What The Digamma!

Jay Dillon found what may possibly be the earliest known use of what the fuck, which he has posted to Facebook. Dillon discovered the following poem, which was written by Joseph Dunn Lester and appeared in the 1881 Prize Translations, Poems, and Parodies. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word, the go-to resource for all fucking things, has the earliest use of what the fuck in Henry Miller’s 1942 Roofs of Paris. Who the fuck and where the fuck appear in the 1930s. And there is a 1903 citation of what the puck. The abbreviation WTF is recorded in 1985. So this poem, if it is indeed a use of the phrase, would be a significant antedating.

But the phrase is not clearly spelled out. Like many early uses of fuck, it’s encoded. The poem reads:

Διος Ομηρος (The God Homer)

Polyphloisboisteros Homer of old
Threw all his augments into the sea,
Though he’d been firmly but courteously told,
Perfect imperfects begin with an E.

“What the digamma, does any one care!”
The Poet replied with a haughty stare,
And he sat him down by the wine-dark sea,
To write a fresh book of the Odyssey.

A digamma is an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet that resembles the modern Latin letter F. (It had a sound value of /w/.) So the relevant the line could be read as “What the F, does any one care!” It seems likely the poem is a bit of an inside joke. Lester slipped a vulgar expression past the editors knowing that only those who knew Homeric Greek would get the joke. But this would mean that the phrase what the fuck was in use in 1881. That stretches credulity a bit, but not to the breaking point. Fuck was such a taboo word that there are very few printed uses of it in the nineteenth century, so its absence from the printed record is not evidence of its absence in spoken language.

If it is indeed an instance of what the fuck, it was hiding in plain sight. The poem was once well known, at least in certain rarefied circles. The word polyphloisboisteros even has an entry in the OED, with a first citation being from this poem. (It means noisy, boisterous.)

Ben Zimmer has a longer explanation, including a juicy tidbit about Charles Dodgson’s (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) reaction to the poem, in the Strong Language blog.

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