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Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Birth of the F-Bomb by Jeffrey Walker

My Tuesday Talk Guest... talks about that 
'F' word 
(in particular in its historical use context)
alert for readers with a fragile disposition: 
certain words in this article are censored by various symbols!

There’s an irresistible impulse amongst we humans to overestimate the uniqueness of our own time. In the USA, for example, we’re currently hyperventilating over the hideous partisanship and coarseness of our political discourse.

There’s really been nothing worse than what the Jeffersonians and the Adams-Hamilton Federalists meted out to each other 200 years ago. Adams was labeled “a hideous hermaphroditical character” by a journalist hired by Jefferson. Adams responded by throwing said journalist in prison for sedition. The happy aftermath to this story is that the journalist, a Scotsman (not surprisingly) by the name of Callender, later turned on Jefferson and outed The Author of the Declaration as father of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. (Who was herself the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. It all got rather complicated in Ol’ Virginny.) 

So I for one believe things could actually get much worse.

The same sense that Our Time Is Utterly Unique applies to… the F-Bomb. My kids seem to think they invented the word f@ck in all its polygrammatical guises. I beg to differ, but until recently I’d rather thought MY generation invented every day use of the word f#ck. I was woefully mistaken.


In fact, the first usage of the word f$ck in any kind of sexual sense appears to date to the early 14th century when a man from Chester in England is referred to in a writing as “Roger Fucke-by-the-Navele.” Which says something most hilarious about poor Roger’s sexual prowess, we may safely assume. The first use of the F-word in literature dates to a poem written by a Scotsman (not surprisingly) named William Dunbar: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane.” But since less than .0008% of the world’s population could even come close to understanding this, it’s kind of a “no harm, no foul” usage.

The first and second books of an historical fiction trilogy I'm writing came out last year, set during and after the First World War. Doing research for these books, I discovered that the F-Bomb, as in the carpet-bombing usage of the word f$ck in each phrase of every conversation, was probably invented by millions of English-speaking soldiers slogging around the trenches during the First World War. (I stand ready to be disproven by all you U.S. Civil War or Napoleonic War authors out there.)

reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
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It seems to have become something of a Word of Universal Usage among the Brits, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Newfoundlanders, South Africans, and—belatedly—the Yanks. Its use even spilled over to the non-English speaking troops, including the Germans. By the end of the War, it was in the same league as “O.K.” in terms of worldwide currency.

I’ve spent most of the last two years in a deep dive into First World War soldier’s letters, memoirs, interviews, songs, cartoons, trench newspapers, poems, and novels. Much of this was consciously cleaned up by the former Tommies or doughboys or diggers for consumption back home in decent society. I then learned to decode the accepted replacement euphemisms or entendres. Some examples, by way of illustration:

Sod off/sod/sodding   equivalent to  f^ck off/ f&cker/ f&cking
Bugger/buggered/buggering    equivalent to  f&cker/ f#cked/ f&cking
Blooming  equivalent to  f&cking
Blessed    equivalent to  f#cked
You get the idea. And it quickly became obvious to me that in the trenches, about every fifth word seems to have been f^ck, f+cked, or f!cking. Or some combination or derivation thereof.

Here's a few examples from widely popular soldiers’ songs, which grew ever more profane as the war dragged through its deadly, sausage-grinding fifty-two months. As a former military aviator myself, I particularly like this Royal Flying Corps ditty derived from the children’s rhyme “Cock Robin.” Just the chorus will do:

                                 All the pilots who were there
                                 Said ‘F*ck it, we will chuck it.’
                                 When they heard Cock Robin
                                 Had kicked the f*cking bucket.

Here’s one that made it into my book, set to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Just because.

                                 Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
                                 The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.
                                 We don't give a f*ck for old von Kluck,
                                 And all his bleeding army.

What I sensed from letters and memoirs that referred, either directly or indirectly to the incredibly coarse language of the trenches is that the enlisted men and the officers took the regular use of f%ck as simply part of the background noise of the soldiering way of life. Just as they stopped hearing the near-constant thrum of artillery unless it was falling directly on them, profanity just didn't register. The hideous level of violence and the omnipresence of capricious death numbed the men to anything beyond just getting by from day to day.

My favorite use of the F-Bomb? Actually, it’s not from the Great War at all. Rather, my F-Bomber Award goes to Al Pacino who, in his eponymous lead role in the 1983 film Scarface, scored the first recorded F-Bomb hat trick by using the word as verb, adjective and object of a preposition in an economical nine words: “Don’t f*ck with me you f*cking piece of f*ck.” 

© Jeffrey K Walker

Reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
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About Jeffrey
JEFFREY K. WALKER is a Midwesterner, born in what was once the Glass Container Capital of the World. A retired military officer, he served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, planned the Kosovo air campaign and ran a State Department program in Baghdad. He’s been shelled, rocketed and sniped by various groups, all with bad aim. He’s lived in ten states and three foreign countries, managing to get degrees from Harvard and Georgetown along the way. An attorney and professor, he taught legal history at Georgetown, law of war at William & Mary and criminal and international law while an assistant dean at St. John’s. He's been a contributor on NPR and a speaker at federal judicial conferences. He dotes on his wife, with whom he lives in Virginia, and his children, who are spread across the United States. Jeffrey has never been beaten at Whack-a-Mole. 

Twitter: @jkwalkerAuthor
* * *

Helen: The 'F' word is said to come from early Dutch, Swedish or German: Fokken, meaning either to "reproduce" or “to move back and forth.” It appears in the 16th century, when an anonymous monk reading through a copy of Cicero's De Officiis (a guide to moral conduct)  expressed his anger towards the abbot. He scrawled, O d fuckin Abbot,” in the margin of the text. He helpfully recorded the date, 1528, in another comment. In what context he meant his complaint, we do not know, but John Burton, the abbot, did have questionable morals!

There are at least two other instances of f*ck dated prior to the annoyed monk, but some scholars deny these as the first use, as one is Scottish and one appears in code, with a Latin verb conjugation. The Scots poet, William Dunbar, a former Franciscan friar, penned the word before his death, in 1513. The coded example is also from a poem, dated 1475-1500. But why scholars reject these uses is beyond me! It seems fairly obvious that the F word was already in widespread use by the end of the 1400s - this was, after all, a period of upheaval with various wars (end of the Hundred Years War, War of the Roses etc) and the age when trade and shipping - and therefore the World - was rapidly expanding. 

The 'F' word had become common by the late 16th century, but in 1598 it was not a swearword -  like 'swiving' it was merely a word for sexual intercourse. By the early to mid-nineteenth century it had started to be an insult, and now it usually expresses high emotion, whether angry or incredulous. So feel free to tell your teenage children that the 'F' word is actually 300 years old and can mean anything from enjoying sex, offending someone, or exclaiming that something is awesome - oh and monks used it!
My pirate in my Sea Witch Voyages has been heard to utter variants of the word on occasion! 


  1. What a wonderful post! Thank you Jeffrey and Helen for entertaining and informing without ever offending! I believe the first use of the word on the silver screen was by Barbra Streisand in a 'comedy' called The Owl and the Pussy Cat with George Segal. She, a hooker, had taken to him because he was a shy professor and was mentoring her in proper speech (and, of course, they fell in love!). She unceremoniously told a gang of bikers to f* off. The cinema erupted! Possibly the best usage on screen, for me, was an argument between Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia in a film called a Million Ways To Die - they just yelled 'F* You', 'no, F* You' at each other for a full two minutes! My main concern is that it has become so commonplace that it now loses any effect - according to many a motorist, they swerved and hit a copulating lamppost .... and, as far as writers are concerned, we now have a 'timeline' before which it should not appear ....

    1. Thanks Richard - had a few chuckles at Jeffrey's post and your comment!

  2. Hugely entertaining - thank you. It always upsets me when the word is included in the lexicon of 'Anglo-Saxon Four Letter Words'. My favourite modern example was quoted by Scottish Comedian, Fred Macauley. A Football fan, distressed by what he'd seen on the pitch, stood up and shouted "F&cking....Boo!!!" (Because sometimes 'Boo' just isn't enough)

    1. I would hazard a guess that 'Boo' won't be enough at the moment with a certain footie competition on the TV!

  3. Love this post ... now when I use the word, I'll feel as if I have historical tradition on my side!

  4. I think Richard Tearle has it exactly right. Imagine writing realistic conversations between British servicemen over the last...300 years - the duplicate checker in Word would expire! And it'd be far too much profanity, I'd have thought, for even the most broadminded reader to stomach.
    Anyhow, we don't write realistic conversations, do we? Not really. So I don't write it in them.
    That's my excuse :)

    1. Thanks for dropping by Jonathan. I agree that using too much profanity would be dreadful, but not using any can be equally bad - depending on the characters, setting and scene. I thought really hard about having my pirate swear - I mean, he's a pirate! I decided to mostly use mild words where necessary or 'Fok', but use the F word occasionally when a scene has specific meaning or when said pirate is extremely angry. By using it sparingly it adds emphasis to what is happening, to my character's feelings etc.

  5. Just to add - Jeffrey has attempted to answer the above but Blogger has decided to not allow his comments to post. Blogger has these very annoying quirks. Grr.


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