Fuck is an indicator of change. It has grown past its solely derogatory meaning to no longer be just a swear word. It is a cultural indicator, a tool to marginalize its users and a stress reliever.
Language is constantly evolving, and fuck emphasizes that on a lingusitic level. We no longer exclusively associate the term with its former 16th century negativity because its meaning—just like people—has changed.
In fact, fuck is a perfect example of how culture and language grow together. Culture doesn’t remain the same because new advances in humanity call for a different understanding of the times and the history that came before it.
Now, fuck can mean so many things. It fits in almost any form of speech in the English language, depending on how its user frames it.
However—what, exactly, did the term originally mean? And how, or why, has it come to have so many meanings?
A Brief Fucking History
The written history of fuck dates back to the 1500s. Despite evidence of its use, it’s origins remain elusive. But one thing is certain—“its original definition linking sex with violence and pleasure with pain has broadened considerably in the past 500 years,” says TIME Magazine’s crash course on fuck.
So how did it originate?
Perhaps fuck is an acronym for “Fornicate Under Command of the King.” As the theory goes, the king at the time would legally instruct his residents to have sex, all in an effort to monitor the reproduction rates.
But, that’s just a false rumor, according to Today I Found Out, a publication focused on sharing interesting facts. In fact, swear words deriving from acronyms are almost never true, the publication notes.
Another theory suggests the term stems from someone’s name. In the late 13th century, for example, surnames—which were typically used as a descriptor—like Le Fucker, Fuckebegger, Fukkebotere and Smalfuk were recorded.
But unfortunately, this is not the origin of fuck, either. Without written context surrounding these names, they could have simply been mispelled, since there is no evidence that fuck was used before then. Plus, fuck’s official recorded use wasn’t logged until the 1500s anyway.
An original theory perceived fuck as “to strike” or “to swive” in Frisian, Dutch or German languages. Fuck’s spelling was introduced to more people around the 1500s and was either used to insult people or be synonymous with sex. At the time, both were vulgar associations.
What’s surely known, however, is that fuck has become censored and controlled over the course of history.
It’s Free Fucking Speech
Whatever its origin—many deemed fuck so insulting to read or hear that is was rarely written down, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. In fact, fuck was banned from the English dictionary from 1795 to 1965.
As swear words became more common, English speaking countries like America worked to ban its use, even if it violated free speech.
The Comstock Act of 1873, for example, made it illegal for people to print swear words or other obscenities. It was illegal to put them in advertisements, doctor’s notes, and pamphlets, to name a few. Printing fuck would put its user behind bars. According to the Free Speech Center, a publication that educates its readers on first amendment rights, “the statute did not provide a definition of obscenity.” Therefore it was easy to arrest people, since there was no clarification on what would result in one.
Before the turn of the 20th century, the word became exclusively negative. But as time passed, fuck transitioned to mean so much more than something derogatory.
Now, for instance, using fuck and a variety of other swear words are proven to be such a great stress reliever that researchers encourage its use.
For example, a study performed at Keele University in England found that swearing in times of stress can activate one’s fight or flight response. Specifically, researchers found that people who cussed produced more adrenaline and increased their pain tolerance.
The Semantics of it All
At the beginning of its infamy, fuck was perjorated, which means it had a negative association. But now, as it is used more and more—fuck is ameliorated. In other words, it means something positive or neutral.
City University of New York professor Paul McPherron, emphasizes how flexible human language is, explaining:
“Syntactically, we make new sentences every day based on the principles of how language works. There’s no way we can write a definition of a word in stone so they last forever. It’s the nature of human communication that we’re going to be creative about our meanings and come up with new ways to say them.”
The number one rule of linguistics is that languages remodel themselves as new ways of living enter our lives.
“Do I think the f-word’s meaning is going to stay the same?” asks McPherron. “I absolutely don’t. Maybe it will become more puritan in 20 years where we don’t want to use the word and we won’t use it anymore. Anything can happen.”
On the Basis of Sex
Although once an obscenity, fuck also denotes sex. Its direct association has lessened as its use gets paraded around daily. And as our non-sexual, every day exploitation of the swear word dulls its impact, the originally unkind way to refer to sex has as well.
Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and the author of The F-Word demonstrates the devaluing of fuck’s sexual prowess over time in Slate, saying that:
“We are no longer as outraged by public discussions of sexuality as we were in the past. So even the sexual uses of the words are not as strong as they used to be, and the non-sexual uses are that much weaker still. However, it is true that the increasing quantity of non-sexual uses has weakened fuck’s taboo status further. Most uses of fuck today are non-sexual.”
Slang and Culturally Specific Words — Context Matters
The use of words varies from culture to culture, according to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). As such, there is no fixed understanding of fuck because cultures—and subgroups within those cultures—use it with so much variety.
For instance, English-speaking troops paraded fuck around the World War I trenches with an entirely different understanding than their civilian counterparts.
In his book Songs and Slang of the British Soldier: 1914-1918, author John Brophy says the term was a way to communicate during war. Brophy explains:
“It became so common that an effective way for the soldier to express this emotion was to omit this word. Thus if a sergeant said, ‘Get your f—ing rifles!’ it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said ‘Get your rifles!’ there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.”
Words like fuck have been tailored to the rhetoric of particular groups, like these soldiers, for example.
“[Various] groups in society use language as a way of marking their group identity; showing who is and isn’t a member of the group,” the LSA says. In other words, language and culture grow with each other.
This idea carries into the use of slang, too. We use shortcuts to communicate, thus connecting us further because some terms are exclusive to certain cultures. Slang is a cultural detector, and lets groups figure out who might be or might not be an “insider.”
Take cannabis for instance, of which there are roughly 1,200 different slang terms, according to TIME Magazine. That’s due to its illegal status, suggests Jonathon Green, author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
People often use slang, or informal language, to conceal unmentionable words. For cannabis users, it was a linguistic way to get around authorities, or nay-sayers. But outsiders catch on and eventually, new slang terms are born.
Change is a Great Fucking Thing
Fuck perfectly illustrates how our understanding of words takes new forms as our linguistics needs changes. It’s evolution represents a silver lining in how language and culture can evolve into a better future.
The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics explains it best, saying that “a fundamental claim in cognitive linguistics is that words do not have fixed meanings. They evoke meanings and are cues to potential meaning, instructions to create meanings, as words are used in context.”
Words are so flexible because they are simply air and vibration. As humans, we place meaning onto these sounds and associate it with a definition that best suits our community. But these associations might not last forever.
That’s the power of linguistics. It is like a game of telephone throughout space and time, reaching all corners of the world with a new meaning, sound, and associations to come of it. Let fuck be the example.