How “fuck” went mainstream

We’re delighted to share an extract from the new book From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations by Allan Metcalf. It will be published next month by Oxford University Press, which describes it as “a lively look at the words that have come to define different generations in history” – including fuck.

Even major dictionaries declined to include fuck until quite recently, yet it now appears without fuss in an impressive range of cultural domains. So how did fuck make the leap? In the text below, Metcalf traces the word’s emergence out of largely disreputable use into ever more mainstream contexts.

*

As Boomers grew older, most of them left hippiedom behind, taking conventional jobs, dressing conventionally, leaving bell-bottom pants and tie-dyed shirts in the back of closets for their children to wonder about. Hippie language too became dated, especially groovy as a synonym for cool.

But they had instigated a major change in the English language, bringing fuck and other four-letter words out of the closet.

By no means was fuck a new word. The Oxford English Dictionary shows examples from as far back as 1568, and says the word is likely to be older but unattested because it has been “one of the English words most avoided as taboo.” Dictionaries avoided it, even the biggest and most comprehensive like the Oxford English Dictionary itself (before 1972) and the “Unabridged,” Webster’s New International Dictionary of 1961 that shocked reviewers for its supposed permissiveness. Fuck was used plentifully enough where dictionaries feared to tread, in men-only conversations and particularly in the military. The World War II military acronyms SNAFU and FUBAR, explained euphemistically as “situation normal, all fouled up” and “fouled up beyond all recognition,” are evidence of that earlier taboo use. Women for the most part avoided it altogether.

All that changed beginning in the 1960s, thanks to the Boomers. Nowadays fuck is heard and seen in many contexts, freely used by women as well as men, often in movies and novels, and with concomitant lessening of its shock value. Nowadays a clusterfuck is just a term for everything going wrong, and Bumfuck is a well-known nickname for a small town in the middle of nowhere. A style of high-heeled women’s shoes is now known as fuck-me pumps, with help from a 2003 song of that name by Amy Winehouse. The term is so familiar that it inspired a cartoon in The New Yorker of a woman saying to a shoe store sales clerk, “I need a really great pair of marry-me pumps.” There are also CFMBs, come fuck me boots.

Exactly when and how did this seismic shift in the English language take place? In this case, I think it’s possible to pinpoint the flap of the butterfly wings that rippled out to cause such a storm of change.

The time was the morning of March 3, 1965. The epicenter, the place from which the change spread, was in Berkeley, California, at Telegraph and Bancroft Avenues, the southern entrance to the University of California campus. And it all began with a sheet of paper on which a young man had written the word fuck.

All eyes were on Berkeley at that time, filled with Boomer undergraduates, because of the student-led Free Speech Movement that had resulted in victory for student activists the year before. With nonviolent sit-ins and marches, during the fall semester 1964 they had persuaded the university to lift its ban on political advocacy at the edge of campus. Just as the F.S.M. had spontaneously attracted wide support from students, so it spontaneously disbanded when its work was done.

What does this have to do with language and generations? The lofty and virtuous F.S.M. was the background for a decidedly unlofty protest during the relative calm of the semester that followed.

John Thompson, a drifter and would-be poet, best characterized as a “slacker” before Generation X reinvented the term, on that morning in March was sitting on a planter at the edge of the main entrance to campus. Just to get a little attention, hoping even to enhance his reputation by getting thrown in jail, he wrote FUCK on a piece of notebook paper and held it up.

Nothing happened at first, but after a while a “frat guy” came up, angrily took the paper and tore it up. After he left, Thompson calmly wrote another, more elaborate and academic sign: “FUCK (verb).” And after another while the frat guy came back with a policeman, who arrested him.

And thus a new cause was born. It was soon labeled another F.S.M., the “Filthy Speech Movement,” much to the delight of the hippie Boomers, much to the disgust of certain high-minded civil rights and antiwar activists, the responsible members of the Silent Generation.

Holding up the sign was a Boomer thing to do. Thompson, born in 1942, was one year too old for Boomerdom, but younger Boomers began to follow his lead. Not by holding up signs with four-letter words, but by casually using them, nice middle-class boys and girls who up till then would not have filled their mouths with words like “fuck.” With his sign, Thompson had found another way to shock the establishment. Abbie Hoffman summed it up in the title of his 1967 book, Fuck the System.

Over the course of a decade or so, the shock waves spread so widely that they no longer shocked, and “fuck” became merely an edgy word rather than a shockingly taboo one. Authors like Hoffman discovered that they could get attention by using the word. So did Michael McCloskey in his 1968 volume of short stories simply titled, Fuck You.

The generational effect is evident in the dialogue from a 1969 collection of short stories, Nightwork by Christine Schutt. “What are you writing?” a mother asks her daughter. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck for pages,” says the daughter, who “seemed happy to say it, fuck.”

Erica Jong made a name for herself with her 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, notable for her coinage of the term zipless fuck, “absolutely pure” and “free of ulterior motives,” where “zippers fall away like rose petals.”

The spreading use of fuck is a dramatic moment in a 1980 book Voyeur Wife by Nick Eastwood. Cheryl, a suburban wife, spies on her sister Amy as she says to her husband, “are you going to go on teasing me, darling, or are we going to fuck?” The book continues:

Cheryl stifled a shocked gasp. She hadn’t known that her stylish, rich older sister used words like that. Their upbringing had been very strict, and Cheryl personally did not approve of dirty language.

Where had Amy learned such filthy words? . . . this was not the prim college girl that Cheryl remembered. Her sister was behaving like a common slut.

Responding to the trend, both for shock value but also because of gradual acceptance, movies began using fuck in the 1970s. The intensity peaked in the 1980s. Those who bother to keep score found 208 fucks in Scarface (1983), 159 in Platoon (1986), and 157 in Colors (1988).

Dictionaries began including the word in the 1970s, with the realization that people would be more likely to buy dictionaries than to banish them if they included it. The American Heritage Dictionary of 1969 was one of the first. Even the famously prudish New Yorker finally accepted fuck on its pages beginning in 1985.

*

Allan Metcalf - From Skedaddle to Selfie - OUP book coverAllan Metcalf is professor of English at MacMurray College, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca language blog.

From Skedaddle to Selfie is his seventh book (following the excellent OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word). It is excerpted here with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2016 Allan Metcalf and published by OUP USA. All rights reserved.

Thanks to Nancy Friedman (also of Strong Language) for her help in preparing this post.

34 thoughts on “How “fuck” went mainstream

  1. John Cowan October 22, 2015 / 2:14 pm

    Women for the most part avoided it altogether.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that women avoided it except in intimate situations, if the evidence of literature (admittedly mostly, but by no means entirely, written by men) is worth anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey October 23, 2015 / 7:57 am

      I agree, John – though I would be inclined to say familiar situations.

      Like

    • photographsofthemind November 6, 2015 / 10:30 pm

      Vey interesting and informative. I would have never thought that the word was used so long ago.

      Like

  2. rossmurray1 October 22, 2015 / 2:14 pm

    And yet it’s the last bleeped word in the land. I note that John Oliver, say, can utter “shitty” or “dickhead” but “fuck” is censored.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stan Carey October 23, 2015 / 7:59 am

      Yes, it’s still restricted. But much has changed in a few decades, and in a few more, who knows?

      Like

    • John Cowan December 13, 2015 / 3:44 pm

      Which land, Australia? Here in the home of the free a fuck of a lot of words get bleeped out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. danchall October 22, 2015 / 3:02 pm

    You asked “So how did fuck make the leap?” and I immediately thought of the phrase “flying fuck.” Then I found your reference to the Jong novel, but unfortunately there was no connection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey October 23, 2015 / 8:01 am

      We’ll let your comment draw that connection then! It wasn’t made because there’s no direct connection between the you of “You asked” and of “your reference”.

      Like

  4. neminem October 22, 2015 / 3:42 pm

    Interesting post – just wanted to point out my initial confusion, as I’d never seen “Free Speech Movement” acronymized to FSM, and the first time I encountered it in your post was the sentence starting “Just as the F.S.M. had spontaneously attracted wide support from students”… FSM these days generally refers to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (which also went viral rather suddenly and in large part from the college-age demographic), so my brain just translated it without even thinking, and I was left wondering wtf the flying spaghetti came into things from.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. gh0stpupp3t October 22, 2015 / 7:36 pm

    I love that word. Unfortunately I have to censor my swearing bc I have young readers, do you see? If it wasn’t for them I would gladly use the f word. I have here something that my fiance taught me. “F*cking machine is out of order, f*ck yourself and save a quarter”

    LOL
    Sam

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Andrea Behr October 22, 2015 / 9:17 pm

    If the fuck fellow was born in 1942, he was four years too old to be a Baby Boomer by most definitions.

    Like

  7. chris October 23, 2015 / 7:12 am

    You Yankees are so piss-weak swearing-wise, a simple fuck is but ancient history.
    Just this week on our national broadcaster’s flagstaff TV program, we had the vice president of the Australian Fair Work Commission (a big honcho, on US $400 grand per year) refer to himself as ‘Cuntstruck’!
    Now that’s serious swearing in the public domain. The amazing thing was that he wasn’t ‘bleeped out’. You can check it out on the net, try ABC IView.
    The many other swearwords he used, including fuck, were not even an issue. But cuntstruck; what a cracker of a swearword. It means a man so besotted by a woman that he loses all sense of judgement, and indeed in this nitwit’s case it seems appropriate.
    Sorry, you folk can try as hard as you can, but you will never top Australians for fucking top-shelf swearing; it’s in our nature. Our only competitors are the Iberians with their magnificent and complex swearing phrases. I dips my fucking hat to those Spanish fuckers, and those neighbouring Portuguese cunts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stan Carey October 23, 2015 / 8:07 am

      And all this time I had no idea it was a competition.

      Like

      • chris October 23, 2015 / 11:58 pm

        Sorry Stan, a poor attempt at levity. However, I do feel swearing is much more socially acceptable in Australia than the USA. I have spent a fair bit of time in the States in recent years, and there are certainly social situations where no-one would consider using fuck in the USA but in Australia no one would notice. The C-bomb is certainly breaching some social barriers in Australia too, I would be interested to know if that was occurring in other parts of the good old Anglosphere.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mark Kevin Smith October 24, 2015 / 2:49 pm

        The C-bomb is still a pretty big bomb in the USA, however i have been trying to loosen up America, a little bit at a time on the word FUCT. I thought that writing an article about the word FUCK would get me in some kinda trouble, but it didn’t. America is starting to loosen up a bit. I say fuck whenever i think it’s called for and for my friends they do as well. Just waiting on the rest.

        Like

      • Stan Carey October 24, 2015 / 8:23 am

        Chris, I think you’re right that swearing is more socially acceptable in Australia than in the US. It’s not easy to compare this directly or word for word, though, since taboos have so many social and cultural variables.

        By the way, you might enjoy this note from Luis Buñuel on swearing in Spanish. He was impressed by it too.

        Like

  8. I wrote a more tongue in cheek version called The meaning and the uses of the word fuck in america, a while back. Also i remember my wife calling her high heels, fuck me pumps back in 1985. I like to use this word with great enthusiasm. Great article i enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey October 24, 2015 / 8:27 am

      Pumps never quite gained the same currency in Ireland, but fuck-me boots is popular enough.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Mark Kevin Smith October 24, 2015 / 2:30 pm

        My wife is a hairdresser, and i never heard the term fuck me pumps until i started dating her in 85′. Something about the word’s, fuck me pumps. I like the way that sounds. Thanks for the reply.

        Like

  9. CGHill October 24, 2015 / 11:59 pm

    And even Amy Winehouse sings “f— me pumps” in the first verse, though by the end of the song she’s more than happy to use The Word.

    Lorde’s follow-up single to “Royals,” “Tennis Court,” contains a gleefully gratuitous “fuck” in the second verse, which scarcely anyone seemed to notice.

    Like

  10. Joe Sovereign October 29, 2015 / 12:14 pm

    https://languagelens.wordpress.com/tag/frichen/

    …from cognates of Germanic languages, some saying from the German word frichen, meaning to strike.

    German frichen (to strike)
    Dutch fokken (to breed, to strike, to beget)
    Norwegian fukka (to copulate)
    Swedish fokka (to strike, to copulate)

    Like

  11. jonna ellis holston November 2, 2015 / 3:24 am

    I love your work but I beg to differ. It was Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock.
    “What’s that spell?”
    “FUCK!”

    Liked by 1 person

  12. enkaboot November 5, 2015 / 10:55 pm

    I am pleased as fuck, I want to read that fucking book!!

    Like

  13. bbbbarry November 20, 2015 / 4:24 pm

    Note that in both Jong’s book and Eastwood’s, the word is used to signify the act of sex. That seems like a silly thing for me to say, but it’s important, because think of those movies mentioned: almost *every* use of it in them is *not* to signify the act of sex but to signify ill feeling, intense anger, destruction, or doing someone wrong. Almost no references to the act of sex in those many uses of the very same word.

    Surely that’s meaningful? In a drama that seeks to authentically depict a subculture, the audience accepts such violent uses of ‘fuck,’ but accepting it in an authorial voice (I’m thinking of Jong here) is a very different thing.

    I’ll be interested to read “Skedaddle,” and see whether this distinction is ever made. I believe that current FCC laws in the US make it in deciding whether it’s ok to utter on air.

    Like

  14. cnh November 24, 2015 / 10:49 pm

    You mention FUBAR and SNAFU, but in the First World War there was ‘Sweet FA’, bowdlerised to ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’.

    Like

    • Stan Carey November 25, 2015 / 8:33 am

      I expect FUBAR and SNAFU were intended as examples of earlier euphemised forms, not as a comprehensive listing.

      Like

  15. Arthur Stepanyan September 19, 2016 / 6:58 pm

    I’d like to note that as the body parts and physiology derived swear words became mainstream and fully acceptable, the new taboo words replaced them, related to race and gender. Censoring (aka political correctness) became severe, bordering on absurd, e.g.: the word “niggardly” is virtually eradicated from print and media, even though it is not at all related to certain similarly sounding taboo word.
    It is fair to say that race is the new sex, when it comes to censorship.

    Like

    • Stan Carey September 19, 2016 / 7:05 pm

      Anatomical swear words are not fully acceptable, though.

      Like

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