What the not-quite-fuck?

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.

Here, for example, is a post-holiday-sale ad from that hoary nearly sweary retailer fcuk (French Connection United Kingdom, or so they say: see first footnote in my post about Sofa King).

fcuk what the f

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).

wisconsin tourism federation - tourism federation of wisconsin - logo before and after

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.

Straight-up WTF

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 stood not just for what but also for whowhywhere, 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, Pennsylvania.


  • 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.


A sign protesting North American fracking. (Via Daily Kos.)


  • 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.”

F-word substitution

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:


*  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.]

17 thoughts on “What the not-quite-fuck?

  1. Ben Zimmer January 27, 2016 / 7:10 am

    When I wrote about the Wisconsin Tourism Federation name change on Language Log back in 2009, I noted that WTF could still stand for the World Taekwondo Federation. But now comes word of another taboo-avoiding name change: it’s soon going to be known simply as World Taekwondo (WT).


  2. E. Briannica (@E_Briannica) January 27, 2016 / 7:50 am

    RE: WTF with Marc Maron. He doesn’t explain the name, though it seems to make sense in the context of how he began the show: He was so misanthropic that he could not get jobs, and had alienated his comedian colleagues by resenting their success, so he started the show as a last-ditch attempt to make something of his own and make amends. So it’s a bit of why the fuck not, and a bit of what the fuck is this, why am I doing this.

    He also starts each ep with the intro: “Hey what the fuckers, what the fuckbuddies, what the fuckaneers, what the Fuckstables” etc with fun suffix variants, so listeners know the anagram stands for, it’s not a secret or a minced oath.


  3. Stan Carey January 27, 2016 / 8:31 am

    The oldest example of what the fuck cited in Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word (3rd ed.) is in Henry Miller’s Roofs of Paris, 1942: “I don’t know what the fuck to say.” But the same invaluable source also has a where the f— and a who the f— from 1936 (M. Levin, Old Bunch), and a who de fuck from 1934 (H. Roth, Call It Sleep).

    Still older examples of what the puck and why the puck (from 1903 and 1864, respectively) are, as Sheidlower writes, “precisely synonymous with why the devil; the similarity of both the phonetics and the construction may have influenced the development of the present usage of fuck.”


    • Nancy Friedman January 27, 2016 / 6:15 pm

      Oh, FFS — I searched The F Word (3rd ed.) and could. not. find. an entry for spelled-out “what the fuck.” Covered in shame now. Thank you, Stan!


      • Stan Carey January 27, 2016 / 7:35 pm

        It’s about eight pages into the fuck entry, under In phrases: the fuck (page 78 in my edition). I thoroughly enjoyed your post, by the way. Delighted someone is keeping track of these variants.


  4. Chips Mackinolty January 27, 2016 / 8:43 am

    There was a yacht moored for many years in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia called Far Kurnell; Kurnell being a beach side suburb of Sydney.


  5. Pat January 28, 2016 / 1:54 am

    I just gave up looking on google ngrams as the first two I found lied about their age. Bible 2.0 by Nathan Smithe is surely not from 1969. The Sun Day by Kenny and Kevin Yao is from 2013 not 1927. WTF?


  6. יובל פינטר January 28, 2016 / 10:20 am

    This Israeli Hebrew language blog owner is not familiar with ubiquitous use of English “fact” in Hebrew conversation. Perhaps ’twas a local phenomenon? What circles were you hanging around?


    • Nancy Friedman January 28, 2016 / 3:12 pm

      Could have been a passing fad — this was a few decades back! (I recall hearing it in news broadcasts as well as in conversation, fwiw.)


  7. Nancy Davis Kho (@midlifemixtape) January 28, 2016 / 7:11 pm

    The only “WTF” I care about is Missy Elliott’s latest track…and the choreography that goes with it. I am determined to get this down.


    • Nancy Friedman January 28, 2016 / 11:51 pm

      I like this version:

      Puppets FTFW!


  8. astraya March 2, 2016 / 11:58 am

    My brother-in-law and sister came back from an international conference. She showed me his name tag, which had WTF underneath his name and affiliation. The conference ran all week but his registration was for three days towards the end of it.


  9. Adrian Dent July 9, 2020 / 7:21 am

    What the Folk is also a radio programme on 3PBS 106.7 FM in Melbourne, and streaming live everywhere on pbsfm.org.au
    The presenter has an Order of Australia Medal for services to music.


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