Dear Mr. Alice: I’ve always wondered about that most vulgar of English vulgarities, the F-word. I remember my fifth-grade teacher claimed it stood for Fornication Under Consent of the King. What is its true semantic history? — Tony Testa, La Jolla
And just what was the discussion topic the day your teacher had occasion to tell a bunch of ten-year-olds that little story? A particularly spicy show-and-tell session? Well, I’m happy to see that even at that tender age, you knew a crock when you heard one, Tony. “Origin unknown,” states the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first print reference dates from 1503, from northern England or Scotland, which means it was likely in the spoken language as much as a century before that. It’s always been a hypernaughty term (not even Chaucer or Shakespeare use it), which would keep it out of print much longer than most new words.
Lots of our yeasty English expletives were originally Anglo-Saxon, but this one probably isn’t. However we got ahold of it, it seems to be related to a whole series of old Indo-European words originally meaning “to prick,” “to strike,” or “to push” — Swedish fockar, Norse fukkar, German ficken, and so on.
The story about the obliging king may date from the mid-1700s, when the British crown began making laws concerning the age of marriage and consent. Another popular and erroneous story says the word comes from a notation on British police blotters next to the names of people arrested for sex crimes (and later appropriated by Van Halen): For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Undoubtedly it was just a short, sharp, handy word that seemed to sum up our feelings neatly from time to time, even back in the Middle Ages, and we’ve hung on to it ever since.