A short history of the “F” word …

No other word in the English language gets more colloquial usage than the notorious F-word. The word and its host of variations could and would fill a small dictionary. It is still extraordinary to consider that this short, graphic, four letter swear word is one of the most used nouns, verbs and adjectives in our vocabulary.

 But where does it come from?

Until recently, it has been a difficult word to trace, mainly because of the refusal of the editors of the original Oxford English Dictionary to include it when the “F” volume was compiled in 1893. 

Whether it was spelt fucke, fuk or fukke, it was definitely part of our language well before 1598 when John Florio wrote his Italian- English dictionary, A World of Wordes. In it he defined the Italian verb “fortere” as to fucke, swive or occupy.

The first recorded “fuckers” were actually monks. There was a monastery in Ely where in a fifteenth century poem the author makes reference to some rather ungodly habits

Non sunt in celi

Qui fuccant wivys in Heli

Which translates as:

They are not in heaven

Those who fuck wives in Ely


But according to the OED, the following seem to be the earliest written examples of the word:

1507  William Dunbar The Flyting of Dunbar, ‘Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit’.

1528  an unknown angry monk wrote “Fucking Abbot” in the margins of a guide to moral conduct 

1535  Sir David Lyndesay, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits:  Bishops…may fuck their fill and be vnmaryit 

1663   Richard Head, Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin. A comedy, ‘I did creep in..and there I did see putting [sic] the great fuck upon my weef.’

And in 1680 by the splendid John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in a book of “romantic” poetry: ‘Thus was I Rook’d of Twelve substantial Fucks’.”


Fuck was later outlawed in print in England by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The word may have been shunned in print but it still continued in conversation. The taboo was so strong that for 170 years, from 1795 to 1965, Fuck did not appear in a single dictionary of the English language, the Penguin Dictionary being the first to reclaim it.  

The abbreviation F (or eff) then appeared initially as a euphemism, but quickly became used as a swear  word. In 1948, the publisher’s lawyers working on “The Naked and the Dead” insisted that Norman Mailer should use the term fug instead. When Mailer was later introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, “So you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck’. 

Hemingway used muck in For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940). The major breakthrough in obscenity law and publication was James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1950), with 50 fucks (down from 258 in the original manuscript). The much vaunted Lady Chatterley`s Lover limped in a decade later with a fuck count of only 29. 

Whilst on the subject of obscenity laws: Egyptian legal agreements from the 23rd Dynasty (749-21 B.C.) frequently include the phrase, “If you do not obey this decree, may a donkey copulate with you!” [Reinhold Aman, Maledicta Magazine,” Summer 1977].

The first fuck in a British or American newspaper appeared on 4th November 1960. Naturally, it was in The Guardian and it was included in article about the aftermath of the Lady Chatterley`s Lover trial.  

In music, the earliest usage of the word was in the 1938 Eddy Duchin version of the Louis Armstrong song “Ol Man Mose”. Whilst in television, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan took the honours in 1965. Although it has been suggested that Brendan Behan uttered the word on BBC`s Panorama in 1956, but he was so drunk no one could understand him. Surely, the winner should be the rather grumpy man painting the railings on a bridge in Belfast, who in 1959 told the children’s TV programme Roundabout that his job was “fucking boring”.

In films, it appears that the title character in the cartoon “Bosko`s Picture Show” said it in 1933. In mainstream cinema, the films Ulysses and I`ll Never Forget What`sisname (both 1967) share the claim for being the first films to use the word fuck… both mere lightweights compared to The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) which had a fuck count of a staggering 569 !


Other fuck related phrases include:

 Fuck-all-  “nothing” first recorded 1960. 

To fuck up – “to ruin, spoil, destroy” first attested sometime in 1916. Most probably from Slavic words (such as Polish pierdolić) which can mean both to “fornicate” and to “make a mistake.”

 Flying fuck- originally meant “to have sex on horseback” and was first seen at the turn of the nineteenth century in a pamphlet called rather intriguingly New Feats of Horsemanship 

 Duck Fucker-  which according to the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1802) meant “The man who has the care of the poultry on board a ship of war” 

And finally, the perfect grammatical phrase… This beautifully crafted sentence has been attributed to a Classics tutor at Oxford swearing at his bicycle.

“Fuck! The fucking fucker’s fucked”


Incidentally, the use of fucking as the adjective and fucker as the noun of all work was so common among British troops that it was noticed in an official War Office pamphlet of October, 1941, issued, not to reprehend the usage, but simply to warn against careless identification of strangers. In North Africa, a German spy dressed in British uniform had succeeded in deceiving a British unit because he spoke impeccable Other Ranks English. The War Office pamphlet warned: “lt should . . . be impressed on all ranks that the use in conversation of ‘f–—-s’ and ‘b—-s’ is not necessarily a guarantee of British nationality.”

The word Fuck these days is now an example of the splendidly named “dysphemism treadmill” by which most vulgarities have become inoffensive and commonplace.

If you would care to read more about such things, I refer you to my Splendidly Smutty Dictionary of Sex which is available in all good bookshops and Amazon.



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