“O D fuckin abbot”
– Unknown monk, 1528
Fucking became the subject of heated debate in December 1976, after Thames Television broadcast Bill Grundy’s Today show. Steve Jones, lead guitarist of the Sex Pistols, was with the rest of the band being goaded to say something outrageous by the host. “You dirty fucker,” said Jones, soon adding “What a fucking rotter”. Unprepared for such language, the British broadcaster had no facility to bleep out the word. Outrage followed.
But why? Everyone tuning into that show on 1 December 1976 would have been familiar with the word, including all teenagers and most children. But words are able to corrupt the nation’s morals, especially children’s. Some words are still banned and controlled, like the ‘N-word’. In 2017, Rochdale Council banned swearing in public spaces. The morality police don’t confine their operations to Saudi Arabia.
Why should Jones limit his range of expression to please a broadcaster licensed by government to protect moral decay? The tailor who fitted The Beatles for their first suits recalls that “their swearing was appalling. I had to remind them they were in a tailor’s shop and should moderate their language”. There is a time and there is a place for certain words. Well, so some say.
Norman Mailer replaced ‘fuck’ with ‘fug’ in his book The Naked and the Dead (1948). Did soldiers fighting in World War 2 really mind their language? As the journalist Dorothy Parker said to him: “So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.”
“It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing, and without enjoying swearing,” says Stephen Fry. “It’s not necessary to have coloured socks. It’s not necessary for this cushion to be here. But is anyone going to write in and say, ‘I was shocked to see that cushion there! It really wasn’t necessary’? No. Things not being necessary is what makes life interesting.”
As Billy Connolly remarked: “A lot of people say that it’s a lack of vocabulary that makes you swear. Rubbish. I know thousands of words, but I still prefer ‘fuck’.”
It might be useful to look at the history of ‘fuck’. “The history begins in murky circumstances,” says the Oxford English Dictionary‘s site. We see it first written in a sixteenth century text “in a mixed Latin-and-English context.” There it is in the margins of a Cicero’s De Officiis. “It’s a monk expressing his displeasure at an abbot,” says Katharine Trendacosta. “In the margins of a guide to moral conduct. Because of course.”
Technically, “fuck” appeared two times before this. In 1500, it was used in a satirical poem to describe some friars. In that case, nothing like “fuck” was actually written out. Instead, the word was hidden in a code. And in 1513, it appeared in a Scottish poem as “fukkit.”.. But for English’s first use, we’ve got a dissatisfied 1528 monk. He’s written “O D fuckin abbot.”
Fitting, of course, that swearing appears in religious texts. As Stephen Pinker noted in an essay for the New Republic (2007):
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally “evil speech” but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.”
And here it is – the first the first recorded instance of ‘fuck’ written in English: