Whence the !@#$?

How a dirty word gets that way.

A federal appeals panel on Monday said the FCC could no longer slap indecency fines on broadcasters who accidentally allowed the word fuck on the airwaves, arguing that these days the word fuck is commonly used to express frustration rather than sexual obscenity. How did fuck and other words get so dirty anyway?

They were born that way, for the most part. Fuck has always been an offensive word, though its exact origin is unclear. It’s related to words in Dutch, German, and Swedish, and the etymological meaning has to do with moving back and forth. The first known evidence of the term is found in an English and Latin poem from before 1500 that satirized the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England.  In the line “Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk,” the author replaced each letter of the unprintable words with the succeeding letter in the alphabet: “They [the friars] are not in heaven, since they fuck wives of Ely.”* (Remember that the alphabet at the time was different, and that i was also j, v was also u, and vv was w. Thus gxddbov produces fvccant, a fake Latin word taken to mean “fuck.”)

Since then, fuck has remained consistently offensive, though it has lost some of its original punch. The word only developed its nonsexual meanings in the late 19th century. (You can find that usage in Civil War court-martial records, for instance.) The word became much more widely used after World War I and now, along with shit, accounts for half the swearing that goes on in public. At this point, even our president and vice president will use it casually in its nonsexual sense. In March 2002, Bush interrupted a meeting Condoleezza Rice was holding and yelled, “”Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out!” And Dick Cheney famously said “Go fuck yourself” to Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate.

Most often, swear words grow less vulgar with time. Back in Shakespeare’s day, when one’s lineage mattered a lot more, the word bastard was so offensive it was often written “b-d.” Contemporary readers might not recognize the power of a line like this one, spoken by Capt. MacMorris in Act III of Henry V: “What about my nation? Is my nation a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal?” Meanwhile, shit was once a standard Old English word for feces. Today, it remains one of the most versatile vulgarities in our language. These days, you can be “shit-scared” (so scared you shit yourself), live in a “shit hole,” or have “shit for brains” (be dumb). And, of course, the shit can also hit the fan. President Bush used another version when he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the United Nations needed to “get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit.”

Likewise for God damn and hell, which were considered so bad back in the 17th century that they were often spelled with dashes. Americans gradually softened their view on these words, but even in 1939, Gone With the Wind’s Rhett Butler raised some eyebrows when he told Scarlett: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Expressions like “It sucks the big one” and “That bites,” which were offensive as recent as the 1960s, have also since lost their force.

Some linguists have observed that nigger, in reflection of the political sensitivities of the United States, has become one of our most intolerable words. Consider the public outcry that would have resulted if the vice president had called a political opponent a “nigger” instead of merely employing the F-word. The word wasn’t always so charged, though. Early last century, it was considered slang for African-Americans, and an insult if applied to non-African-Americans, according to the 1926 edition of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

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Explainer thanks Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Geoffrey Nunberg, author of Going Nucular: Language, Politics. and Culture in Confrontational Times, and Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word.

Correction, June 8, 2007: The original version incorrectly said the author of the coded poem replaced each letter of the unprintable words with the preceding letter in the alphabet. The substitutions were actually made with succeeding letters. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)