Benjamin K. Bergen is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Language and Cognition Laboratory. He writes for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and appears on NPR's Morning Edition, the Brain Science Podcast, and elsewhere.
Bergen's new book is What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.
From the author's Q&A with Scott Timberg at Salon:
Let’s start with the word most of us learned early on was the biggest, scariest, nastiest, dirty word of them all, the one your title turns on: the F-word. I’ve heard all kinds of theories as to where it came from. What are its origins, and has it always been such a forbidden, dangerous term? Was it ever an acceptable word?Learn more about What the F at the publisher's website.
So the word, as far as we can tell, is very, very old. It’s thousands of years old and comes from a root that means something like to strike or rub. For most of its history, it has not had any profane meaning at all. The first time we know it starts to have the meaning “to copulate,” as it now does, is as early as the 14th century, A.D. It comes from some legal proceedings, in which there was a defendant who had that as part of his last name. His name was Roger Fuckebythenavel. It appears to have been his real name.
But through Shakespeare’s time, it didn’t seem to have been as profane as it became in the 20th century. That only started to be the case around three centuries ago. In Shakespeare’s day the equivalent term was “swive,” which was far stronger.
And like a lot of words in English, this came from Germanic roots or Anglo-Saxon or something?
That’s right. This comes from the Germanic line. And there are therefore similar words you see in Norwegian and German, where there’s a similar word — “ficken” — that has a similar meaning but is far less profane than the English word.
The interesting thing about the F-word is that according to survey data, it’s...[read on]
The Page 99 Test: What the F.