the word fuck. At "Sex in the Dictionary" on Tuesday 26, he’ll elaborate on the dictionary’s most obscene entries via an illustrated lecture, copresented by Gemini & Scorpio and Observatory. We picked Sheidlower’s considerably sized brain about raunchy language and why you probably won’t get your ass kicked for calling someone a whoreson nowadays.
What made you want to write an entire book about fuck?
The answer I usually give is, because I can. And I know that sounds like a cop-out, but in fact, there are very few words out there that you could write an entire book about, and most of those wouldn’t be terribly interesting. Fuck is an exception, because it really is something that people ask about all the time. And there’s a lot to say about it. And of that lot to say, most of it has never been said before, because for most of the history of English-language scholarship, it’s the kind of word that you couldn’t talk about.
Where and when did the term fuck originate?
It’s a word of Germanic origin, where the etymological meaning is something like “to move back and forth.” The earliest example we have is from the late 15th century. It’s very clear that even at the time, it was considered a vulgar word, because it appears in a poem where the English word fuck and also the English word swive, which was the usual Middle English vulgar word for sex, are written in a cipher—each letter of the word was replaced by the following letter of the alphabet.
It seems like fuck can mean a lot of things now.
People talk about fuck being a sexual term, but it’s really not anymore. If you look at real examples of the word being used, most of them are some kind of figurative or metaphorical thing: fucking as a general intensifier, fuck you, fuck off, things like this. They’re all very recent. For 400 years of its life, it was used almost exclusively in a sexual sense. The earliest example of fuck you isn’t earlier than 1900.
What else is your talk about?
I’m talking about how dictionaries treat sexuality in general—which is, as you might expect, not terribly well. For a long time, sex was either completely ignored or treated in the most extreme euphemistic sort of manner. I give one example of a Latin word from a Latin-English dictionary where a word is defined as: “to commit beastly acts.” And that’s it.
Is there a sexual term that’s generally considered to be the most vulgar?
That’s a hard question to answer. Usually people say, “Well fuck is the most offensive word,” but only because it’s more widely used than anything else. When pressed, most people will say that cunt is more offensive. But it’s very restricted. You can refer to a woman’s genitalia, you can refer to a woman, if you’re in England you can refer to a disliked man, and that’s pretty much it. So yes, it’s very offensive, but it’s not a word that you can haul out all the time.
Do words that are considered taboo change over time?
For most of the history of English, sexual and scatological terms have been considered offensive. In the 18th century, blasphemous terms like goddamn would have been written with dashes, in the same way that fuck or shit often is nowadays. Now, damn is a relatively minor swear word. Terms insulting one’s parentage—bastard, whoreson—in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries were very, very offensive. These were fighting words. Now, culturally, we’re not particularly concerned with whether or not someone’s parents are married. At the same time, words that insult someone’s ethnic or religious background are far more offensive than they’ve ever been in the past—probably more than fuck ever was.
• There are more than 20 entries in the OED of fuck and its variants, including fuckfest, fuckhead and fuckwit.
• Fuckwind, on the other hand, is an archaic term for a species of hawk. (Get your mind out of the gutter.)
• Contrary to popular legend, fuck was never an acronym for fornication under consent of the king or for unlawful carnal knowledge. (“In general, nothing ever comes from an acronym,” says Sheidlower.)
• The 1934 edition of Webster’s New International included the following biographical entry for the Marquis de Sade: “French soldier and pervert.”
• The origin of the word poppycock (“nonsense”) is Dutch, and loosely means “soft excrement.”
• In defining threesome, the online edition of Merriam-Webster ignores the sexual usage entirely, but does give this helpful sample sentence: “You don’t see many threesomes at honeymoon resorts, but one bride had brought along her mother.”