The F Word

Who remembers the first time they heard this word? I do. I was in fourth grade. My teacher came into the classroom grabbed a piece of chalk and, in large letters, wrote F-U-C-K vertically on the blackboard… and she was mad. How dare we laugh at Johnny and his disgraceful language. F*** is a bad word and now she has to teach us all about it. Well, I got news for you Mrs. Post, I didn’t hear Johnny say that. In fact, I don’t think anybody heard him say that. She thought she was teaching us a lesson and I guess she was… she fueled our curiosity with the word, the word that was not to be spoken.

Really quick, if you don’t know me you may not know that I went to Catholic school. If you went to a parochial school you know that anything you did that they did not approve of would end in a trip to hell. I mention this because that was the next part of Mrs. Post’s lesson – if we say the word, we’ll go to hell; if we talk about the word, we’ll go to hell; if we even think about the word… well, you can probably guess.

Next she went back to the chalkboard and added to her original work: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. “Carnal” was a bad thing, she said. Now, here is where my memory blurs a bit. We all know that f*** means sex and I know she didn’t go into detail about it that day. Believe me, I remember exactly the where and when of that experience and it was not the same day. It’s odd, though. Why didn’t she go into more detail? I mean, she had already stepped over the line. Why not go all in? I imagine we were threatened (she loved to wield around that fanny paddle) to simply believe her that it was, not only bad and vulgar, but also “unlawful.”

Later in life, maybe in my twenties, I remember learning that Mrs. Post was wrong. She, like many people, think that it’s an acronym, but that is an urban legend (no help from Van Halen and their 1991 album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, thanks guys). The word predates acronyms in written history. These ciphers start to appear in the 19th century. In this technological age, a simple Google search reveals the following (remember when you would have to go to library to figure these things out):

The earliest known use of initialism is from 1844, in an article in “The Christian’s Monthly Magazine and Universal Review” discussing SPQR, an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and People of Rome”).

“On Language – Acronym,” The New York Times Magazine, by Ben Zimmer, December 16, 2010

Historical records have f*** showing up as early as the 15th century in a coded poem mixing Latin and English. The poem parodies the boorish behavior of the Carmelite monks from Cambridge, England. The word fuccant appears in the line in question and after scholars deciphered the code and translated it, it reads, ‘They are not in heaven, because they f*** the women of Ely.’ No wonder it was in code, the poem accuses the friars of breaking their vows of celibacy.

There are so many theories on how the word began and no definite explanations on how it became the English word we know today. It has always been considered such a crude and naughty word, I imagine it was around a lot longer than any written record would suggest. Mrs. Post was right about it being a bad word, therefore people weren’t writing it down and hundreds of years ago the average person may have been illiterate. So, they may not have been jotting it down in their peasant diaries. They could say it however, and like an illness the word would have spread.

The common belief amongst intellectuals is that it is a Germanic word, meaning it is derived from the Indo-European family of languages, blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to get too technical here. Just know that there are tons of examples of this word existing in early versions of almost every language. The English language tends to take a lot from the German language, but German and Germanic are not the same thing. Think of it as a family tree; Germanic is an ancestor of German (any smarty-pants out there want to correct me? Feel free, I’m doing my best here).

Now, back to the story… Later that evening my dad asked me, “What did you learn at school today, kiddo?” I responded, “I learned what f*** means.” Poor guy was not expecting my answer and I may have stopped his heart for a moment or two as there was a pause before he asked me what happened. Kudos to my dad, he kept his cool. I told him the whole story and he agreed that it was a bad word. In fact, he made me promise not to utter it, which I did. But he, too, didn’t elaborate on what it actually meant.

I knew three things at the end of that day. The first was that Johnny was going to hell along with his sore ass that Mrs. Post spanked with that damn paddle. The second was that dad would be disappointed in me if I dropped the f-bomb and I didn’t want that. Finally, I was a little interested in this horrible word. I promised dad I wouldn’t say the word, I never promised not to wonder about it.

What I did wonder about was what he did with the information. Did he tell my mom? Did they call the school? Did anyone else from my class tell their parents what happened? If that occurred today, and your kid came home with the same story, what would you do?

Sadly, I have not kept my promise to my dad. In my personal and private life I use the f-word quite a bit. My husband has often referred to me as having the mouth of a sailor. I cannot deny it, I like the word. It is the most versatile curse word out there. Noun, verb, adjective, you name the part of speech and I bet you come up with an example of it. Do I say it at work or in front of children? No. In front of my mother? No, although I have had a Ralphie from A Christmas Story moment and felt the back of my mom’s hand across my head. I am a practical person who is perfectly capable of commanding self-restraint and thinking before she speaks. Sometimes, though, it feels really good to say it. Haven’t we all fell victim to yelling it after stubbing our toe or exclaiming it in wonderment? Think about it.

“Johnny” was not his real name. I can’t remember the boy who actually said it although I have my suspicions. Let’s assume he’s doing well. Mrs. Post, unfortunately, continued to be a very mean teacher. When I was older working at Bed Bath & Beyond I witnessed her making a scene by screaming at a young girl at the service desk over the refund of a pillow. I stepped in to help and she proceeded to yell at me. I reminded her of who I was, naively thinking maybe she would feel some embarrassment and stop. Nope. A manager had to be called to deal with the situation.

My goal was not to offend anyone. I always strive to entertain and educate. However, if after reading this post you decide that I am some sort of miscreant – or vulgar or crass, then I have two words for you… I’ll let you guess what they are.

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