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The F-word's origins may always remain elusive

This stock photo model thought the letter F she was holding would to illustrate fun, frankfurters, or foosball. She had no idea.
This stock photo model thought the letter F she was holding would to illustrate fun, frankfurters, or foosball. She had no idea.
Shutterstock

Who first used the F-word?

Etymologists have been debating it for years, with every new discovery inspiring a flurry of news coverage. (Note: If you read Vox articles aloud to your children, be warned — this piece has some particularly rude language.) Last year, there was a flurry of attention when we learned that the word made an early appearance in English in 1528, when a disgruntled monk wrote, "O D fuckin abbot."

Now there's a new contender for oldest known use: Historian Paul Booth of Keele University claims that a court case in 1310 may have featured the earliest recorded use of the word "fuck," embedded in the astonishing name of a defendant: Roger Fuckebythenavele. (Yes, that was his name.)

But even that might not be the end of the story. Pinning down a word's origins turns out to be surprisingly tricky — not least because it's difficult to know if medieval people were using the word the way we use it today. I spoke to Kate Wiles, a medieval researcher and contributing editor at History Today, who expanded on the history of "fuck" and explained why finding the first instance is trickier than it seems.

A brief history of the F-word

This man's expression is easier to decipher than a medieval manuscript, though it is less beautiful.

This man's expression is easier to decipher than a medieval manuscript, though it is less beautiful.

Shutterstock

Historians have found plenty of examples of the word "fuck" in old medieval manuscripts. Wiles recommends Jesse Sheidlower's history of the word, The F Word, and she also wrote her own summary in 2014. The kestrel was probably called a "windfucker" in 1599, and before that, all the way back in 1373, we have records of a place named Fockynggroue, which probably referenced "the act." Other place names, like Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous, date to 1287, though their meaning is uncertain.

Most recently, University of Keele's Booth was sorting through parchment records from the 1300s when, he told Vice, he came across the name of Roger Fuckebythenavele in three separate court documents from the 1310s (with slightly different spellings in each). It's likely this was the man's actual name, not least because colorful and descriptive names were common. Booth speculates that it might refer to sexual inadequacy or some other shortcoming.

"I think it's exciting," Wiles says of this latest discovery, "because it shows that we're not finished researching, and new evidence will always crop up." Medieval research is an often tedious, barely digitized project: Much of the time, it involves combing through pieces of unstandardized parchment, so there's plenty of room for new discoveries like Booth's.

Still, Wiles says, it's difficult to identify the very first instance of the word — in part because we can't always be sure if people in medieval times were using "fuck" exactly as we use it today. "There's always a bit of fuzzy logic and guesswork," she says, "and everything is said with the slight caveat."

Why it's so difficult to track the history of "fuck"

An English cookery manuscript from the 1300s. As you can see, these require a lot of time to work through.

An English cookery manuscript from the 1300s. As you can see, these require a lot of time to work through.

British Library

Historians generally agree that "fuck" hit its stride in the 15th and 16th centuries as a familiar word for sexual intercourse, and from there it evolved into the vulgarity we know today. But prior to that period, it's tough to know exactly what "fuck" meant and how it worked. Obstacles include:

  • A profoundly incomplete written record. In an age long before printing presses (and, more importantly, mass literacy), there's a huge gap between spoken medieval English and the language as written. It's possible people were saying "fuck" in 1000, for all we know — but most written records were made by members of the church or others with resources to write. "It's all very high," Wiles says. "You don't get the day-to-day things."
  • The word's meaning has probably changed. When we see a name like "Fuckbythenavele," we bring with it all our current associations with the word, from sexual interpretations to an aggressive "fuck you." But we don't know how medieval people said the word. "It might have come from Dutch or German, starting with 'to mock,' 'to strike,' or 'to fool,'" Wiles notes. "It didn't come in talking specifically about intercourse." To say that "Fuckbythenavele" is a sex reference is plausible. But it's not indisputably correct.
  • Taboos have changed, too. People and place names that seem obscene were common in the medieval era. "We've known about medieval red light districts called 'Gropecunt Lane,'" Wiles says. "In personal names, there's a woman in 1328, Belle Widecunt (spelled Bele Wydecunthe); that's pretty obvious." Maps from the era show a plethora of ... well, you can see for yourself. But the fact that these names existed indicates that taboos were different, too. It's tough to know if Fuckbythenavele's name was referencing a taboo, meant something completely different, like "to strike at the navel," or was a mix of the two.

    You can see evidence of changing taboos in the words we use in the modern era. Today, "damn" is one of the lightest epithets, but in the past it had profound meaning. "'Damn' had much stronger force," Wiles says. "You were damning someone to hell." Today, that theological epicness has been replaced by banality fit for a stubbed toe — and it's possible "fuck" may have flipped meanings, as well.

The search for the first "fuck" may be both fascinating and futile — even when we find it, we might not have the context to know what it means. But that might make it more interesting than just another dirty word scrawled onto parchment.