Know Your Words

Other Terms for Dictionary and More about the “F” Word

Do you find the word “bed” controversial?

Jonathon Green’s massive tome, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, is a hell of read. I’m only on chapter two and my copy already boasts an explosion of Post-It notes emerging like mushrooms from a soggy log. On seemingly every page there is some intriguing factoid, a nicely worded quote about the peculiar practice of writing an “abecedarium,” or new word (or at least a word that’s new to me). Here’s a tiny sample of some interesting stuff I’ve learned from the book thus far.

Abecedarium, meaning an alphabetical order, was one of those new-to-me words. Green includes it among a list of terms for “word books,” some of which you know and some you (probably) don’t. Here’s the complete list:

Alveary – a beehive (Oxford English Dictionary)
Catholicon – a universal remedy or panacea (Oxford English Dictionary)
Glossary – a list with explanations of abstruse, antiquated, dialectical or
technical terms (Oxford English Dictionary)
Manipulus – a handful or bundle (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Medulla – the marrow of bones, also the substance of the brain; the pith
of human hair (Oxford English Dictionary)
Ortus –  birth, sunrise, rising, beginning  (Oxford Latin Dictionary)**
Promputarium – Store room, cupboard (Oxford Latin Dictionary)
Sylva – A title for a collection of pieces, especially of poems; also a thesaurus
of words or phrases (Oxford English Dictionary)
Thesaurus – A treasury or storehouse of knowledge (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vocabulary – A collection or list of words with brief explanations of
their meanings (Oxford English Dictionary)
Vulgar – Of language or speech: Commonly or customarily used by the
people of a country; ordinary, vernacular (Oxford English Dictionary)

Pretty cool stuff, right? But wait, there’s more! In the section of the book’s introduction bearing the subhead “Obscenity and Taboo,” Green includes this little Green Civernugget about the “F-word,” a well-worn bit of slang I wrote about nearly a year ago. Although that post contained some fun fucking facts, the following were not among them.

To wap and to niggle, both meaning to have sexual intercourse, or more properly, since they come from the slang vocabulary, to fuck, appear in Thomas Harman’s Caveat (1565). Fuck itself* appears first not in a slang work, but in a bilingual dictionary, John Florio‘s Worlde of Wordes, where it was cited as one of the English synonyms for the Italian fottere.

Finally, if you think that’s fucking amazing, get a load of this: Did you know that a handful of school districts in the United States banned the American Heritage, Webster’s New World (student edition), Random House, Doubleday, and other dictionaries because:

Self-appointed “concerned” parents, school boards, and their allies object to such terms as  “hot” (in a sexual sense), “horny,” “crocked” (drunk), “knocker,” “nut,” “tail,” “ball,” and “bed” (in the definition of which Webster’s New World makes a reference to “bed” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse).

I found that so ridiculous I didn’t (want to) believe Mr. Green. Sure enough, a quick Google search revealed he’s telling the truth.

Have you read a good book about dictionaries? Let me know what it is!



* “Fuck itself” hah-hah-hah ….
** Green defines this as “garden,” but the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines it as noted above.

Know Your Words

A Brief History of the F-Word

F-wordI’ll admit it: the word fuck amazes me, and if you’re into words, language and the like, it should amaze you too. Not because it’s naughty or taboo, of course, but because it’s versatile! Think about it: What other word, low-brow and unrefined as it is, applies to so many situations and means so many different things? Even the ubiquitous shit plays second fiddle to it!

From ignorance (stupid fuck) to intercourse (fuck) and incredulity (what the fuck!?!) to exasperation (fuck my life!), the f-word is nothing short of fabulous in its functionality. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder: Where does this word come from and why does it have so many uses? Let us try to find the fuck out!


“Our word for the act of sexual connection may remotely come from the Latin word for the same, futuere, but [it] most probably is from the Old German ficken/fucken, ‘ to strike or penetrate,’ which had the slang meaning ‘to copulate,” says the Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. “The German word is almost certainly related to the Latin words for pugilist, puncture, and prick, through the root pug, which goes back to prehistoric times.”

The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees about this verboten word’s German roots, but not much else.

“There is little doubt that it is of German origin, but it’s precise source has never been satisfactorily identified. All the earliest known examples of the word come from Scotland, which may suggest a Scandinavian source, related to Norwegian dialect fukka ‘copulate,’ and Swedish dialect focka ‘copulate, hit’ and fock ‘penis.'”

Not to be outdone, Eric Partridge’s etymological dictionary of English, Origins, offers a similarly unsatisfactory account of the word’s lineage in the most superb and roundabout way possible.

“That f**k cannot descend straight from Latin futuere … is obvious; that the two words are related is equally obvious. That it cannot derive unaided from German ficken, to strike, (in popular speech) to copulate with, is clear; it is no less clear that the English and German words are cognates. ‘To f**k’ apparently combines the vocalism of futuere+the consonatism of ficken, which might derive from fucken (only dubiously attested).”

I can’t be sure, but I think Partridge is fucking with us….


Well, if there isn’t a lot that can be said about the origins of the f-word, there is even less, it seems, to be said about how the word became so pliable and/or flexible. The only information I could find about how the word is used appears in Eric Partridge’s immense Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.

fuck, n.  1. An act of sexual connection.  2. A person (rarely a male) viewed in terms of coition, as in ‘She’s a good f.’ These two sentences are excellent examples of vulgarism, being actually standard English.  3. The seminal fluid, especially if viewed as providing the requisite strength (full of fuck, potently amorous).  4. In such intensive phrases as ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ fuck is apparently a noun.  5. See create fuck ‘to make a considerable fuss, usually in protest of something.’  6. See like fuck!, ‘certainly not!'”

Johnson with a fugh on his face.

This excerpt is by no means an exhaustive list, but don’t worry, Partridge has you covered. His Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists more than 50 entries featuring this most famous four-letter word as an adjective, noun, or verb. You simply must check it out for yourself.

A Few Fucking Facts

Beyond the word’s origins and use, several of the books in the Lonely Library’s collection contain some interesting facts about the f-word that I’ll share below, as well as a few words that are, or ought to be, related to it.

First and foremost, you may have noticed that in the excepts from Partridge’s works, fuck is not spelled out because, as he notes in Origins:

“F**k [and c**t] … are the only two words standard English words excluded from all general and etymological dictionaries since the 18th century and are the only two standard English words that, outside of medical and other official or semi-official reports and learned papers, still cannot be printed in full anywhere within the British Commonwealth of Nations.*”

[*Note: Origins was published in 1958.  It seems this is no longer the case.]

In a related item appearing in he Facts of File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

“Fuck began to become more rare in print in the 18th century when human experience began to be disguised behind a “veil of decency,” and the last dictionary it was recorded in up until recent times was Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) in the form of f**k. The great Oxford English Dictionary banned it, just as it banned cunt (but not prick for some reason), and this made the word’s acceptance all the harder. … It wasn’t until Grove Press in America won a court case that permitted publishers to print fuck legally for the first time in centuries.”

In yet another related note, the Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk tells the tale of the word fug, which some writers used as a stand-in for the f-word.

fug. Fuck; a historical curiosity, popularized by Norman Mailer before it was safe to legally print the real word in full. It continued in service for some years after the ban on the real f-word began to be relaxed.

Finally, while searching the Lonely Library’s collection for “fuck” entries, I came across the following word in [Samuel] Johnson’s dictionary:  fugh, which could easily be used like fug, although fugh sounds more like the real deal — and just look at that definition!

fugh. An expression of abhorrence. As in, “A very filthy fellow: how odiously he smells of his country garlick!”