A Word by Any Other Name
My mother made the comment recently that she’s never used the “F” word.
She confessed this juicy tidbit while on vacation a few weeks ago, and in a Manhattan induced state of relaxation. I’d had a consumed my fair share of tequila and was feeling equally relaxed, so I boldly told her to free herself and just go for it.
As if I coaxed her to commit a horrendous crime, my father shouted, “No,” and covered her mouth with his hand to stop her. Most likely, she would not have said it anyway, but my father’s extreme actions just reinforced my curiously about this particular word, the emotion it evokes in people, and its origin.
I remember a similar conversation when I was a teenager. My father told us that men didn’t use that word in front of women out of respect. That prompted me to ask why they would use it at all; didn’t they respect each other? Or themselves? His answer made even less sense – “Well, I was in the Navy,” – as if using it was a prerequisite to joining the service. My comeback, if I can remember correctly, was that it’s just a stupid word, and its people who put the meaning behind it and make too much of it. About 15 at the time, I thought that was pretty philosophical.
I still believe that analogy to some extent, but when I spoke to my son about this topic during his formative years, back when he used to come home and share the word of the day he’d learn in the school yard, I explained that it can be an offensive word, and that he probably shouldn’t use it because it might upset someone who hears him say it.
So exactly what are the origins of the “F” word, and who were the first people to use it? It is, after all one of the more graphic words in the English language, it’s in the dictionary, it can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, and I hear it said openly, a lot more these days than when I was a kid.
According to a web search, although not empirical in nature, in ancient England a sign to hung on the door of all brothels that stated “Fornication Under the Consent of the King”, which was later turned into the acronym we all know. Another variation is that it came from “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge”.
A visit to Snopes.com showed both origins are false – no surprise there — but you have to give props for creativity.
The plain truth, according to straightdope.com, is the word is one of the oldest in the world, and has roots to a number of Germanic languages that simply refer to sex. I can’t find anything about when it was first considered profane or taboo.
So, my mother will live the rest of her life comfortably without ever uttering the “F” word. And that’s fine. My father, who spent four years in the Navy, can only say he’s lived his life without ever eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.