Speaking of Words: Anglo-Saxon Four-Letter Words

Print More

Michael Ferber

Editor’s note: Welcome to InDepthNH.org’s column Speaking of Words. Michael Ferber retired from the English Department at UNH, but has plenty more to say and write about words. We are thrilled he wants to do that for our readers.

By MICHAEL FERBER, Speaking of Words

       That’s what, politely enough, we used to call them, those vulgar dirty words, and most of them do go back to Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), and even farther back than that.  In fact they have ancient pedigrees, with the right to look down disdainfully on hundreds of more polite words as mere arrivistes.  For tracing their ancestry back you would expect the evidence to be  sparse because they were often barred from dictionaries or any other text until recent times, but there is enough evidence, direct or indirect, to make plausible theories.  I’ll talk about three of these words.

       Fart is fairly easy to track, both noun and verb.  All our Germanic siblings have the word, though with varying vowels or a switch of the r and the vowel.  As a verb Dutch used to have vorten and verten, though now it has a different word, German had furzen once but now farzen; Old Icelandic had freta and frata.  If we look over to our distant cousin languages we find Greek perdomai “I fart” with past tense epardon, as well as Sanskrit pardate, Russian perdet, and Lithuanian persti, all meaning “he/she/it farts.” The root is at least 5000 years old.  We might think the Germanic family improved on it when it changed the initial sound from p- to f-, since the fricative f- can be sounded for a while, just like the real thing, but actually that shift, called Grimm’s Law, is found in many other words: Greek and Latin pater, for example, correspond to German Vater and English father.  If the word was imitative in origin, as most linguists think, the sound must have seemed more explosive than sustained.  James Joyce has it both ways in Ulysses: he spells a fart prrprr, then fff, then rrpr, and then pprrpffrrppfff at the end of the “Sirens” chapter, which is about music.

       In one of his funnier comedies, Frogs, Aristophanes coined a word, hypoperdomai, which the Oxford Greek Dictionary translates as “I break wind a little.”  There is no evidence that any Greek invented its antonym, hyperperdomai, but it must have been tempting.

       There are forms of shit, both noun and verb,all over the Germanic languages.  As verbs, Dutch has schijten, German scheissen, Swedish skita, and so on.  In English the past tense was variable: shote, shyte, or shit; it is only recently that we have settled on shat, probably because of the influence of sit and sat.  The root of these Germanic words, if the Oxford English Dictionary is right (and it probably is), did not mean “shit” originally, but something more abstract and polite.  A hint lies in the German noun Scheide, “sheath, scabbard,” which is sometimes used as a euphemistic substitute for Scheisse, because of its similar sound; the verb scheiden means “separate” or “part,” and a sheath is something that a sword separates.  Sheath and Scheide are cognate words, and not far away is our verb shed.  So we might imagine someone more than two thousand years ago saying, Excuse me, I must go to the privy and shed something.  Very genteel.  That “shed” word became shit.

       Going farther afield we can trace the root all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, just like fart.  The Greek verb skhizo is related, meaning “split”; schizophrenia is a splitting of the mind.  Lithuanian skedzu means “I separate, divide”; Latin scindo means “I cut, cleave.”  So this dirty word, too, which wasn’t even dirty until fairly recently, has a title of nobility.

       Fuck is a little uncertain.  There are similar words in our West Germanic relatives, such as Dutch fokken (the verb) and German ficken, but they can mean both “to have sexual intercourse with” and “to strike.”  That suggests a relation with Latin pugnare “to fight,” and the noun punctio “action of pricking.”  Grimm’s Law would apply here too, in the shift from pug- to fuk-, and if this connection is right, then a dozen words in English are related to fuck: pugnacious, pugilist, repugnant, expunge, puncture, punctilious, punch, compunction, point, poignant, and  even pygmy, which is a Greek derivation from its pyg– root, meaning “fist.” 
       Whether this theory is right or not, we should also notice a peculiar use of the form fucking.  It can be used as an intensifier that floats unmoored in its sentence; the Oxford English Dictionary calls it an adverb, but I’m not sure that’s quite right.  I could have fucking killed myself is not at all the same as I could have killed myself fucking.  The word seems more like an exclamation (Fuck!) that has been superficially assimilated into the syntax of the sentence.  It has another rare property: it can barge into the middle of words or phrases whose length and cadence invite it, as in abso-fuckin-lutely or un-fucking-believable or Miami fuckin’ Beach.  It functions just like the British word bloody, as in im-bloody-possible (cited in the OED) or, my favorite: Who does he think he is?  The Prince of bloody Wales?  This use of bloody seems to go back at least five centuries.

       But, lest you be tempted to say, Not another ety-fuckin-mology! I’ll stop here.

 *  *  *  *  *

In my last column, on grammaticalization, a couple words had question marks embedded in them.  They originally had macrons or long signs over certain letters, but I had forgotten that the word-processing program of InDepthNH.org does not accommodate them.  Sorry for the confusing effect.

       I am happy to hear from readers: mferber@unh.edu.

Comments are closed.