"Obscene” words are funny things. Supposedly, a word is classified as obscene because of its meaning, what it represents. But very often the meaning seemingly has nothing to do with it. Frak is a case in point. Frak is a euphemism for that more familiar four-letter word that you can’t say on U. S. broadcast television without incurring hefty fines from the Federal Communications Commission. So screenwriters use words like freak, frap, frick, and frig as substitutes for the expletive. But frak goes a bit further and takes on all the valences of its more suspect progenitor. Despite meaning exactly the same thing as fuck, and despite being used in exactly the same manner and context as fuck, frak is okay, while fuck is not.
There are older uses of frack and freck in English, but these are unrelated to the euphemistic expletive. Frec is an Old English adjective meaning greedy or eager; frecu is an Old English noun meaning greed or greediness; frecian means to be greedy; and the noun freca plays off the eager sense to produce a noun that means bold one, warrior. These words have survived into the modern period in the Scots dialect. The expletive is also unrelated to the jargon term from the oil and gas industry. Fracking is a process by which natural gas is extracted from shale through the use of high-pressure liquids. The liquid fractures the rock, releasing the gas, hence the jargon term.
But the expletive frak has its origins in the television show Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 1978-79 and was re-imagined and remade from 2003-09. In the original series, the word, spelled frack in the scripts, was just a simple expletive. The character Starbuck, a hotshot pilot, was particularly fond of exclaiming “Frack!” when he got into bad situations.
In the re-imagined series, the screenwriters dropped a letter and made the word frak, presumably to make it literally a four-letter word. Not only was the spelling changed, but the word was used in a much wider variety of situations. In the new series, frak could be used as a substitute for its infamous cousin in any and all situations. So Starbuck (still the hotshot pilot, but re-imagined as a woman) could use it literally to mean carnal intercourse, as in, “you’re not still frakkin’ Dualla are ya?” She was also heard to use “motherfrakker,” and to use the word as in infix, as in, “I guaran-frakkin-tee you.” Other characters uttered “frak you!” and “frak me!” in rage and despair, respectively. On various occasions in the new series we also heard “frakkin’ A,” “clusterfrak,” “frak-all,” and “for frak’s sake.”
Euphemisms like frak have a long history. They’ve been around for as long as people have been getting upset by particular words. But seldom has a euphemism been used as a perfect synonym in 100% of original word’s uses. There is no semantic difference between frak and its forbidden cousin; the only difference is a couple of phonemes. It is not the meaning or the sentiment that is considered offensive and therefore censored, it is the sound of the word. It is not the idea that is banned, but the particular form that idea takes. It makes no frakking sense, but there it is.
“frec, adj.,” “frecu, n.,” Dictionary of Old English, A-G Online, University of Toronto, 2007.
“freck | frack, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“frak,” “frack,” Battlestar Wiki, en.battlestarwiki.org, 6 August 2013 and 6 March 2009.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton