Tracing the origin of this word has been a difficult one for etymologists and lexicographers. Because it has been a taboo word for many centuries, there is little record to go on. But modern etymologists have pieced together the history, albeit with some gaps still existing here and there.
We know that fuck is of Germanic origin. Note that is Germanic and not German—an important distinction. It does not come from the modern German verb ficken. Instead, these two words probably share a common root. Fuck also has cognates in other Northern European languages: the Middle Dutch fokken meaning to thrust, to copulate; the dialectical Norwegian fukka meaning to copulate; and the dialectical Swedish focka meaning to strike, push, copulate, and fock meaning penis. And both French and Italian have similar words, foutre and fottere respectively. These derive from the Latin futuere. The relation between this Latin root and the Germanic ones, if any, is uncertain.
As to exactly how English got its word, we don’t know. Most of the early known usages of the English word come from Scotland and the north of England, leading some scholars to believe that the word comes from Scandinavian sources. Others disagree, believing that the number of northern citations reflects that the taboo was weaker in Scotland and the north, resulting in more surviving citations of use. The fact that there are citations, albeit fewer of them, from southern England dating from the same period seems to bear out this latter theory.
The earliest known use of fuck was recently discovered by Paul Booth of Keele University. The name Roger Fuckebythenavele appears three times in the Chester county court plea rolls between 8 December 1310 and 28 September 1311. The name, presumably a nickname hinting at sexual inexperience, appears in the rolls as part of a process to have the man declared an outlaw. [Editorial note: many of us have embarrassing nicknames from our youths, but to have one this unfortunate remembered seven hundred years later is a special form of hell.]
The next known use of fuck is from c.1475 and is from a macaronic poem written in a mix of Latin and English and entitled Flen flyys. The poem appears in the manuscript London, British Library, MS Harley 3362, fol. 47r. The relevant lines read:
Fratres Carmeli navigant in a bothe apud Eli,
Non sunt in caeli, quia gxddbiv xxjxzt pg ifmk.
(The Carmelite brothers sail in a boat near Ely; they are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.)
The words gxddbiv xxjxzt pg ifmk are enciphered, where each letter stands for the one preceding it in the alphabet, indicating that the word was taboo. The decoded words are fuccant uuivs of Heli. Fuccant is a pseudo-Latin word, an English root with a Latin inflectional ending. Ely is a town near Cambridge.
Interestingly, variants of the poem, without the offending word, were still circulating as school-boy rhymes as late as the nineteenth century:
Tres fratres caeli navigabant roundabout Eli;
Omnes drownderunt qui swimaway non potuerunt.
(Three brothers of heaven sailed roundabout Eli; all drowned who could not swim away.)
Carl Buck’s 1949 Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages contains a reference to a personal name, John le Fucker, from the year 1278. But this citation is questionable. No one has properly identified the document this name supposedly appears in, and even if it is real, the name is likely a variant of fuker, a maker of cloth; fulcher, a soldier; or another similar word.
Fuck was not common prior to the 1960s, at least not in published use; informal, spoken use was undoubtedly much more frequent. Shakespeare does not use it, although he did hint at it for comic effect. In Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.i) he gives us the pun “focative case.” In Henry V (IV.iv), the character Pistol threatens to “firk” a French soldier, a word meaning to strike, but commonly used as an Elizabethan euphemism for fuck. And earlier in the same play (III.iv), Princess Katherine confuses the English words foot and gown for the French foutre and coun (fuck and cunt, respectively) with comic results.
Other poets did use the word, although it was far from common. Robert Burns, for example, used it in his c.1800 Merry Muses (not published until 1911):
You can f——k where’er you please.
The taboo was so strong that for 170 years, from 1795 to 1965, fuck did not appear in a single general dictionary of the English language. In 1948, the publishers of The Naked and the Dead persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead, resulting in Dorothy Parker’s (or maybe it was Talullah Bankhead, the various tellings differ) comment upon meeting Mailer: “So you’re the man who can’t spell fuck.” In the late 1960s, the taboo started to break down and fuck began to appear more frequently in print.
We can certainly dispense with a few of the more egregious legendary etymologies of the word.
It is not an acronym for either Fornication Under Consent of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or for anything else. Acronyms such as these are unknown before the late-19th century and not at all common until the 20th.
And the elaborate explanation concerning the archers in the Battle of Agincourt and the phrase Pluck Yew! is a joke. It was not intended to be taken seriously, although some people evidently did.
Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition, March 2008, s. v. fuck, v.
Sheidlower, Jesse, The F Word, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Wright, Thomas and James Halliwell, Reliquae Antiquae, London, 1845, 91.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton