Frankly Useless Crank “Knowledge,” Only For Fools

Have you heard where fuck comes from? For Use of Carnal Knowledge. No, um, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. No, wait, Fornication Under Consent of King. No, it’s…

…It’s Frankly Usage Crank “Knowledge,” Only For Fools. Or FUCK OFF for short.

Sorry to shit on your party trick – don’t worry, it won’t Ship High In Transit, because FUCK OFF – but no swearwords ever in English (or probably any other language) have been created from acronyms. This is for two reasons:

  1. Acronyms are intrinsically euphemistic. They are used to camouflage rude, offensive, or otherwise unendurable things (often just unendurably long).
  2. Acronyms have only really been used to generate words since the mid-20th century.

Let’s start with a little history. Economy of space led to initialisms such as A.M. and P.M. and, later, company names stencilled on crates, equipment, and produce: B&O, for instance, or that bottle of J&B you have in the back of the cabinet. But it wasn’t until World War II that the military started going nuts with pronounceable acronyms such as RADAR (Radio Detecting And Ranging) and AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). On the model of these came informal ones such as ASAP (As Soon As Possible) and SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up). Indeed, a whole set of acronyms containing F emerged: TARFU (Things Are Really Fucked Up), FUBB (Fucked Up Beyond Belief), JANFU (Joint Army-Navy Fuck-Up)… Civilians easily latched onto these, and any unfamiliar acronym you see now containing F is usually presumed to have a Fuck lurking in it. Which adds a bit of salt to the Roald Dahl book (and, now, movie) The BFG.

Meanwhile, acrostics have a longer history. An acrostic is where you expand an existing word letter by letter to other words. A famous ancient example is the source of all those fish-shaped stickers on cars: Greek for ‘fish’ is ΙΧΘΥΣ, which can be expanded in an acrostic to Greek words meaning ‘Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour’. But no one thought that’s where the Greek word for ‘fish’ came from. Those who were literate enough to understand acrostics also understood that they were not the origins of words.

Now, though, everyone is literate, but not everyone is learnèd. Literacy isn’t a curse, but a little learning is a dangerous thing. For many people, interpersonal competitive value is far more real than abstract ideas of historical truth. When someone hands you a magical fact that you can use as a conversational trump card, are you strongly inclined to check the reliable sources to make sure it’s true? Do you even know which reliable sources to check? People love to unlock the mysteries of words’ origins – or, rather, they love to believe they have unlocked them, and the catchier the “knowledge” the better. Acronyms have such a tidy appeal: a letter equals a word – instant skeleton key! Mind = blown!

And so we get these ideas that words such as posh and golf and tip and cop come from acronyms. The stories are detailed, convincing to those who don’t know better, and entirely false (just like many other catchy stories about phrase origins). Not a one of them comes from an acronym. They’re all too old to have come from acronyms, and honestly, some of the accounts of their acronymic origins are frankly fucking stupid. I won’t rehash them here because they’re not sweary, but I cover them in an article I wrote for The Week. (Also mistrust any other catchy story you hear about a common phrase. Look it up on World Wide Words and And, for fuck’s sake, think about them. “Freeze the balls off a brass monkey” refers to stacking cannonballs in pyramids on the decks of battleships? That, you know, roll and heave on the waves? Really?)

But swearwords? What about those? If they don’t come from acronyms, where do they come from?

For fuck, the evidence (per the Oxford English Dictionary) is that it comes from an old Germanic root that shows up with the same meaning in some modern regional Scandinavian dialects (Norwegian regional fukka, Swedish regional fokka), is likely related to the equivalent German ficken, and perhaps originally in the Indo-European root meant ‘strike’ (if that sounds odd, have you not heard the expression “I’d hit that”?). Its first known appearance in English is a scurrilous medieval rhyme satirizing friars in Cambridge, using (hidden behind a simple letter cipher) a pseudo-Latinism, fuccant, ‘they fuck’. So, aside from the fact that the purveyors of bullshit acronymic etymologies can’t get their shit together and agree on a fucking origin of fuck, and acronyms were not used at the time (also, the people who said fuck most often were at that time not reliably literate), we have a better trail of evidence.

And shit? Also from an old Germanic root, descended equally to modern German Scheiss (which sounds closer to Scots shite). It shows up in Old English, fully inflected: “Wiþ þon þe men mete untela melte & gecirre on yfele wætan & scittan” (that scittan is an infinitive form of ‘shit’ and was said like “shit-tan”). I can assure you that an acronym Ship High In Transit – supposedly meaning that manure was to be loaded in the upper parts of ships – was not possible in the language in the Old English period, not just because transit was not borrowed from Latin until half a millennium later, or because they didn’t use acronyms like that then, but because what the fuck are you even thinking. They didn’t need to ship manure. Animals produce it on the spot everywhere. Holy shit, fucking seriously.

What about other swearwords? You may or may not have seen fake etymologies of them, but you might as well know a bit of truth.

Ass, I hope you know, is a word for a donkey, and in American English is also a new version of arse. Arse comes from old Germanic, and is seen reflected in other Germanic languages today; modern High German has Arsch, for instance.

Piss comes from Norman French; modern French has the verb pisser meaning exactly the same thing.

Tit is also spelled teat and comes from old Germanic; an example (thanks, OED!) from Old English is “Wið titta sar wifa þe beoð melce.” (If you can’t understand that, ask yourself why you would think a simple acronym using modern English words would be the key to understanding the origin of a grand old word.)

And cunt is related to – wait for it – old Germanic words through the same Proto-Indo-European that produced Latin cunnus, which shows up in cunnilingus. You don’t need an acronym to have that one licked.

16 thoughts on “Frankly Useless Crank “Knowledge,” Only For Fools

  1. Mark E. Ludlow July 16, 2016 / 6:19 am

    That was some fuckin’ good shit!


  2. phil795 July 16, 2016 / 7:12 am

    Reblogged this on Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine and commented:
    Warning: this articles is not for prudes or the linguistically squeamish. It is a frank, fascinating look into the origins of some of our most common obscenities.


  3. Y July 16, 2016 / 4:38 pm

    Not a swearword, but likewise punk is not from “People Under No King”.


  4. John Cowan July 16, 2016 / 5:37 pm

    Cunt remains pretty much a mystery. It can’t be cognate to cunnus, because Grimm’s law. And if it’s inherited from Germanic, why did the /n/ stick around? The Ingvaeonic Spirant Law should have disposed of that, as in Dutch kut. Contrariwise, if it’s borrowed from Latin, where is the /t/ from? In the end, we resort to the get-out-of-jail-free card of historical linguistics: dialect mixture!


    • Steve Bacher July 18, 2016 / 12:21 am

      Thank you for that Grimm observation. (My understanding is that cunt has similar origins to Greek ‘gyn-‘, as do “queen” and “quean”, the latter being an archaic word for a lowly woman.) Interestingly, regarding the dropped spirant, comic Bonnie McFarlane was on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and told a joke about her daughter using a “bad” word that she (the daughter) allegedly pronounced “caught.” I wonder if the spirant-dropping is catching.


    • sesquiotic July 18, 2016 / 4:31 pm

      Thanks. I oversimplified for the sake of brevity, which I should not have, so thank you for bringing in those details.


    • ziggyspeaks July 19, 2016 / 4:28 pm

      Definition of “CUNT”: “Can’t Understand Normal Thinking”


  5. mominem July 18, 2016 / 3:08 pm

    You skipped one of the most famous and widespread military acronyms FUBAR


      • sesquiotic July 18, 2016 / 4:32 pm

        I’m just going to say that I left it out so someone would add it in the comments. 🙂 As Stan said, it wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive listing. There are some more military acronyms we could toss in here if we wanted, like JAFO.


  6. ziggyspeaks July 19, 2016 / 4:26 pm

    Bravo!! One of the most versatile words in (my) vocabulary: FUCK!! (or if I am in a more P.C. Audience): PHUCK! (as not to “offend” anyone) I have (since I can remember) been asked if my chosen profession is “Longshoreman”? Fuck ’em! I’m a Fan-Fucking-Tastic Fucking Chick with just the right amount of fucking Bitch-Cuntiness to keep my fucking asshole audience on their toes!
    Keep up the fucking awesome work! Great mother fucking post!


  7. SlideSF July 19, 2016 / 8:11 pm

    Apochryphal as it may be (you don’t mention the actual etymology in your post), nevertheless the received origin of the word “posh” does help this landlubber to remember which side of a ship is which.


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