How the fuck did what the fuck become acceptable — nay, desirable — as a template for business names and ad campaigns? The obvious rhymes, the winking allusions, the no-apologies acronyms: It’s a WTFestival out there.
End-of-season-sale sign spotted in Melbourne, Australia, earlier this month by Ben Yagoda. The circled F is not the store’s logo, but it stands in here for the chain’s name.
Sure, sometimes the reference is unwitting, as was the case with the Wisconsin Tourism Federation (as noted here by Stan Carey).
Acronyms before and after. Should we tell the good folks at the federation that TFW is Internet slang for that feel(ing) when?
Usually, however, What the Not-Quite-Fuck is wholly intentional, although — alas — only rarely as clever as its creators must have thought. Here’s a stab at a WTF taxonomy.
The earliest citations for the WTF acronym come from Usenet groups beginning in 1985,* as noted by Ben Zimmer in an article for Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog. Ben Zimmer examples in which the W stood not just for what but also for who, why, where, and whatever. But it’s usually what, as these examples — which draw on the acronym’s resemblance to broadcast call letters — indicate:
- WTF with Marc Maron: a twice-weekly podcast hosted by comedian Marc Moran. It launched in September 2009 and became widely known after a June 15 episode with President Barack Obama. Maron does not explain the name of his show, which suggests that it speaks for itself.
- The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Show, which uses the military alphabet equivalent of WTF, calls itself “conservative talk radio that’s informative and entertaining”; it’s distributed in the U.S. by Patriot News Network, “from deep inside flyover country.” (Marc Maron’s show, by contrast, is taped in Los Angeles, aka Gomorrah-on-the-Pacific.) From the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot website: “Do you constantly ask yourself, WTF is going on in this nation?”
Rhymes with fuck
This is a rich and mucky vein of name creation thanks to the many English words that end in –uck.
- What the Buck?!: a vlog by Michael Buckley, whom Wikipedia describes as an “Internet celebrity, comedian, and vlogger.” Note the double punctuation that approximates an interrobang.
- What the Chuck!?!: a line of cocktail mixers made by, yes, a guy named Chuck in West Texas. A rare example of triple-punctuated what-the-not-quite-fuck.
- What the Cluck?: a now-closed halal restaurant in Newark, California, It’s also the title of a self-published book about chickens. And the rhetorical question is also a darling of headline writers at the Mirror (UK), who used it at least three times in 2015.
- What the Duck: a comic strip by Aaron Johnson, It’s about some ducks.
- What the Puck: a podcast about the Washington Capitals NHL hockey team.
- What the Pluck!?: a feature on the Patagonia website that describes how and why the activewear company uses only “100% traceable down” in its insulated garments. Double punctuation again, this time in the reverse order as What the Buck?!
- What the Truck: the name of three unrelated street-food businesses, in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Edmonton, Alberta; and Delhi (yes, India).
What the Truck?! (Delhi)
It’s also the title of a guide to food trucks in Austin, Texas.
- What the Shuck?: a “classic oyster stout where whole oysters are added to the kettle” — I just copy and paste this stuff, folks — from Garden Grove Brewing Company in Richmond, Virginia. If that sounds irresistible, you’re out of what-the-luck: the beer is currently “in purgatory.”
- What the Yuck?: a book about women’s health. Seriously! Subtitle: The Freaky and Fabulous Truth About Your Body.
- What the Zuck: favored by headline writers looking for a concise way to shake their heads over Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It’s also the title of Coder Radio’s episode #175, which focuses on online advertising.
Keep the crispy outer shell, change the creamy filling.
These variants start with f and end with k, but in between the phonetics vary.
- What the Fork: a food truck in Pennsylvania.
What the Fork, Pennsylvania.
- What the Fork is also the name of a blog about restaurants and food in the East Bay Express in California. The logo avoids F-words by substituting an image.
- And here’s another rebus: in November 2014, the Bravo TV network ran this ad for its “Best New Restaurant” show. The W stood for who, not what.
- What the Frack: a university project in Milan, Italy, that digitally maps the hydraulic fracturing controversy.
- What the Frak: derived from the “potent profanity in the language of the Twelve Colonies” used on TV’s “Battlestar Gallactica” series. You can wear the mock-expletive on your chest, as Salma Hayek did on an episode of “30 Rock.”
- What the Folk: a fan site for Flight of the Conchords, “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.” It’s not to be confused with What the Folk?!, an online music station wit terrestrial headquarters in San Francisco; or with What the Folklore?, “a comedy podcast trying to make sense of nonsensical stories.”
- What the Frock: a dormant blog about fashion. Also a dress – that is, frock – manufacturer in Hong Kong and a consignment store in Portland, Maine, that sells “high-end” dresses and keeps it classy by using only the initials of What and The. (Incidentally, frock came into English in the mid-14th century from Old French, where it referred to a monk’s habit.)
- What the Flick?! — aka “the acerbic WTF” — is a YouTube channel hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, who also has hosting duties on Turner Classic Movies. The show calls itself “the most trusted name in [movie and TV] reviews.”
This formula keeps only the initial F and changes the terminal consonant as well as the internal vowel sounds.
- What the Font: a typeface identification platform. From the site: “Seen a font in use and want to know what it is? Submit an image to WhatTheFont to find the closest matches in our database. Or, let cloak-draped font enthusiasts lend a hand in the WhatTheFont Forum.”
- What the Fact: a Tumblr about “funny, weird, cool, stupid … amazeballs” facts; the site’s Q&A is called WTFAQs. There’s also a series of What the Fact e-books on subjects like inventory management.
I find What the Fact especially amusing because I once lived in Israel, where native Hebrew-speakers frequently dropped English fact into conversation or speeches — I never understood why the Hebrew equivalent wasn’t up to the task — but they invariably pronounced it fahct, which always sounded to me like fuct.
For further reading:
- James Harbeck asks what the fuck is the the in what the fuck?
- Stan Carey on OMFG! Sweary abbreviations FTFW
* The spelled-out version is certainly older, but by how much is hard to say. Wiktionary gives a 1960 citation from Carlos Fuentes’s Where the Air Is Clear (“Even dogs know the neighborhood better than you do, so what the fuck, you just follow”), but that line is from the 1988 English translation. I’m fairly certain the original Spanish is non-sweary: “Te salen perros al paso, que conocen el cantón mejor que tú, y tú nomás te dejan llevar.” The next-oldest citation is from a 1972 work of music scholarship by R. Serge Denisoff (“But what the fuck, let’s face it. I want to live good. I want to make some money; I want a car, you know. How long can you fight it?”). [UPDATE: See comment from Stan Carey, below.]