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The Origin of the F-Word

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Netlore Archive: In which we are asked to believe that the word "fuck" originated as the acronym of "Fornication Under Consent of the King," "Fornication Under Command of the King," "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge," or some variation thereof.

Description: Folk etymology
Circulating since: The 1960s
Status: False (see details below)

Example #1:
Email contributed by T. McInnis, March 22, 2001:

In ancient England a person could not have sex unless you had consent of the King (unless you were in the Royal Family). When anyone wanted to have a baby, they got consent of the King, the King gave them a placard that they hung on their door while they were having sex. The placard had F.*.*.*. (Fornication Under Consent of the King) on it. Now you know where that came from.



Example #2:
From a Usenet posting, Nov. 1, 1990:

The word fuck comes from colonial times, when someone would be punished for 'prostitution' It was an acronym for the words

'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge'

FUCK was written on the stocks that held these criminals because For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was too long to go on the stocks.



Example #3:
From a Usenet posting, Oct. 12, 1990:

I always heard that "F.U.C.K." originated in the 1800's in London, when they used to charge prostitutes "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge". So officer got sick and tired of writing those, um, lessee, 26 characters, not including spaces, so it got abbreviated FUCK and stuck.



Analysis: Having consulted the definitive reference work on this subject — yes, there is such a thing: The F-Word by Jesse Sheidlower, published by Random House in 1999 — I feel confident in dismissing all of the above claims as imaginative bunk.

In short, the word fuck did not originate as any kind of acronym. It crept, fully formed, into the English language from Dutch or Low German around the 15th century (it's impossible to say precisely when because so little documentary evidence exists, probably due to the fact that the word was so taboo throughout its early history that people were afraid to write it down). The American Heritage Dictionary says its first known occurrence in English literature was in the satirical poem "Flen, Flyss" (c.1500), where it was not only disguised as a Latin word but encrypted to read gxddbov, which has been deciphered as fuccant, pseudo-Latin for "they fuck."

According to Sheidlower, the earliest published claims of a supposed acronymic origin for the F-word appeared during the 1960s. For example, an underground newspaper called the East Village Other printed this version in 1967:

It's not commonly known that the word "fuck" originated as a medical diagnostic notation on the documents of soldiers in the British Imperial Army. When a soldier reported sick and was found to have V.D., the abbreviation F.U.C.K. was stamped on his documents. It was short for "Found Under Carnal Knowledge."
 
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Two more variants turned up in a letter published in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine:

My friend claims that the word fuck originated in the 15th Century, when a married couple needed permission from the king to procreate. Hence, Fornication Under Consent of the King. I maintain that it's an acronym of a law term used in the 1500s that referred to rape as Forced Unnatural Carnal Knowledge."
 
Undoubtedly the most famous instance of this etymological travesty was its use as the title of the 1991 Van Halen album, "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge."

More adventures in epithetymology:
The Origin of "Shit"
Does "Dork" Mean "Whale Penis"?
Pluck Yew (Origin of "The Finger")

Sources and further reading:

Fuck
From David Wilton's WordOrigins.org

The Etymology of Some Obscenities
From the "Take Our Word for It" webzine

What's the Origin of the 'F' Word?
Cecil Adams, "The Straight Dope" (1984)

The F-Word
Edited by Jesse Sheidlower (New York: Random House, 1999)

Wicked Words
by Hugh Rawson (New York: Crown Publishing, 1989)

Last updated: 02/04/15

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