The Good Word

The Animal Effing Kingdom

Screw a duck! Or … you know.

A duck.

Photo by Juha Remes/Thinkstock

Excerpted from F**K: An Irreverent History of the F-Word by Rufus Lodge. Out now from the Friday Project.

Many of God’s creatures have found their way into the lexicon of English swearing, from the humble lark to the mighty … well, duck.

BEARS: There is a Canadian TV series that you may have missed, entitled Trailer Park Boys: It’s the kind of thing that Chris Lilley of Summer Heights High fame might have dreamed up if he came from Nova Scotia and couldn’t afford a tripod for his camera. And in this series a new phrase was added to the language: “fucked by bears.” Besides its literal meaning, and the related sense of being attacked by our ursine cousins, it also carries wider conno­tations, as the worst possible experience that anyone can imagine. Especially if they’ve spent their entire lives in Nova Scotia.

COW: A dictionary of casual sexism would be bigger than the Bible and more depressing than the latest list of bankers’ bonuses. With the innocent cow already figuring in countless insults aimed at women, it’s not surprising that, by extension, it has also been dragged into describing parts of the female anatomy. The result—a triumph of the same refined 21st-century imagination that brought you the Kardashian family—is the term “fuck udders,” as a way of describing a pair of breasts. The intelligence of the person who coined this addi­tion to our lustrous language is demonstrated by the funda­mental non sequitur at its heart. I can understand (though not condone) a young man who has no female friends describing breasts (as they sometimes do) as “fuck handles.” And I can see (but not, etc., etc.) the link between breasts and udders: keeping the species alive and all that. But “fuck udders” suggests that someone needs some very basic sex education lessons.

DOG: “Fucking the dog” is military slang for anything that seems like a complete waste of time (everything except fighting and drinking, in other words). A soldier could feel that he is “fucking the dog” when the sergeant-major tells him to “paint that fence white, and then paint it black.” By association, the gallant infan­tryman may choose to “fuck the dog” by engaging in something that is utterly pointless but looks useful (such as painting the fence) to avoid being commandeered for something less pleasant (e.g. cleaning out the latrines). It is probably best not to imagine what kind of bitter experience led to the original coining of this phrase, which apparently originated during the First World War in a more genteel variant, “walking the dog.” Or you might prefer to “fornicate the poodle” (other breeds are also available). Some sources transfer the blame from the dog to the duck, incidentally, and offer a more polite alternative: “stroke the duck.”

DONKEY: Not noted for their intelligence, donkeys are the ideal way to signal your complete ignorance, suggesting that you’ve blundered your way through something without a clue—as in the phrase, “I had to fuck a donkey in that meeting.” No asses were harmed in the course of this discussion.

DUCK: Quite how the harmless duck found itself the target of the exasperated exclamation “fuck a duck” is a mystery to historians of Britain’s verbal curiosities—though the internal rhyming scheme certainly didn’t hurt.

Its first appearance in print was apparently in the expletive-soaked pages of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. More recently it’s inspired entire phrases, such as, “Fuck a duck and see what hatches” and “Fuck a duck and give it a buck.” Linguistic experts claim that the original inspi­ration was the word duckfucker, the person on board a trans­atlantic ship who was charged with keeping the domestic animals alive, rather than pleasuring them in exotic ways. This word in turn entered American stoner slang as a term for an annoying idiot.

You might say, “I’ll fuck a dead duck!” on occasions when “Blow me down with a feather” simply doesn’t capture the full extent of your surprise. Being told to “go fuck a duck” (or a dog, for that matter) is an impolite way of being sent to hell, presumably coined by someone who has actually experimented with trans-species congress.

GOAT: Goats are altogether too frisky to be fucked in the “sheep” sense (see below). Indeed, the result would almost certainly be chaotic (not to mention downright dangerous for both man and goat). So a “goat fuck,” thanks to our GI buddies, stationed in Britain during the Second World War, is a situation that has got rather out of hand and is unlikely to reach a positive conclusion.

For entertaining use of the abusive phrase “go fuck a goat” listen out for Mooj’s appearance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

LARK: “Fuck this for a lark,” people used to say when they were faced with something too tedious to deserve their attention. That was, of course, a lark in the sense of a frolic, a game, a jolly good time, rather than the garden bird otherwise known as the skylark. None of which prevented Sir Laurence Olivier, no less, from adopting a very literal, bird-centered French trans­lation of the phrase during his stewardship of the National Theater: “Baisez cela pour une alouette.”

LIZARD: Specifically, the “fuck-you lizard,” as American servicemen during the Vietnam War named the tokay gecko—simply and sensibly because the amphibian’s natural call sounded (to stoned American ears) like “fuck you.”

MINK: Some teenage girls refer to their private parts as their minky. This may or may not be relevant to the phrase “fuck like a mink,” which has traditionally been used to refer to women but not men (see rattlesnake below). Minks are small, furry creatures that are notoriously promiscuous and unwilling to form lasting sexual relationships. They mate violently, with the male often seizing the nape of the female’s neck with his teeth, while holding her down with his paws. Any similarity to the scene outside an English seaside tavern on a Friday night is purely coincidental.

MOOSE: “Fuck a moose” is probably only an appropriate excla­mation for Canadians. But that hasn’t prevented death metal band Flesh Parade incorporating the phrase into a track (“Eat Shit and Fuck a Moose”) that sounds as if it was recorded just after the singer was set on fire.

PIG: Pigs have curly tails (and penises, but let’s not go there). And that, by a complex process of association and translation down the centuries, is why we have the word screw (a means of fixing two objects together, that is). The derivation goes like this: from the Latin word for sow (scrofa) to the medieval French (escroue) and then into English, once the man-of-war ferry service from Calais to Dover had opened in 1539. (I’m sure I read that on Wikipedia.)

Anyway: “fuck-pig” (cockney in origin) is an insult, suggesting that someone is so filthy that they might actually do what the phrase suggests, and so is pigfucker—the latter representing a more contemptuous variant on the better-known “sheep-shagger.” For a literary rendering, try Brendan Behan’s invention in his 1958 play Borstal Boy: “fugh-pig,” the first syllable definitely not rhyming with “hugh.”

RABBIT: The one thing everyone knows about rabbits is that they have babies. Lots of babies. So presumably they must have sex somewhere along the line. Someone who “fucks like a rabbit”—or like a bunny—could therefore be said to have a voracious appetite for sex (rather than a lot of babies).

RAT: Nobody likes to boast that they fuck like a rat (or a mouse, for that matter). So ratfuck is, you’ll be amazed to learn, not a compliment. In American criminal circles, a fink was an informer or stool pigeon; a particularly egregious example of the species was given the intensified label of ratfink. When American cartoonist Ed Roth invented a hot-rod character named Rat Fink in the early 1960s, the insult lost much of its power. Instead, members of the underworld retained the rat, dropped the fink, and substituted a different four-letter word ending in a K. The resulting word was every bit as damning of an associate’s character as ratfink had once been. By exten­sion, ratfuck also came to mean someone who was utilizing political “dirty tricks” – fucking someone up like a dirty rat, in other words.

It enjoyed particular popularity during Richard “Tricky Dicky” Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign (which incidentally used the stunningly appropriate acronym, CREEP).

But it was not one of the multitude of four-letter words captured on tape in President Nixon’s office and subsequently disclosed to the committee investigating the Watergate scandal. Nixon always preferred a simple fuck, with no frills.

RATTLESNAKE: While women are compared to minks, men are sometimes said in America (and Australia, where there are no rattlesnakes outside zoos) to “fuck like a rattlesnake.” Barry Humphries incorporated the phrase into one of his Barry McKenzie cartoon strips in the late ’60s.

The more you learn about the mating habits of the rattle­snake, the less complimentary the phrase sounds. Male rattle­snakes single out a prospective sexual partner, then trail round after her for days, refusing to take no for an answer. They continually touch her in inappropriate places, in a vain attempt to arouse her. If another male gets in the way, they wind their bodies around each other and sprawl on the ground until one of them gives in. After that, coupling takes the form of a series of uncoordinated spasms.

RHINO: Another recent invention: “fuck a rhino” as a suggestion to a friend (the go at the start of the phrase is both invisible and silent).

SHEEP: Sheep-fuckers, or more commonly sheep-shaggers, are local yokels so simple and desperate that they’ll couple with anything soft, warm, and slow on the uptake—all of which makes the none-too-bright sheep an easy target. The English use the phrase to insult the Welsh, the Aussies to ridicule their cousins in New Zealand, and so on and on. Anybody who owns a sheep is likely to hear this phrase at least once in their lives, regardless of how intimate they are with their flock.

SPIDER: Students of the English language who dedicated them­selves to research in the more dubious districts of Singapore claim to have heard the exasperated exclamation: “Fuck spider!” However, given the viciousness of some arachnids in those parts, what they may actually have heard is “Fuck! Spider!” If you happen to be in Singapore, asking an attractive young person for a date, and they tell you to “Go fuck spider,” you should think about putting an ad in the Lonely Hearts column instead.

Excerpted from F**K: An Irreverent History of the F-Word by Rufus Lodge. Out now from the Friday Project.