Home / Devolution of a Word? The F-word and a Brief History

Devolution of a Word? The F-word and a Brief History

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It’s interesting to me how language devolves and evolves like this and yet the word we even perhaps overuse more than others has not lost its meaning and power, or not in the way that these other words have and giving the finger, if done correctly and with some real power behind it. (And I don’t mean flipping someone off when you’re driving, which is just generally a bad idea because in to many states you could just get shot for doing this and while I’ve done it, it’s really not a good idea and I duck every time I’ve done it.)

Some the best songs are revenge songs, which occurred to me as I was listening to Frankee singing “Fuck You Right Back”, which I love because it is responsive and it’s not that she was a nasty person, it’s that she is pissed and the song is responsive to another song called “Fuck You” by an ex. Nor is this any ordinary revenge song because even though so many of them have power (“Come Pick Me Up” by Ryan Adams for example, which I think works well, it still doesn’t have as much power because even though the betrayal and anger show through, it is more betrayal than anger.) Elliott Smith was also very good at using the word fuck in his songs, just casually tossing it in there but it landed like a punch to the gut; if only he knew how affecting and moving his work really was, he would be here today; we cannot know.

The lyrics to “Fuck You Right Back” are such, “but I do admit I’m glad, I didn’t catch crabs.” among other such lines aimed to the recipient. This is truly nasty stuff and the last line, You made me do this and the way it is said really delivers the final punch. She is right too.

If he really didn’t care, as he boasts like a strutting cock, then why is he crying like a bitch and talking shit, as she notes. Why did he write a song about her if he didn’t really care? Logic prevails. He obviously is not quite over it and still has some issues that remain unresolved. I love Fuck You Right Back merely as a responsive title because it is so straightforward and not trying to cover or mask emotion or anger. I love that the anger is responsive and not just naturally aggressive, which would make a difference, or to me would make a difference anyway. No question that the meaning of the song or the message could be lost on the recipient or any doubt as to who the recipient is.

Rarely is the word fuck delivered as well as it is here, and though I wouldn’t normally praise the usage of such a word, there are certainly times when it seems called for and god knows we’ve all been there. We may throw it around more casually, but when called for, we are all capable of delivering the harder version if need be, even our Ani DiFranco in Napoleon and Untouchable Face

I once took a photograph of myself giving the finger (long story) and it had a power and an energy behind it that I was reminded by my husband of a photograph of Johnny Cash giving the finger, and while I don’t know the story behind that, it’s obvious that he’s really, really pissed. There’s just something about this word and the energy that can go behind flipping someone off that no matter how often we say it, it is rare that it becomes dilute. Of course, it can with casual use, but it’s rare. It’s all about affect, for lack of a better way of saying it.

Some words, however, do lose their power over time;: bitch is one, cunt is another. These words that used to be oh-so-awful and women (or even men) were supposed to be just devastated and embarrassed into complete submission when such nouns were hurled their way by lesser idiots ~ those days are long gone, or at least they are for me, if they existed at all.

The point is, language is changing and evolving such that words that once had power no longer have that same power. We’ve seen it happen with all kinds of words that eventually pass into common usage the way Xerox is now xerox and means simply to copy or xerox as it were and Kleenex is simply kleenex and works for any tissue.

But really, I only opened this piece with Fuck You Right Back to show how much power the word can have and how when it is responsive, it seems to have more power. Perhaps because we become like a cornered animal in situations in which we are being attacked and so we fight back and claw and hiss like a cat at the vet or confronted by another cat. We have a visceral fight-back reaction, which to me seems quite normal.

Dictionary of American Slang
The origin of the word fuck dates as far back as the 1200s and meant – definition: – 1 “to do the sex act with someone. 2. An instance of the sex act; a quick fuck 3.n A sex partner she said he’s not a bad fuck 4. n. A despicable person, a prick = BASTARD, PRICK. Why don’t you fucks find a cure for that already. HELLER.Get out you stupid fuck! 5 v To cheat, to swindle; maltreat, take advantage of, to screw. I was with them twenty years and they fucked me anyhow. & etc. (courtesy Dictionary of American Slang)

Did anyone know the word dated back as far as that? I didn’t. In short, the word fuck has always been a part of our language that at one time meant a rather good thing (to have relations with someone; to make love).

How then did it become an insult? This puzzles me and surely I’ll have to do more research because as a writer and someone who studies language, I find this interesting (not just this word, obviously, but how words change in any context). How did fuck soon become something quite different and not so good after all. Why would one man say to another fuck you and who was the first person to think of using the word in this way?

All I could ascertain was that it dated back to the 1200s and while theories about, and there are even books dedicated to the subject or history of the word, all of them, as far as I could find out, remain largely inconclusive and those that claim to know are hotly debated in the field (really).

So there you have it. There can be no graceful end to this piece, so I’ll just end and wish you well. For more revenge songs or etymology lessons, seek out Ryan Adams, Come Pick Me Up, which is one of the best, obviously The Teaches of Peaches or Fuck the Pain Away is another excellent one and a gazillion others… I could go on, but I welcome your contributions and look forward.

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • JoJo

    Way to cover up an advertisement with a linguistics lesson.

  • advertisement for what? sorry, but i’m not clear on this. be well,

  • Just this morning I had the idea to start a one person campaign to put the “u” back in “f*cking”.


  • I’m with you, jomama. Let fuck be fuck!

    I remember reading somewhere that the origin was actually from a punishment for having illegal (at the time, many many hundreds of moons ago) sexual relations and it was an abbreviation meaning “for unlawful carnal knowledge.”

    Seems a bit convenient… wish I could source it.

  • i’m with ya… and use often in posts, but in the spirit of trying to respect others, decided here it didn’t matter quite as much, though honestly, if it DID matter anywhere, it was probably here more than anywhere… lol


    cheers to all


  • Nancy

    Query on a side notion: why do people use the term “making love” for the sex act, when there is no “love” involved: it’s just pure screwing, humping, fucking, whatever? Is this coyness, or do they really think that affection has something to do with it? I always wonder.

  • my guess? probably just to make themselves feel better about something that they feel is cheap; whether it is cheap or not, i can’t say. i mean, sex can be fine if people agree that’s all it is etc etc… it may not be for me, but whatever.

    but my guess? i think those who do call it “making love” are, as i said, just trying to make it sound more romantic etc etc than it really is, or to ascribe some meaning where there is none.

    just a guess.



  • there was one song i remember, it went something like “do ya wanna make love? or do ya just wanna fool around….”

    Total non sequitor in some ways but anyway, just occurred to me as perhaps a more honest song, albeit a bad one..

    do yo remember that song? i forget who sang it A seventies one hit wonder i suspect.


  • anonymous bowman

    I am surprised more dont know of the origin of the phrase “Fuck You” in 1100ad the time of the English Longbow which was made out of Yew, the primary torture by the enemy of the bowman was the amputation of the middle finger prior to execution or further torture of the bowman, from that time on the insult consisted of the showing of the Middle finger to the enemy and the shouting of the phrase “Pluck Yew” at the soon to be skewered enemy by way of showing that they, the english longbowman still had his primary weapon finger and was soon to kill the foe with same… :)(or so my archery instructor told me in the mid 1950s and I have since read in several history books, true?? dont know but it makes a damn good story!:)

  • bowman:

    what an interesting story; i had never heard that, so it’s fascinating to me…. thanks for sharing that.. whether true or not, it makes an interesting little story to tell and if true, an intersting piece of history. i really enjoy the book recommended above, though it concludes the origin cannot really be traced, but has a lot of theories, prob. this being one of them. i can’t recall now.. but interesting stuff.

    cheers, & thanks for sharing this…


  • Casey

    I ran across one article that stated FUCK came from a decree of a king which was used to breed out all the Scotsmen. They couldn’t beat them in battle so on the wedding night of any Scottish men and women the English Lord had permission to “have” the woman first. Fornication Under Consent of King or FUCK. Im not sure the truth in the matter, but it could have some truth to it. I have heard about the archer story and I agree that showing the middle finger came from this, but what was yelled, who knows….I guess the debate continues….

  • Casey: no, that’s an urban legend. It’s a very old word and has cognates in other languages (it’s ‘fick’ in German) – so it’s been around at least since English split from German around 1500 years ago.

  • STM

    Casey: “I ran across one article that stated FUCK came from a decree of a king which was used to breed out all the Scotsmen. They couldn’t beat them in battle”.

    Ah Casey, a quick lesson in history: They did beat them in battle on numerous occasions, and never attempted to breed out the Scots. You’ve been watching too much Hollywood.

    They made a pact with them instead, and got them on their side, much to the consternation of many of Britain’s enemies in the years following.

    Very smart.

    I mean, you can just imagine the French, can’t you, in a hundred battles leading up to Waterloo: “Merde … we have been beaten again by men who wear skirts. And not even good skirts made by Paris Milliners like some of us like to wear. When will our shame and humiliation end?”

    Ooh la la.

  • Stan, a quick lesson on your quick lesson: after the Battle Pact of Culloden (a dreary and horrible place which would have been rendered even more insufferable with a draught up your aft), the English actually banned the wearing of the kilt, even when fighting the French.

    The reasons for this decision are lost in the mists of time, but it’s likely they had to do with the English notion of fair play. A French army confronted with the sight of charging kilted Scotsmen, their staffs swaying as they advanced, would undoubtedly turn tail and flee, thereby not having a chance to stand and make a fight of it.

  • Oddly enough the root of flipping the bird came from the middle ages, when the French would sever the middle finger of English archers to prevent them from using their bows.

    The tradition came from the english flashing that digit to say “See I still got mine!”

  • STM

    Doc, I thought the word in German – romantic of romantic languages that it is – was “boomsen”.

    “Ja, ja … (slaps lederhosen), boomsen!!”

    I always thought the word f.ck originated in Australia.

    It’s used in nearly every sentence.

    “F.k me, it’s ‘ot.”

    “Aorta fix them f.cking roads before some poor f.cker cops it.”

    “Fair f.cking dinkum”.

    “F.cking pommies!”.

    “Mate, you’ve totally f.cked that.”

    Also regularly used in conjunction with “whez-me” … as in “Whez-me f.cking car keys??”.

    etc, etc

  • Well, if you can’t believe the History Channel who can you believe?

  • Jet: I don’t know, but the History Channel is sometimes not the most reliable of sources. We don’t do ‘flipping the bird’ over in Blighty. Our equivalent is the V-sign. There are two ways of making the sign, one nice (with the pads of the fingers pointing outwards – Winston Churchill famously used to get it wrong) meaning Victory, and one vulgar, with the knuckles pointing outwards, meaning… well, let’s just say that no-one ever seems to have had the courage to explain it to Winston.

    That gesture is said to have originated at the Battle of Agincourt, where the French heavy cavalry, regarded as the most formidable fighting machine in Europe at the time, was destroyed by a force of lightly-armed English archers. During lulls in the battle the archers would raise their index and middle fingers – the ones they used to draw back the strings on their longbows – to taunt the French with the instruments of their downfall.

  • I’ve seen the V on nearly episode of “Are you being served?” of which I have all the DVDs.

    Love it.

  • Doc, somehow though I knew you were from the UK, I thought you live in California?????

  • STM

    They were wearing them again though by the time of the Peninsula War.

    Which is undoubtedly the reason why the British won it.

    Weren’t they also weearing them at Waterloo.

    I know some Scots regiments wore checked “trews”, but some wore kilts.

    They definitely shocked the Germans during the early battles of WWI – even Hitler, musing on the value of propaganda, writes about it in Mein Kampf: about the shocked look on the faces of his mates when, believing German spin that the Poms were but a nation of shopkeepers and softc.cks, they were suddenly subjected to their first battle in which they came up against furious Scotsmen, who’d rather have been at the pub.

    Imagine a whole bunch of blokes in skirts and no undies jumping into a trench above your head. Worse, imagine doing it. Those bayonets … ouch!!

    Eek! Either, way you’d just wanna throw yer hands up there and then.

    PS, Doc, I have heard that too in relation to the finger (probably also on the History Channel). It has the ring of truth about it.

    However, I can report that the favoured “up-yours” salute in Britain is still delivered with two fingers, in the shape of the V – like Winston Churchill’s famous V-for-victory salute.

    Which in reality was probably an “up-yours” to Hitler.

    However, given that American cultural mores are taking over the English-speaking world, the single-digit salute has been enjoying something of a resurgence if the History Channel is right

  • Me speakum good english just don’t type good

  • Stan… ‘bumsen’. German has almost as many words for the sexy time as English does.

    Much more than mere sex, Germans seem to be extraordinarily fascinated by (a) nudity, both male and female, and (b) flatulence.

    My parents used to have a little plaque hanging on the door of the downstairs toilet which they’d picked up on their honeymoon (the plaque, not the toilet). It said, “Wenn’s Arscherl brummt ist’s Kerzerl g’sund” – which means “When the bottom buzzes the heart is healthy”.

    Words we can all live by, I think.

  • I do indeed live in California now, Jet.

    Sadly, despite the fantasies of anyone I meet when I visit home that California is exclusively comprised of palm-lined beaches, from any one of which the Hollywood sign is clearly visible, I actually reside in the endless boring flat bit in the middle.

    BTW, how are your eyes doing? Your comments seem to be both more frequent and less error-strewn lately, so I surmise from that there’s been something of an improvement.


  • The single-finger gesture is apparently much older and in fact Aristophanes – that irreverent old bugger – used it in one of his plays.

    Word of caution: if you’re ever in the Middle East, don’t give someone the thumbs up sign – it’s the sign Winston would have made if Hitler had been an Arab!

  • STM

    Jet: “When the French would sever the middle finger of English archers to prevent them from using their bows.”

    Of course though, Jet, lopping off that finger assumes that an Englishman would be captured by a Frenchman.

    Get real man!!!, it was always the other way round 🙂

    I suspect it was the captured French who invented the up-yours salute, when being asked to eat English food.

  • Thanks for asking, the left eye has cleared up enough that I can actually drive, the right eye still gives me problems. I can’t have them operated on until I’m off the Plavix for my heart.

    Clogged capailaries burst if I haven’t taken enought insulin from sugar in the blood stream. The leackage disolves inside of my eye, clouding and then obscuring vision. Fortunately this clears up within a few weeks, but the exploded blood vessels dangle down in front of my optic nerve like hair in a glass of water…

    You might get homesick at this suggestion, but click my URL and check out all the Triumphs I used to own. I was a 1/3 owner of a repair shop in the 90s for Triumphs and MGs and you might enjoy the story of how I acquired all those Spitfires and TR7-8s,,, and a couple of rare American-market prototype cars with huge wings on the back like the old Super Bees used to have.

  • If you click on the photos they enlarge, don’t miss the yellow 70s TR9 prototype

  • STM

    The thumbs up sign used to be used in Oz in that way, but not any more.

    The normal thumbs up was used too – stationary of course. Moving the hand (and extended thumb) in a quick upward movement meant (you guessed it) up yours!

    Consequently, to hitch-hike you stuck out one finger rather than a thumb.

  • Ruvy

    I was going to write an essay on how the word “knight” suffered separate fates in English and German, but fuck it! Why should I waste my time?

  • That’s the spirit Ruvy!

  • STM

    Doc, my father had a sign he picked up somewhere (probably NOT in Germany, I suspect) that he stuck on the fuse box at our house.

    It said, and I tell no lie, “Gerfinger poken ist verboten”.

  • STM

    Ruve: “I was going to write an essay on how the word “knight” suffered separate fates in English and German, but fuck it! Why should I waste my time?”

    Come on Ruve, give it to us.

  • If I remember a George Carlin routine correctly, he says something like this: Fuck you? That is a compliment. Unfuck you. That is a slam.

    But actually, one friend of mine scholared in the history thing told me that ‘fuck’ is a term that goes back a long ways, like the middle ages. It referred to the lower classes of citizens. I’m not sure if it was a verb in reference to breeding or a noun.

    Anyway, just something I remember… Oh, fuck it!


  • this is all really interesting… who knew the history of the word fuck had such interesting origins… wowza… thanks all for the education. interesting dialogue… so it’s NOT true, Fornication Under Consent of King? Tant Pis, i rather liked that…

  • btw, whenever i put my FULL url, Askimet says it is “spam” which is really freakin’ annoying, so the link above does go to my site, just a certain section of it, then you use the left nav to get to the Dylan section etc… Dylan is at bob dylan on tant mieux

  • Jet @ #27: Those are some nice cars, especially the yellow one. I can imagine what a joy that must have been to drive.

    They don’t really induce homesickness though. Triumph (who also used to make motorbikes, I think) ceased production back when I was still a kid. You didn’t see many TR-7s and the like – they were strictly for those with money to wave around. Their most popular production car was the Dolomite, which was a common sight back in the day – a workaday runabout with a sporty feel. A handsome-looking car, as I recall.

    Stan @ #33: Don’t encourage him.

  • The f*uck word is more often in movies, music i did not read it for a long time on any website, excluding the porn.