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Steven Pinker

Where does the word “fuck” come from?

The problem with tracing the origin of taboo words is that people don’t write them down, precisely because they’re taboo. So you have to do a lot of detective work.

In the case of “fuck,” for example, the earliest known usage in the English language was a bit of rude graffiti carved outside a monastery in a kind of pseudo-Latin. It’s the first written inscription of the word, and it’s from the fifteenth century. So it’s an old word.

But you can trace it back even further if you look for cognates in other languages. And there are similar words in Scandinavian tongues, and in German, Dutch, and so on.

By that means you can show that “fuck” comes from Scandinavian, and it originally means “to strike” or “to beat.” And that’s a little bit like some of our rude terms for sex, like “to bang.”

These call to mind a not very pleasing image of the sexual act — that of a man doing something violent to a woman, which we also see in some of the taboo phrases around sex: “they fucked him over,” “he got screwed.” These each allude to the underlying metaphor that to have sex is to exploit a woman.

That’s a conception that we all unconsciously recognize and acknowledge whenever we use an idiom like, “we got screwed,” but it’s something that we consider not fit for polite company.

And all of the acceptable terms for sex — like have sex, make love, go to bed with — hide that conceptualization…

And there’s something that feels misogynistic about swearing in general, curiously enough. Although women are swearing a lot more than they used to, swearing is still more of a guy thing. We have old notions like language that’s “appropriate for mixed company” – mixed meaning “men and women”; and expressions like “to swear like a sailor” or “locker room language,” all alluding to the fact that swearing is considered masculine, and that there’s something offensive to women about swearing.

And indeed many guidelines to sexual harassment include the telling of sexual jokes as a kind of harassment. Even though you’d think the topic of sex should be gender neutral… since it takes two.

And I believe this fact is rooted in a basic feature of human sexuality: that indiscriminate sex biologically works to the advantage of the male. And it’s because there’s a lot more at stake for women; she can get pregnant, and then she’s stuck with the child. Whereas the male can get away with just a few minutes of copulation, and in principle that can be the end of it.

So women in their behavior, in their emotions are more discriminating when it comes to sex. The casual use of sexual language, by connoting an atmosphere of licentiousness, is felt to work to the advantage of men more than women.

And in addition, as we’ve mentioned before, many sexual idioms have a rather unflattering image of sex as an act which damages or exploits a woman. Not only “we got screwed,” but “oh my printer is fucked up” – meaning broken, damaged.

So certainly over-use of sexual swearing can feel offensive to women. And as with any other aspect of language use, it’d be common sense and common courtesy to anticipate how the language will affect your audience, depending on whether it’s male or female, younger or older, and in a formal setting or more casual setting.

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From the writer that I consider to be the best living communicator of science, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, as interviewed by The Guardian about his groundbreaking book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.