(the article below is one of the chapters in my book Word Watching (published by Scribe).  But beware, this article contains some words and ideas which will shock some people. Word Watching contains 48 essays about aspects of language.  Of course, I recommend that you get it.)

In late 1996, the Court of Appeal in New South Wales passed upon the use of the word fuck by a policeman to his (female) subordinate.  Although the decision turned on other points, a question arose whether it constitutes offensive behaviour to use the word, and its variants, in a police station.  The decision in Commissioner of Police v Anderson (CA NSW unrep 21 October 1996) thus provides an interesting starting point for a bit of harmless etymology.

The case was an application to review a decision of the Police Tribunal.  It had found that Anderson had “failed to show respect for his subordinates”.  It dismissed a charge that he had “used offensive language in a public place”.  The Commissioner sought to review that dismissal, saying that he had not had a proper opportunity to prove that the Blacktown Police Station was a “public place”.

The Court of Appeal said the decision was not reviewable on that ground.  Meagher JA went on to say that in any event the words spoken did not amount to offensive language in the circumstances.

The words complained of were spoken to a female officer, Constable Cowin.  They included the following passages of limpid prose:
“Constable, get fucking over here…why aren’t these fucking messages on the fucking pad…I don’t fucking care, I want them on the fucking pad…” etc.

The charges also alleged that Anderson used the word “cunt” although not to Const. Cowin.

The decision of all 3 members of the Court was that the Commissioner had had a proper opportunity to prove that the Police Station was a public place, so it dismissed the Application.

Meagher JA said in addition that the words spoken were not offensive.  He said:

“…Undoubtedly, the behaviour of (Anderson) was unchivalrous and unbecoming of the office he occupies.  This is, however, a long way from … being offensive in any sense.”

“The evidence discloses that Sergeant Anderson habitually used the word ‘fuck’ or its derivatives; that everyone else did also; that Constable Cowin herself did so regularly.  It was, so a witness said, part of what oxymoronically is called ‘police culture’.  Likewise, the word ‘cunt’ (is) used from time to time, although Sergeant Anderson never used this word to Constable Cowin.  There was no evidence that persons in the public area were ever offended, nor that the public area was frequented by  gentle old ladies or convent schoolgirls.  Bearing in mind that we are living in a post-Chatterley, post-Wolfenden age, taking into account all circumstances, and judging the matter from the point of view of reasonable contemporary standards, I cannot believe that Sergeant Anderson’s language was legally ‘offensive'”.

Fuck is an interesting word, linguistically speaking.  It has the virtues of brevity, adaptability, expressiveness and is understood universally.  It has a huge number of synonyms, ranging from coy euphemisms to acceptable jocular equivalents to coarse vulgarities.

Oddly, it has very few polite equivalents.  Strictly speaking, there is no single english word in current use which bears the same primary meaning.  It may be thought that copulate is an exact synonym for the verb to fuck, but copulate has a broader meaning: “To couple, conjoin, link together; to become conjoined or united”.  In its sexual meaning, it is primarily confined to zoology.

Fornicate is the second contender, but it is, strictly, confined to sexual intercourse between a man and an unmarried woman.

According to the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the only verb which has as its only meaning “engage in sexual intercourse” is subagitate.  However, that word has not been recorded in use since 1693.  Not until now, that is.

In order to refer to the activity which  fuck describes, it is necessary to engage in circumlocution or periphrasis.  Thus we get make love to; sleep with; engage in sexual relations with, etc.

Along with cuntfuck was excluded from dictionaries and almost all writing from the end of the 18th century until 1960, when the Lady Chatterley trial was held, and both words were welcomed back from the Siberian gulags of condemned words.  Not without difficulty, it has since made its way onto stage and screen.  It must be said that an activity which is so popular and widespread has been poorly served by polite language.

It was not always so.  Fuck is recorded as being used in more-or-less respectable literature as early as 1500, and it is found in Florio’s Italian-English dictionary (1598).

It is interesting to reflect on the social process which results in a (nearly) universal activity having no convenient and polite verbal tag to denote it: the activity becomes very inconvenient to discuss, and so it is not discussed, at least in Polite Society.  Suppose a group of intelligent, decent and literate people who wish to discuss sex.  Instead of using fuck as verb and noun, they must resort to have sexual intercourse with (verb); an act of sexual intercourse (noun).  Instead of the participial use fucking, they must say having sexual intercourse, and likewise for the verbal noun form fucking.  And even these inelegancies involve a circumlocution, since intercourse is a word of wider application.

George Orwell wrote of the use of language to control thought (see especially his treatise on Newspeak in Nineteen Eightyfour).  The same process has made talk about sex so difficult if social conventions are to be observed.  Not surprisingly, a huge number of slang and colloquial words have sprung up to liberate thought and language in the middle ground between polite speech and the taboo-word.

Although the following words all describe the same thing, they have won acceptance: if not in the salon, at least in the outer-rooms of polite society: play mothers and fathers, go upstairs, make babies, get one’s jollies, play hide the sausage, get into one’s pants, have a tumble,.  And then there are the earthier monosyllabic inventions: stuff, screw, roger, pork, poke, bang, bonk, root, hump..  Note that these can be used both as verb and noun. Interestingly, it is easy to see that some of these synonyms are more acceptable than others, but all are more accepted than fuck.  Generally, the more humorous the construction, the more acceptable it is.

There are many jocular noun constructions which also provide the same meaning, and range in acceptability, although none of them has the versatility of their one-word equivalents: Ugandan affairs, country matters, parallel parking, horizontal folk-dancing, you know what, indoor sledging, knee-trembler.  Again, as the allusion retreats from sex and approaches humour, it becomes more acceptable.

Although the following words all describe the same thing, they have won acceptance (if not in the salon, at least in the outer-rooms of polite society): play mothers and fathers, go upstairs, make babies, get one’s jollies, play hide the sausage, get into one’s pants, have a tumble. And then there are the earthier monosyllabic inventions: stuff, screw, roger, pork, poke, bang, bonk, root, hump. Note that these can be used both as verb and noun. Interestingly, it is easy to see that some of these synonyms are more acceptable than others, but all are more accepted than fuck. Generally, the more humorous the construction, the more acceptable it is.

There are many jocular noun constructions which also provide the same meaning, and range in acceptability, although none of them has the versatility of their one-word equivalents: Ugandan affairs, country matters, parallel parking, horizontal folk-dancing, you know what, indoor sledging, knee-trembler. Again, as the allusion retreats from sex and approaches humour, it becomes more acceptable.

Then there is swive:

‘swive, v. Obs or arch:

  • To have sexual connexion with, copulate with (a female)
  • To copulate…

I had always believed, before I checked it, that swive was a slang word. In fact, it is a sturdy Old English word, related to the Old High German sweib (meaning sweep or swing). But for the fact that (apparently) its primary meaning is not gender neutral, it deserves to be ranked alongside subagitate.

Chaucer used it in The Miller’s Tale, The Reeve’s Tale, and also in The Manciple’s Tale:

For all your watching, bleared is your bright eye
By one of small repute, as well is known,
Not worth, when I compare it with your own,
The value of a gnat, as I may thrive.
For on your bed your wife I saw him swive.

Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability. Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:

Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.

Chaucer’s use of the word may not be enough to ensure its respectability. Later in The Manciple’s Tale, the episode above is referred to again:

Masters, by this example, I do pray
You will beware and heed what I shall say:
Never tell any man, through all your life,
How that another man has humped his wife;
He’ll hate you mortally, and that’s certain.

On balance, it may still be advisable to prefer subagitate in genteel company, where clarity of meaning is traditionally subordinated to elegance. But swive is justifiable on historical grounds, and hump will not cause too many problems, as long as you sound the h.

In April 1914, Mrs Patrick Campbell created a sensation in London by uttering the word bloody on the stage, in the first performance of Pygmalion.  That word had been banned from books and stage since the middle of the 18th century. Before then, it had been accepted in polite use, but had gradually fallen into disgrace.  Since Shaw took the daring step of writing it into Pygmalion, it has returned to acceptable use.  Only in the most proper circles would it raise eyebrows now.  Its only use (relevantly) is as an intensifier.

Looked at solely as a lexical unit, fuck is a very good, sturdy, versatile and descriptive word.  If our social masters could reconcile themselves to the idea that sex is a legitimate part of human existence and is here to stay, it may be that fuck will eventually be accepted in polite use.  But then it would rapidly lose its utility as a swearword.