In “D is for Detective,” I left OED former editor John Simpson’s discussion of the f-word dangling. He titled chapter nine of The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary, “Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk.” I read it right away.
Then I went to the online version’s current listing, in which the f-word is identified as “coarse slang,” first used in sixteen century Middle English, “Be his feirris he wald haue fukkit.” Subsequent variations include fukkand, fucke, ffuck, f-k and today’s easily recognizable four-letter expletive.
Simpson asserts that the best way to see how editorial policies are employed in practice is to study a specific word. I stretched to find an “e” word—elucidation—to continue the discussion on this blog. Simpson’s efforts are all about elucidation as the OED defines it: “the action or process of elucidating, throwing light upon, making plain or intelligible.”
Yeah, I know, judging from many overheard conversations, people just want to use the four-letter word––or do it––not learn about editorial policies and etymological history. If you are interested, read on.
The first edition of the OED omitted the f-word. The editors didn’t even work on it. “If the editors had worked on fuck,” Simpson writes, “it would have been published in 1898 which was when the entry immediately preceding was published (fucivarous: eating, or subsisting on seaweed.)” Dictionary readers could stomach details of seaweed-eating, but the cultural climate was unfriendly to candid language. Says Simpson:
The closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign in Britain were not known for their liberal and enlightened attitude towards sex, and the inclusion of fuck would have probably involved the editors and the publishers in a short walk to a long stretch in prison.
OED Editors considered including the word in its 1933 supplement, but, as in Queen Victoria’s day, they would have been arrested for “gross indecency.” In 1960, Penguin, the British publishers of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, beat legal action that would have prevented them from publishing an “obscene book.” In 1964, the Penguin English Dictionary included the verb fuck, thereby freeing others to publish what they felt compelled to publish and to sidestep incarceration.
Both audacity and caution prevailed at the OED, however. The 1972 OED Supplement used the more delicate word “copulation” instead of “sexual intercourse,” as well as, Simpson reports, a few “colorful” examples. For the OED3, published in 1989, the editors mounted an ambitious search for the earliest usage. The result: the word fuck, though concealed in code, was included in a religious context.
“Gxddbov Xxkxzt Pg Ifmk” comes from this sentence from 1500 AD: “Non sunt in oeli, quia gxddbovxxkxzt pg ifmk.” The first part is Latin: “They [the monks] are not in heaven because…” The rest, Simpson says, was a cypher. for “fuccant uuiuys of heli,” “they are are enjoying sexual intercourse.”
Simpson says, “It seems likely—from the fact that the whole expression was endrypted—that it wasn’t the word itself that had to be hidden from public view, but rather the insalubrious activities of the monks.”
And, that’s about all I want to say about a word I never use and don’t even want to hear.