It’s probably our most versatile word. It can be a noun, a verb, or an involuntary shriek of agony if you hit your thumb with a hammer. It can be used in love, in lust, in hate or in any other emotional situation you can imagine. And you can combine it with dozens of other words to create spectacular insults, sexual innuendos, or descriptions of situations that are getting way out of hand.
It’s been a part of the English language for centuries, but despite that, it’s still regarded as being so obscene that it’s printed as ****, F*** or F**k — or simply referred to as “the F-word”. Millions of us use it every day, though, and you can hardly walk more than a couple of blocks in an English-speaking city, or ride a subway for two minutes, without hearing it being said, loud and proud. Here are eleven things you probably didn’t know about one of our favorite — and most offensive — four-letter words.
Nobody knows where it comes from
Almost every ancient language in Europe seems to have had its equivalent to the English F-word. There was futuere in Latin, foutre in French, ficken in German, fukjain Old Norse, fokken in Holland, fukka in Norway and focka in Sweden, all of them having some kind of sexual connotation. But the best linguistic scholars in the world are still fighting about which one of them carried it across the English Channel.
There’s a town in Austria addicted to the F-word
For some reason, travellers who speak English take particular pleasure in arranging a day-trip to a tiny village in Austria. When they arrive, they always take a selfie alongside the village sign. Some of them have even been known to dig the signs up and take them home. Why? Because the village bears the unfortunate name of F***ing.
The Beatles couldn’t stop saying it
There are two examples of the F-word on John Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero”; more in Paul McCartney’s rant, “Big Boys Bickering”; there’s even one hidden in the multi-million-selling “Hey Jude”. But the Beatles went too far in 1969 when their Apple Records company tried to release a single by a man named Brute Force. The title (“King of Fuh”) was fine, but not the lyrics, which kept talking about the “mighty Fuh King”. The record was immediately withdrawn from sale.
Neither can the British royal family (but not Queen Elizabeth, obviously)
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, as the Beatles once sang, and she never speaks out of turn in public. But her husband Prince Philip is not quite so discreet, and he has been overheard at many public events expressing his royal displeasure in four-letter terms. So has Prince Charles’ wife, Camilla. The prize for ingenuity has to go to the Queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, who borrowed a synonym for the F-word from a BBC television show, and famously told a bunch of press photographers to “naff off”.
It tends to slip out when it’s most inconvenient
Just ask Tom Hanks, who managed to drop the F-bomb on Good Morning, America. Or the contestant who let himself down on Teen Jeopardy. Or the numerous NASCAR drivers who’ve forgotten that there is a live feed from their cars. And we haven’t even mentioned tennis star John McEnroe .
The Catcher in the Rye took it into the classroom
Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s pioneering 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, was appalled to see the F-word written on the wall of his sister Phoebe’s school — so appalled that he wrote it down for everyone to read. In Britain, the offending four letters were replaced with a line of dashes, but in America, it was published in full — and ended up on many school reading lists in the 1950s.
The 1960s wouldn’t have been the same without it
Take your pick from the Free Speech Movement demonstration in Berkeley, which began when someone on campus tried wearing a shirt on which he’d pinned a card carrying four famous letters; the underground magazine launched by beat poet Ed Sanders, which he called F*** You; the expletive-littered hit novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn; Andy Warhol’s notorious movie, F***; or the famous political slogan from a militant decade, “Up against the wall, mother f***ers!”.
You can even find it on baseball cards
That’s thanks to Baltimore Orioles infielder Bill Ripken, who in 1989 was pictured on a trading card proudly holding his bat – on which someone had written ‘F*** Face’. Bill claimed he hadn’t noticed. Either way, the card is now a collector’s item.
You can use it to save the planet
There’s an environmental collective in the German capital, Berlin, who have hit upon the interesting idea of making their own, very tasteful, “Eco-porn” video clips, all proceeds going to their campaign to preserve our precious trees. Their slogan is “Have Sex, Save the World”. And their name? F*** For Forest.
Canadian bus drivers don’t like to be reminded about it
For that you can blame French Connection, and their notorious FCUK marketing campaign, which saw the infamous four-letter word — or something very much like it — appearing on T-shirts, posters and scent bottles. But not on the side of buses in Vancouver, where drivers threatened to go on strike unless French Connection’s naughty ads were banned.
You can say it without saying it
Norman Mailer invented the euphemism “fug” to escape the censors, and filled his best-selling novel The Naked and the Dead with it. In olden times, people used words like “swyve”, “shag”, “swink” and “jape” to avoid saying anything beginning with F. These days, you can choose from such alternatives as “screw”, “fudge”, “flip”, “frig” or “eff”, when everyone knows that what you really wanted to say was F***.