FUCK – The Embarrassing Truth About The Origins Of Words
You read blogs, yes? Presumably this means that you like words. Well, I’m going to see how committed you are to this premise by talking about one of my minor pet peeves. Folk etymology. Now, if you’ve had to immediately reach for a dictionary to look up the word “etymology”, there’s no need to feel ashamed.
It’s not a word that crops up very often, even in the most erudite of conversations, so I won’t judge you for not knowing it. I didn’t know what it meant prior to looking it up in the dictionary. And a good working definition of a fool is someone who doesn’t know something you only found out yourself the day before. In fact, I assumed that it meant “the study of insects”. No. That’s entomology. Etymology is, in fact, the study of the origins of words. Though you probably got that from the title anyway. You’ll notice I didn’t put an exclamation mark on the end of “FUCK” in that title. This isn’t a musical.
It’s a well known and much published factoid that the word “Fuck” is an acronym which stands for “Fornication Under Consent of the King”. The story goes that back in Merry Old England, it was implicit that all sexual intercourse was indulged in by permission of the reigning monarch. There is a very good reason, which I will come to later, that this cannot possibly be true. But even before I discovered this very good reason, I didn’t believe this explanation for the origins of the word “Fuck”.
For a start, things are done “by consent”, not “under consent”. Though you can be made to do things “under duress”. Or under chloroform. So it should be “Fornication By Consent of the King”. This would result in the unwieldy and unpronounceable word “Fbck”. Also, if you let this point go and accept “under consent”, there is the not inconsiderable matter of all the queens there have been in the meantime.
Surely any self respecting female monarch would have the rule changed to “Fornication Under Consent of the Queen”. This would lead to the spelling “Fucq”, which we have no record of even though it would actually be a perfectly serviceable spelling of the word. And finally, any monarch who tried to regulate the sex lives of an entire nation would be trying to hold back a tide in a manner that even King Cnut would regard as foolish.
However, there is one story of a word’s origin that I couldn’t find much fault with when I heard it. The word is a slang word. That word is “Nonce”. I mention that it is a slang word in case you are an educated American reading this, and assume I mean “Nonce” in the Shakespearean sense of “moment”. I don’t. I mean “Nonce” in the colloquial British sense of paedophile. Kiddy fiddler. Jimmy Savile rather that William Shakespeare.
The story of the origin of this word goes as follows. Back in Victorian times, when a man was imprisoned for sexual crimes against children, he’d be stuck into a cell of his own. He would not be allowed to fraternize with the other prisoners due to the fact that the other prisoners might take exception to the nature of his crimes. And this would make it difficult to keep order in what was already a rather violent and chaotic environment.
To make sure that no mistakes happened during exercise periods, a message would be written on a blackboard which was glued to the cell doors of such criminals. That message read : “Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise”. NONCE. And so I happily revealed this story of the origins of the word to my mates at the pub at times when there might be a lull in the conversation.
Then I read a book called “The Pedant’s Return”. This is basically a book which states commonly debunked facts that turn out to actually be true after all. One of these facts was that the age of consent in Victorian England was twelve. That’s a fact often denied that is, in reality, completely true.
And it wasn’t as if the law was enforced terribly enthusiastically anyway. As long as the girl in question (buggery was illegal for everyone) was ten or older, no one really cared that much. Plus, most of the men who indulged in this practice were louche, rich gentlemen who could bribe their way out of trouble if necessary.
In short, Victorian values were rather skewed in this regard from a modern point of view and there basically weren’t any paedophiles in English prisons. Or if there were, they were there for stealing handkerchiefs or something, rather than stealing the innocence of youngsters. My explanation for the origins of the word “Nonce” was complete arse gravy.
Interestingly, news of a movement to raise the age of consent in Victorian England reached America and the traditional outraged newspaper campaign ensued. There was much investigation into the State Laws regarding this subject. Righteous indignation turned to horror as it was discovered that in many States, the age of consent was even lower than it was in England. The good people of Delaware were particularly aghast to find that the age of consent in their fair state was seven.
I was pretty shocked at this too, but at the end of the day it all happened a very long time ago and the laws in question have thankfully been consigned to the dustbin of history. What didn’t happen a very long time ago, however, was me spuriously telling my friends about the origins of the word “Nonce”. I had become a victim of folk etymology. Though on the plus side, everyone at the pub had believed it at the time. Even so, I decided to do a bit of research.
As it happens, you don’t need to use historical accuracy to refute folk etymology. There is a very good reason that “Nonce” cannot possibly be derived from “Not On Normal Courtyard Exercise”. It is the same very good reason, which I alluded to earlier, that “Fuck” cannot possibly be derived from “Fornication Under Consent of the King”. Acronyms.
Both “Fuck” and “Nonce” claim to be acronyms. One from the days of cock fighting and bear baiting and the other from the reign of Queen Victoria. And thereby lies the rub. Acronyms didn’t exist until the Second World War. In fact the word acronym itself wasn’t coined until the 1950s.
The circumstances of the war meant that boffins had to abbreviate complicated and lengthy terminology for the purposes of ease of use and secrecy. RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging) being the most obvious example. Though it wasn’t just the boffins. The footsoldiers did it too. FUBAR(Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) and SNAFU(Situation Normal, All Fucked Up) being the two obvious examples in that respect.
I hate folk etymology, but not because it sticks in the craw of my inner pedant, which it undoubtedly does. I hate it for the same reason I dislike religion. I believed in them both once, and having had a few realities revealed to me, that fact makes me feel a little foolish.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2013
Tags: acronyms, Age Of Consent, bill hicks, blogs, buggery, dictionary, entomology, etymology, FUBAR, Fuck, kings, lasers, musicals, nonces, paedophile, pedantry, prison, Pub Quizzes, queen victoria, religion, sexual intercourse, Shakespeare, sharks, SNAFU, victorians, words, World War Two
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