Words & Their Origins: #1

Warning: this short ramble includes numerous repetitions of the F word. You may not be old enough for it.

The elderly blind gentleman I read to on Tuesday afternoons mused aloud yesterday about where the word “fuck” comes from. This sort of digression is frequent with us, because we don’t so much “read” as sit down together over a light snack and discuss life. And when a question arises I whip out the old iPad and we look stuff up on the Internet. You wouldn’t believe the things we investigate this way. Or the music we hunt up.  Our visit is one of the high points in my weekly rounds.

So anyway, yesterday we used Google and Wikipedia to unearth the usual (colorful, but mistaken) origin story – namely, that the word “fuck” is actually an acronym: F.U.C.K., said to stand for either “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” or (the more suggestive) “Fornication Under Consent of the King.”  The latter comes with a better story, and so I prefer it.

The story goes that deep in the misty, musty drapes of medieval English history, a couple required “sovereign sanction to consummate their union” – translation: Big Daddy’s permission to get it on.  Once granted, the story goes, they received a little slip of parchment or foolscap or perhaps just an olde englishe poste-it note signed by the king that they could tack onto the cottage door to placate the local constabulary: “Fornication Under Consent of the King.”

Presumably the couple would take the permission slip down when they were occupied with other pursuits, or more open to neighborly drop-ins.  Take it down, fold it up carefully, and stash it someplace handy for next time. Like, say, a pants pocket.

Inevitably, of course, the urge would one day overtake them when they were …away from their pants.  What to do? Pause in mid-carnal flush, fumble around for a pencil and something to write on, and a tack to hang it up with, and scribble it all out? “For…ni-…ca-…tion….Under….Con…sent…”

Unlikely. I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. They must have abbreviated: “Oh just put F.U.C.K. and be done wythe it, honey!”

Turns out, that’s not actually where fuck comes from. Fuck isn’t an acronym; in fact, as far as we could make out, acronyms hadn’t even been invented yet when the need for this word arose. Reading on, my elderly gentleman friend and I, we learned about the many cognates (i.e. word cousins) the F word has – in many languages, mostly from chilly northern places (no surprise). In the end, I think, we both felt even cozier about that idea, seeing as how word origins turn out to be yet another topic that unites mankind.

Still, I feel lucky to live in Modern Times – that is to say, in an era where the Englyshe Language has sprouted the rhymes necessary to render simple instructions anyone can understand and remember without notes on the door: “If the house is a-rockin’, then don’t come a-knockin’”

Pithy, no? Memorable! I’ve even heard it set to music.



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