How fuck became our least sexual swear word.

How the F-Word Became Our Least Sexual Swear Word

How the F-Word Became Our Least Sexual Swear Word

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
April 13 2015 10:00 AM

How the F-Word Became Our Least Sexual Swear Word


Illustration by Slate

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Plenty has been penned about the history, derivation, and usage of the word fuck, so there is no need to rehash it here. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of it that while mentioned is mostly glossed over. In English, at least, fuck is the most mercurial of swear words because it has escaped and run from the confines of its sexual root. While every other European language has its own word for fuck, English appears to be unique in its more universal application. Let’s take the following joke as an example:


In Jerusalem, a female journalist heard about a very old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She went to the Western Wall, and there he was! She watched him pray, and after about forty-five minutes, when he turned to leave, she approached him for an interview.

“I’m Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Western Wall and praying?

“For about fifty years.”

“Fifty years! That’s amazing! What do you pray for?”


“I pray for peace between the Jews and the Arabs. I pray for all hatred to stop, and I pray for our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“How do you feel after doing this for fifty years?

“Like I’m talking to a fucking wall.”

To understand the uniqueness of this joke in English, try literally translating it into any other European language. The punch line would make no sense to a Frenchman. Although he does have a respective—or disrespective—verb foutre and the milder baiser, he would wonder why someone is referring to intercourse with a wall. “That fucking wall” would be something along the lines of “cette putain de mur” in French, or “that whore of a wall,” and Spanish would be similar. The French are also quite enamored of shit—“vous me faites chier,” which literally means “you make me shit” but implies that “you bore me.” The sacrosanct fucking is reserved for, well, “fucking.”


But our English fuck is beginning to make inroads into other languages. This is particularly more common in countries where English is a second language, such as Holland or Norway. If you watch an episode of Lilyhammer, you will hear a character speak an entire diatribe in Norwegian, save for the English adjective fucking. Very recently the Dutch have purloined our precious fucking as seen in Hou je fokking bek (Shut your fucking beak!). I say purloined because the actual word for fuck in Dutch is neuken and not fokken, or whatever. (I think the latter was sort of a German tri-plane, but I’m not betting on it.)

"So I poured us some fucking drinks and then we got in a fucking cab ..."

Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

While fuck’s nonsexual use as an adjective, noun, verb, or adverb in English is omnipresent, it is simply absent from other tongues as such. For the hundreds of insults or compliments that you will dredge up from other tongues, you will not find one that directly completely evolves from our sexually rooted fuck and meanders into countless other directions. To illustrate the asexuality of the English fuck, we turn to this salty morsel:

A man is talking to his friend about a girl he met the night before.

“I went to the fucking pub and saw this fucking beautiful girl. I thought, ‘Fucking hell, she’s fucking gorgeous.’ ”


“What happened then?” asks his friend.

“I bought her a fucking drink and started fucking talking to her,” he says.

“What happened then?” asks his friend again.

“She said she wanted to leave, so we tried to get a fucking cab but fucking ended up walking all the way to her fucking flat. Then she asked me in for a fucking drink.”


“What happened then?”

“We made love.”

Similarly, Bill Bryson found it odd that fuck was also used as a general expletive for anger: “It is a strange and little-noted idiosyncrasy of our tongue that when we wish to express extreme fury we entreat the object of our rage to undertake an anatomical impossibility or, still, to engage in the one activity that is bound to give him more pleasure than anything else.”

This departure from the literal nonsexual denotation is nothing new for the English speaker. Poring over Jesse Sheidlower’s encyclopedic The F Word, it would appear that the word began to emerge as something other than a reference to copulation around the middle to late-19th century. Considering the widespread and diverse usage of the word today, it is astonishing that a verb that began as a term for a sexual act evolved into an all-embracing generic epithet that is almost patently devoid of sexuality. Is there anything remotely sexual about any of the following phrases? At the same time, is there any single word malleable enough that could be substituted for fuck?


“Oh you’ve gone and fucked it now!” (finite verb)
“Stop fucking around. We’ve got to get this job done!” (gerund)
“Try not to fuck up this time!” (infinitive)
“Don’t fuck with me, mate!” (negative command)
“Get the fuck out of here!” (noun)
“That’s fucking ridiculous!” (adverb)
“Fuck! That’s a big dog!” (exclamation)

It’s the one magical word that—just by its sound—can describe pain, pleasure, hate, and love.
To see how far the word has strayed from its source for most of us, someone scribbled a demeaning epithet about a group of women on a college campus, referring to them as “fucking nymphomaniacs.” A more literal wag scrawled beneath it, “Aren’t they all?”

And so it is with the recent rise in the proliferation of the nonsexual fuck that two entirely different ends have been attained. On one side it may be seen as a liberating force that has broken the yoke of a puritanical heritage by allowing us to freely express ourselves without the shame of sexual recrimination. At the same time it is presenting an endless wellspring for a vast array of casual expletives that in no way reflect the very roots whence they sprang. As a means of expression, fuck has a continually growing repertoire that is without equal: dumbfuck, fuckbrain, clusterfuck, or to “Fuck a duck,” “monkey or pig fuck,” or “take a flying fuck at the moon.” Just the number of uses that are humorous indicates that we have attempted to throw all of our inherited guilt over the four-letter word to the four winds.

Repression may have placed a severe onus on the word as a sexual act in the past, but contemporary speakers have mostly reduced the sexual import, and the accompanying taboo. As a final aside, I cannot resist quoting from the last episode of Season 7 of Dexter, aptly titled “Surprise, Motherfucker!” The supremely potty-mouthed Debra Morgan, who cannot seem to have a conversation without a seemingly mandatory swear word, covered both bases with the truly unique, “Well fuck Jesus on a cracker!” Excuse me?