The fuck expletive is spreading across the world

10 June 2019

Fuck is probably the most widespread profanity in the world. In the Nordic languages, fuck has become a well-established part of the vocabulary, while in languages such as Russian and Hindi, it is used but not established to the same extent. And in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, only younger people in the big cities use the profanity.

In the research article titled “The worldwide use and meaning of the f-word”, researchers have studied the fuck expletive in Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Hindi and Ethiopia’s Amharic language.

Of the languages the researchers have investigated, they can see a clear pattern in which the fuck swear word has been naturalised in speech and writing in all of the investigated Nordic languages – in written form possibly a little more in Icelandic, which is a big step in a loanword’s journey towards becoming a natural part of the language. In Russian fuck has not been naturalised yet, and it is used less in Hindi and Amharic than in Russian.

Part of the Nordic languages

Sweden has kept the spelling but adapted the pronunciation.

“‘U’ in English becomes a short ‘a’ in Swedish. Although Swedes might think it sounds like

    Illustration: Torbjörn Gozzi

English, an Englishman hears the difference. We have an incredibly well-developed sense of nuance in the languages we have grown up with,” says Oskarsson, a professor of Scandinavian languages who is one of the researchers behind the article.

In Icelandic the English fuck should have become fökk if it had followed the usual path with English loanwords, but it became fokk.

“In Icelandic the word fokk already existed. It meant being lazy, lolling about or failing to complete things. All of a sudden fokk had two meanings, and younger Icelanders no longer know the older meaning. For older Icelanders, the word sounds rather innocent in its old meaning.

Used by young people in India and Ethiopia

It is interesting to note how fuck is used in India. India has native profanities with sexual connotations, and older English-speaking residents use Hindi expletives when they swear. Young people, on the other hand, switch from Hindi to English when they swear.

On the whole, young people use fuck the most. In Amharic, the investigated language in which fuck is used least, the word is used exclusively by young urbanites. Amharic also has domestic profanities with sexual connotations.

Established in Icelandic starting in 1980

“The oldest example we find in Icelandic is from 1948, but Icelanders first began using fuck only in the ‘70s, initially to a rather small extent and without adapting the pronunciation and spelling. Starting in 1980, it was used quite a lot.

To illustrate how fuck became established in Icelandic, Veturlidi Oskarsson relates some

Veturlidi Oskarsson, a professor of Scandinavian
languages at Uppsala University.
Photo: Anders Berndt

examples. Iceland was greatly influenced by the Anglo-Saxon culture of the Second World War and onwards because Keflavik in Iceland served as an intermediate station for aircraft and later as an air base for NATO.

Growing up in Iceland, Veturlidi Oskarsson saw the 1974 film from the famous Woodstock music festival. In the film, the rock band Country Joe & the Fish chanted fuck from the stage.

“We went completely crazy! Saying that was totally unthinkable!”

During the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland, when people demonstrated against the government, one day a man appeared with a homemade sign. The sign read “Helvítis Fokking Fokk” (Hell Fucking Fuck).

“That sign became the hallmark of the protest against the government.”

Germanic loanword?

Where the word fuck originated is unclear. The first examples in English date back to the 15th century. It probably is a Germanic word adopted into English, perhaps from Nordic languages.

“The Nordic languages have variants of the verb that meant moving something back and forth rapidly. For example, in Swedish dialects there is the verb focka, which means moving quickly. This meaning may then have been transferred to a sexual act.