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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006

Infamous English word is just an import

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- Apart from Thatcherism and the creation of the modern game of soccer, some cynics say that the major English contribution to modern international life has been the widespread promulgation of the dreadful "F" word.

Beloved of soccer hooligans, "F*** off" has become the common argot of insult almost everywhere on the planet -- understood in places from China and Japan to Latin America, even where English is not understood.

Horror of horrors, an important little book ("POSH: The Fascinating Stories We Tell About the Words We Use," by Michael Quinion. Penguin: £7.99; 282 pages) reveals that the four-letter word is not English at all and, worse yet for professional Englishmen, is an import from German.

The popular assumption is that the expression is the archetypal Anglo-Saxon four-letter word, similar to those used by Geoffrey Chaucer writing his tales of medieval pilgrims' journeys. Some lexicographers also claim that it was used as an acronym in the 15th and 16th centuries -- when married people had to get permission from the king to procreate -- and stood for "Fornication Under Consent of the King." An alternative acronym was as a space-saver for charges of adultery written above people in the stocks, "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge."

Author Quinion flatly says that the word is not Anglo-Saxon, and gives a poem of the late 15th century as its first written use. The writer was making fun of Carmelite friars of Cambridge and declared, "Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk." The latter part is code for "quia fvccant vvivys of heli." The whole line said the friars are not in heaven because they are having sex with the wives of Ely (a town close to Cambridge).

Quinion adds that "fvccant" looks like Latin but is a humorous fake. The infamous word is of Germanic origin, related to the Middle Dutch "fokken," Norwegian "fukka," and Swedish "focka."

Acronyms became attached to the word only in the 1960s, he says, as the taboos on printing it slowly declined. In 1948, the publishers of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" forced him to bowdlerize the word as "fug" -- leading Dorothy Parker to remark when she met Mailer, "So you're the young man who can't spell f***."

Quinion's book is an endless pleasure, taking words and phrases from "akimbo" to "zzxjoanw" and explaining their origins. A lot of the time, he debunks the popular myths about words. For example, his final entry "zzxjoanw" was used in 1903 in a music encyclopedia claiming it was a word for a Maori drum, and subsequently appeared in other learned works. Too bad that the Maori language has no letters z or x or j. It was a hoax.

The word "posh" is frequently cited as an acronym for the way that rich people traveled by sea to India, standing for Port Out, Starboard Home, so that they could catch the best breezes, especially when going through the Suez Canal on Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company vessels. Quinion traces the origins of the word back to the early 19th century to British street slang for money and to the 1890s for a word meaning a dandy.

"OK," probably the most universal modern word, has lots of putative origins. They include Choctaw-Chickasaw's "okah," meaning "it is indeed"; Greek "olla kalla" ("all good"); Scottish "Och aye" ("yes, indeed"); Mandingo, "O ke" ("certainly"); Wolof, "waw kay" ("yes indeed"); or the claim that U.S. President Andrew Jackson used to write "OK" as an abbreviation for "ole korrek" on documents, an insult to an educated man.

All these theories are wrong, Quinion declares, saying that a U.S. president barely remembered outside the United States was the source. Abbreviations were in vogue in Boston in the late 1830s, leading to RTBS (Remains to be seen), GTDHD (Give the Devil his due) and SP (Small potatoes). The practice spread to New York where supporters of Martin Van Buren, the eighth president, started a body called the OK Democratic Club in support of his re-election. The OK stood for "Old Kinderhook," his nickname after his birthplace near Albany. Van Buren lost the election and his connection with OK is widely forgotten.

Quinion offers surprises on expressions like "cheque" or "check" that made a tortuous journey from Arabic through the chessboard: "female," "gringo," "kangaroo" and "kangaroo court," "love" (on the tennis court), "mind your Ps and Qs," "niggardly" -- which predates the slave trade by several centuries -- "nincompoop," "wog" and "Yankee."

The book is actually a popular taster for Quinion's regular work. After a distinguished career, including as a BBC reporter and producer -- how he must cringe at the abuse of the English language by his latter-day BBC colleagues -- and adviser to the Oxford English Dictionary, he became the writer and editor of the wonderful weekly e-mail newsletter and Web site World Wide Words, a free treat every week. After 40 years struggling with the English language, he says he has fought it to a draw. The only writing he has not done is sports.

In the current issue, he looks at a word that has been hardly used recently, "stultiloquy," meaning foolish babbling, last used in literature by John Steinbeck.

As a bonus, he records the words of the year 2005, as decided by the American Dialect Society, a list that shows the inventiveness of American use of English. The word of the year was "truthiness," referring to the concept of stating facts or concepts one wishes or believes to be true rather than those known to be true.

The word voted most useful was "podcast." The most creative was "whale tail," referring to the top of a thong or G-string on display above a skirt or slacks. The word voted most likely to succeed was "sudoku," while the least likely to succeed was "pope-squatting," meaning attempting to capture an e-mail address in advance of the next pope.

The most outrageous word was "crotchfruit," a word that began to be used by advocates of child-free public spaces, but has since gained popularity among parents in jocular use.

As for the mindless F word, it is a pity that Quinion never took up soccer reporting. If he had, he might have gotten it across to English soccer hooligans that f*** was foreign. Mindless jingoists that they are, they would have been quick to desist from its use and would have curtailed its contagious spread. The downside is that the hooligans would probably have resorted to cruder genuine Anglo-Saxon expressions.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor of publications for the World Bank.

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