I am delighted to be able to announce that I have been working on a new, fourth edition of my book The F-Word.
The F-Word is a historical dictionary devoted to the word fuck, illustrating in detail every significant usage of the word: parts of speech, senses, derived forms, abbreviations, expressions, proverbs. As a historical dictionary, it, like the Oxford English Dictionary, includes quotations showing exactly how the word has been used throughout history, drawn from a wide range of sources, including famous writers, Victorian pornography, Urban Dictionary, TV shows, military diaries, Twitter and Reddit, rap lyrics, and even this blog.
The first edition came out in 1995, and was based on the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (the fuck-containing volume of which had been published in 1994). This edition largely ignored non-American uses of the word, and its treatment of entries beyond the letter F was spotty. The second edition of 1999 remedied these and other problems. The third edition, published in 2009, was a massive update; by that point I had become an editor at the OED, and was able to use its resources, as well as the greatly increased availability of online sources, to significantly expand the book. The fourth edition will benefit from the further expansion of online databases, as well as increased interest (both popular and academic) in both the use and the study of offensive language.
Among many other things, Madeline Kripke was a collector of dictionaries and other language books. At her death, in April 2020, an early victim of the Covid-19 pandemic, she left behind more than 20,000 books, boxes full of manuscripts — from an early Merriam-Webster archive to her own purchasing records, essential to determining the provenance of her many acquisitions — and ephemera, so much that she could barely move in her Greenwich Village apartment. But impressive as they are, the numbers are less important than her curation: she wasn’t a hoarder, and she didn’t collect accidentally or on a whim, but purposefully and with great knowledge of the history of people’s interest in language. She was a formidable scholar who chose to exercise her intelligence, not by teaching in a university, but by curating a peerless private collection. Much of that collection is devoted to strong language or language adjacent to it.
What’s a nice interjection like nuts! doing in a place like Strong Language, home of brazen epithets and unexpurgated swears? Nuts: such a mild word, so fusty and old-fashioned, so suitable for children’s tender ears.
Well, it wasn’t always that way. For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, nuts and its facetious cousin nerts were deemed so inappropriate that they were forbidden—along with, but not limited to, whore, SOB, damn, hell, fanny, and slut—in the scripts of Hollywood movies. (Needless to say, fuck and shit were too scandalous to merit mention.) It took a famous World War II battle, and the gradual loosening of the censorious rules known as the Motion Picture Production Code, to bring nuts, nerts, and nuts to you into semi-respectability and finally to quaintness.
This is a guest post by David Morris, a sub-editor and former English language teacher who holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics. David has written a few posts for Strong Language and writes about language at his blog Never Pure and Rarely Simple.
I stumbled across a website called Shit My Students Write,* on which teachers – it’s not specified what level – anonymously submit examples of their students’ writing. Most are of the type that used to be called “schoolboy howlers”. Sometimes the student’s intention is clear: “Hitler was a facetious dictator.” But I couldn’t figure out what was intended by the student who wrote:
My grandmother, when she was alive, was quite the grammar ho.
I still maintain that slang is good for you, but, sometimes, profanity is even better. Slang is playful and facetious, the story goes, the language by which groups hang together. Profanity, on the other hand, is supposedly coarse and mean. Well, that’s true enough, in some cases, but I’ve recently been reminded that profanity is occasionally the lighter alternative, that the relevant slang is what’s coarse and violent. Yes, I’m talking about sex, or, more precisely, the language of sex — not copulate or get it on, but the relative value of fuck and bang or nail.