13 September 2015

The Middle English Dictionary Needs a Fucking Update

Sorry, but I have to comment on this topic.  The news has already spread across the Internet, arousing the interest of several bloggers:

here, here, here, etc.

Somewhere among the indictment rolls of the county court of Chester (1310/11), studied by Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University (Staffordshire), a man whose Christian name was Roger is mentioned three times. His less Christian byname is recorded as well, with minor orthographic variations. The repetition guarantees that what the name contains is not an artefact resulting from a spelling mistake but the real thing: to wit, the man’s full name was Roger Fuckebythenavele. Though Roger was finally outlawed by the court and never heard of again, his legacy will make a lasting impact on English word studies. Not only does his second name move back the earliest attestation of fuck in its modern sense by many decades; it also, for the first time, establishes it as a bona fide Middle English word. Inevitably, the question will be raised again whether fuck is a native English word (a view defended, among others, by Lass 1995) or a relatively late newcomer (as argued e.g. by Liberman 2007: 78-87).

Like dog (attested once about 1050 and then again some 150 years later) and shark (attested once in 1442 and then again in 1569), fuck has a “ghost lineage” – a long attestation gap during which it must have existed, although no record of its use has survived. We do see several occurrences of fucke in 13th-century bynames like Fuckebotere (= “Fuckbutter”, 1290) and Fuckebeggar (1286/87), but in these, the verb seems to mean, respectively, ‘churn, beat’, and ‘punch, hit’ rather than you-know-what. Semantic associations leading from such meanings to the rather obvious sexual connotations of Roger’s bizarre cognomen are pretty natural, though. The coexistence of both ca. 1300 suggests that the use of fuck for sexual intercourse is a semantic specialisation which took place a long time ago. We find it not only in English but also (perhaps independently) in a few other Germanic languages. For details, you may consult the etymological information in the beautifully updated entry in the OED.

Fucking, Austria (probably unconnected)
I side with those who believe that fuck is old and has a respectable Germanic pedigree. The stem *fukkō-, with its characteristic double consonant, is easy to explain as a Germanic iterative verb – one of a large family of similar forms. They originated as combinations of various Indo-European roots with *-nah₂-, a suffix indicating repeated action. The formation is not, strictly speaking, Proto-Indo-European; the suffix owes its existence to the reanalysis of an older morphological structure (reanalysis happens when people fail to analyse an inherited structure in the same way as their predecessors). Still, verbs of this kind are older than Proto-Germanic.

One particularly clear example is English lick from Old Englich liccian < PGmc. *likkō-. Numerous cognates in other Indo-European languages show unambiguously that the PIE root was *leiǵʰ- ‘lick’. The expected Germanic reflex of *ǵʰ is a voiced fricative or stop (*ɣ/*g) resulting from the operation of Grimm’s Law. A different development in this case was caused by the suffix *-nah₂- , attached to the root in pre-Germanic times to yield *liǵʰ-náh₂- ‘lick (repeatedly)’. The root occurred in the reduced grade since the suffix carried the accent. After an unaccented syllable, the sequence *-ǵʰn- changed into *-gg-, which, as Grimm’s Law completed its course, became Proto-Germanic *-kk- (if the preceding vowel was short).

Many historical linguists don’t accept this development, known as Kluge’s Law (discovered more than a century ago but neglected for many decades). In recent years, however, so much evidence has been collected to support it that it seems unfair to call it “controversial” (if not something worse) any longer. The outcome of Kluge’s Law is the same for originally voiceless, voiced and “aspirated” (breathy-voiced) Indo-European stops: all of them yielded a voiceless geminate (double consonant) in the environment in which the law applied. After a long vowel or diphthong, however, the geminate was simplified, leaving a single voiceless stop.

There was a Proto-Indo-European root usually reconstructed as *peug- (or possibly *peuǵ-), meaning ‘stab, hit’ (cf. Latin pungō ‘pierce’, pūgnus ‘fist’, pūgna ‘fight’, pugil ‘boxer’; Greek púgmē ‘fist, fist-fight’). In combination with the *-náh₂- suffix we would get *pug-náh₂- > PGmc. *fukkō- ‘strike repeatedly, beat’ (like, say, “dashing” the cream with a plunger in a traditional butter churn). Note also windfucker and fuckwind – old, obsolete words for ‘kestrel’.

A number of words in other Germanic languages may be related to fuck. One of them is Old Icelandic fjúka ‘to be tossed or driven by the wind’ < *feuka-; cf. also fjúk ‘drifting snowstorm’ (or, as one might put it in present-day English, a fucking blizzard). These words fit a recurrent morphological pattern observed by Kroonen (2012): Germanic iteratives with a voiceless geminate produced by Kluge’s Law often give rise to “de-iterativised” verbs in which the double stop is simplified if the full vocalism or the root (here, *eu rather than *u) is restored.

If the verb is really native (“Anglo-Saxon”), one would expect Old English *fuccian (3sg. *fuccaþ, pl. *fucciaþ, 1/3sg. preterite *fuccode, etc.). If these forms already had “impolite” connotations in Old English, their absence from the Old English literary corpus is understandable. We may be absolutely sure that *feortan (1/3 sg. pret. *feart, pret. pl. *furton, p.p. *forten) existed in Old English, since fart exists today (attested since about 1300, just like fuck) and has an impeccable Indo-European etymology, with cognates in several branches. Still, not a single one of these reconstructed Old English verb forms is actually documented (all we have is the scantily attested verbal noun feorting ‘fart(ing)’).

One has to remember that written records give us a strongly distorted picture of how people really spoke in the past. If you look at the frequency of fuck, fucking and fucker in written English over the last 200 years, you may get the impression that these words disappeared from English completely ca. 1820 and magically reappeared 140 years later. Even the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (whose ambition was to be exhaustive) pretended they didn’t exist. The volume that should have contained FUCK was published in 1900, and Queen Victoria was still alive.

Google books Ngram Viewer

Booth, Paul. 2015. Roger the incompetent copulator is outlawed, 28th September 1311. [Academia.edu].

Kroonen, Guus. 2012. Consonant gradation in the Germanic iterative verbs. In: Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead et al. (eds.), The sound of Indo-European: Phonetics, phonemics, and morphophonemics, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 263-290.

Lass, Roger. 1995. Four letters in search of an etymology. Diachronica 12(1): 99-111.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2007. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


  1. As I said at LH, the objectors to Kluge's Law simply explain away each case, one by one, rather than accepting the methodologically obvious, even to the point of saying lick is expressive gemination — from an onomatopoetic root, I suppose!

    There's a story about King Arthur going off to the Roman wars and locking Guinevere in a guillotine-style chastity belt designed by Merlin. When Arthur returns, he performs a short-arm inspection, and dismisses all of his knights in disgrace except Lancelot, whose equipment has remained intact. When he tells Lancelot he is the best knight of Logres, Lancelot replies /lʷʊ ˈlʷʊlʷʊ ˈlʷʊlʷʊ/.

  2. One can argue that "expressive" (hypocoristic, etc.) gemination is a real enough phenomenon in (post-Proto-)Germanic, but it works differently from Kluges Law. For example, if a Beornfriþ was affectionately called Beffa by his kith and kin, or if an Ēadberht was known less formally as Eabba, neither the /f/ nor the /b/ was replaced by /pp/ upon becoming geminated. There may be a historical connection between KL and expressive gemination, but the latter was mnotivated by the former, not the other way round.

    Kluge's Law is not just about gemination, anyway. It also elegantly accounts for many otherwise problematic forms with unexpected voiceless stops in Germanic: white, deep, teach, etc. the alternatives (PIE and PGmc. "root variants" , PIE *b, etc.) are ad hoc and create more problems than they "solve".

    1. if a Beornfriþ was affectionately called Beffa by his kith and kin, or if an Ēadberht was known less formally as Eabba, neither the /f/ nor the /b/ was replaced by /pp/ upon becoming geminated

      Such things did occasionally happen, though, like when Þeodberht became Becca.

      There may be a historical connection between KL and expressive gemination, but the latter was mnotivated by the former, not the other way round.

      Yes: KL rendered baby-language nicknames interpretable as good old Indo-European n-stem nicknames, thus declinable, and it introduced long consonants into adult language, making the names less awkward to pronounce.

  3. I suspect that the use of "fuck" in books in the early 19th century is an artefact of the fact that the long s (often confused with an f) had not completely disappeared at that time.

    1. An excellent idea! It's easily testable. We should expect a large number of nonsense readings like "fing" and "feven" about 1800, dropping down to almost zero about 1820, and this is exactly what we find:


      Whether this accounts for all the early 19th century appearances of fuck is a different matter, also worth checking. If we add up the occurrences of fuck and suck during the first two decades of the 19th century (assuming that they all mean 'suck'), there seems to be a hard-to-explain surplus of them.

      FUCK, SUCK

      So either sucking was a popular topic at the time or some of the fucks have to be taken at face value... Or there is some other word producing -- so to speak -- spurious fucks (and possibly sucks as well). An examination of actual examples from Google books shows that this is indeed the case: the (quite unexpected) source of false readings turns out to be such.

      It goes to show how careful one has to be with toy analytic tools.

  4. As for the Arthurian story: we should now start digging in the Middle English court archives, in Cheshire and elsewhere, in search of surnames like Lickebythenavele. The MED records Gaufridus Lickefinger (1205), Hugo Likkeberd (1230), and two Reginalds, Lickepipin (1309) and Likkeloue (1310).