Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.
The F word
Faithful reader, in our journey through the wonders of the alphabet, through those etymological entities that tell us a thousand tales, it is inevitable that we will arrive at F. It is also inevitable that your curiosity gets the better of you as you scroll down my list of chosen words to see if I have, perhaps, chosen the original ‘F’ word.
To ensure your concentration and pique your interest, I shall do away with this triviality now. The ‘F’ word has acquired a mythical status amongst the pantheon of swear words. It is now used so universally and so excessively, it is not possible to ignore this word. So let us not.
Contrary to many urban legends the ‘F’ word is not an acronym. Many variations have been offered in an attempt to secure authenticity – Fornication Under Consent of King is one, suggesting that in Medieval England sex between couples had to be consented by the King. The other suggestion is that in colonial times prostitution was punished by law as For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge - leading to the contracted version of the word as we know of. Both these suggestions are incorrect but rather ingenious, we must admit.
The F word arose from Dutch or Germanic origin around 15th century. In fact many Scandinavian languages have similar sounding equivalents – Middle Dutch fokken means to thrust or copulate, Norwegian fukka means the same and so does Swedish focka which also means to strike or to thrust. The French and Italians have words of similar implication : foutre and fottere said to be derived from the Latin future meaning to strike/thrust also.
After all the thrusting and striking, I feel a tad dizzy. Remember the 'F' word despite being fairly ancient, remained very much taboo in the printed text for a very long time until the 1960s. A mere mention of the 'f'word would cause condemnation and legal action, perhaps even resulting in banning the text.
Although the word thrived in the underground 'purple' press it never saw mainstream.
HENRY V ACT IV SCENE 3
Princess Katherine Learns English...
Ainsi dis-je: “d'elbow, de nick, et de sin.” Comment appelez-vous le pied et la robe?
( So you say the elbow, the neck and the chin - how do you say the foot and the robe?)
“Le foot,” madame, et “le count.”
( The foot madam and the count (gown) )
“Le foot” et “de count.” Ô Seigneur Dieu! Ils sont mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user. Je ne voudrais prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France pour tout le monde. Foh! “Le foot” et “le count”!
(the Foot and the count - O my God, these are vulgar words- wicked, ugly, immodest and not fitting for respectable ladies to speak. I would not utter these words for the Lords of France for all the world!)
Sly Ol' Shakespeare
Even Shakespeare is not immune to having a sly go at wordplay. In Act IV Scene 3 of Henry the Vth , the French Princess Katherine speaks to her lady in waiting Alice almost entirely in French.
Shakespeare introduces the word confusion as an attempt at some scurrilous humour mongering. Katherine is asking Alice to teach her how to say in English the body parts and Alice duly translates. all goes well with the eye, the elbow and the neck. Katherine then asks Alice the English words for the 'pied' and the 'robe' - here Alice says 'foot' almost pronouncing it as 'foutre' and 'count ' supposed to be a mispronunciation of gown)
Katherine here mistakes the Foot for le Foutre ( the French version of the 'f' word) and the count for something even worse. She then exclaims at the impudence of the English and that such vulgarity is unbecoming a lady in waiting. No doubt Shakespeare had the audience rolling in the aisles at this pungent humour done very craftily!
Now that I’ve fulfilled your query, could we now meander through the other F words? We have ancient and modern in our listing, and as always they have stories to tell you.
The Journey through F
In this journey we will encounter the technological wonder of the Fax and pursue it's Latin root fac simile, We shall look at Fancy and Fantasy,Fizzle our way through the Moulin Rouge, celebrate Lupercalia in February, traverse the Funicular Railways and play a game of Frisbee.
Great Fun to be had, won't you come with me?
FAX & FACSIMILE
The word Fax entered modern parlance very late even though the techonology of transmitting a document through telegraphic means has been around in 1870. The word fax was invented in America and is a simple contraction of the Latin word ‘Facsimile’ which in itself is two Latin words ‘ Fac Simile – to make similar. The word fax is now exclusively used for the techonological process and is in general use as a noun as well as a verb.
The word facsimile however, is used in printing and publishing. Many well known original books are available in ‘facsimile’ editions, reproductions identical to the original. Such as the facsimile editions of Shakepspeare, the Guttenberg Bible and Illuminated Manuscripts.
Bibliophiles love such painstaking reproductions. The website facsimile editions has fascinating details of how the experts have reproduced even the dead sea scrolls in limited edition copies. Should you fancy one, it will merely set you back by 90 thousand dollars.
I have in my book collection a more affordable facsimile edition of Sherlock Holmes stories from the Strand Magazine. There is something about reading the stories as they originally appeared with their original illustrations and even the advertisements of that era.
FANCY & FANTASY
The words fancy and Fantasy both originate from the Greek root –phanein – to show. They have somehow acquired different meanings. The Greek original also appears in other words such as Fantasia and Phantasmic - a move from ‘to show’ to mean ‘to make visible’.
Fantasy has acquired a more esoteric meaning of imagination while Fancy has become more of a 'showing ‘preference’.
A phantom is something mysterious that becomes visible. The scarier version is a phantasm.
The Italian form fantasia is used more to mean a fanciful musical composition.
-phanein also appears in a lovely word diaphanous which means a translucent material of clothing. It literally means to show- through. The renaissance painters and sculptures competed in producing authentic diaphanous look in their paintings to enthralling effect.
One of the best examples is in Francois Gerard’s psyché et l’amour - see picture above.
Edison's Silent Film of Original Le Petomane
The word fizzle has a rather smelly origin as it means to Fart silently and unobtrusively in its original incarnation.
It meant more a ‘weak hiss or a splutter’ that then went on to mean ’to end feebly or weakly’ as in ‘ fizzled out’. The more onomatopoeic Fizz also comes from similar logic. The Indo European original is said to come from pezd – the sound of breaking wind.
The Fart has been used to much comic effect and adults and children do still find something giggleworthy from a fizzle.
Frenchman Joseph Pujol (1857 – 1945) went one step further and made farting to order a stage act.He was incredibly popular at the Moulin Rouge in Paris from 1892 as Le Petomane .
He was the toast of Paris and had audience in stitches with his highly skilled act of ‘breathing through his anus’ – he could literally inhale air and expel it as a fart with great skill- a skill he originally used to amuse his army bunkmates soon became a very popular show.
He could play tunes on a flute, play tricks like blowing out a candle from a distance, and even mimic noises such as a cloth ripping- all with his anus. He was at that time the highest paid 'act' in Paris. Go figure!.
The ‘Fartiste’ left the Moulin rouge and set up his own show at the Pompadour and continued entertaining huge crowds until the First world war.
More Recently, a Mr Methane has turned up in the TV circuits doing Le Petomane act and reviving the flatulent farce all over again- see video below!
The month of February takes its name from the Latin Februarius that in turn was borrowed from the language of the ancient Sabine people of Rome. They called their festival of purification ‘Februa’. This spring festival celebrated the founding of Rome by The twins Romulus and Remus and was a celebration of purification and fertility.
The Italian heritage
The festival was also known as Lupercalia, ( Lupine- Wolf-like ) named in honour of the she-wolf that nurtured Romulus and Remus and was held at the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of Palatine hill where the twins were said to have grown up.
The Luperci or the brothers of the wolf were two naked young men whose tough was supposed to confer fertility and vigour. These two men covered d only in goat’s hide would fashion a whip from the same skin. The whip was called ‘Februa’ and was used to touch and gently flagellate women who lined the streets in order to be blessed with fertility. There was much revelry during the celebration of Lupercalia. It was held mid month on the 15th of February.
More interestingly February 14th, the eve of Lupercalia, was called the lover’s lottery. Many eligible young men would pick out names of teenage girls that would be written in cards and placed in an urn. Whichever name they drew, the two will be paired for the festivities .
In some instances if the pair hit it off, it may result in a long term liaison or even a marriage. This is perhaps the precursor of the Valentine’s day and the Valentine’s card !
This is an art of making very fine jewellery and the name describes the method of how the delicately crafted jewels are made. It comes from the Latin for thread ( filum) and beads/grains ( granum) becoming filigrana that came to English via the French filigrane. The word metamorphosised into filigreen and then filigree eventually.
The intricate jewels are made from threads and beads of precious metals and has now come to mean the pattern of design itself. Filigree patterns can now be seen in fabric, metalwork , jewellery and even cupcake designs!
The word Funicular is derived from Latin and is a dimunitive of ‘funis’ in Latin which means a ‘rope’.
A funicular railway is one that runs on a rope or a cable where two tram like cars are used up and down an inclined slope to counterbalance each other. They are usually operated using tanks of water that can be used as hydraulic systems and filled and emptied as needed to create an imbalance in weight, and therefore movement.
The Funicular railways were and still are popular relics of bygone days. They are used in mines as well as up the mountains.
The same root Funis also crops up in Funambulist which is the fancy term for a ‘rope walker’. The art of tightrope walking has been around for centuries with skilled performers enthralling and exciting circus audiences. The tradition of tight rope walking exists in many cultures among acrobats.
The act of balancing on a rope or a wire sometimes using a pole as counterbalance is a unique skill that needs a lot of practice and patience. There have been many famous tightrope walkers in history who crave bigger and bolder challenges.
Charles Blondin was a famous Frenchman known for his Daredevilry and has crossed the Niagara Falls many times across on a tightrope, watched by thousands. He not only walked the rope but also pushed a trolley, carried a person on his back and once even stopped halfway to fry an egg and eat it!
Frenchman Philip Petit has crossed many famous landmarks on a tightrope like the Sydney harbour bridge . He crossed the Twin Towers in 1974 and was arrested for his daredevilry. His experiences have been captured i n the documentary Man on a Wire.
And we finally come to the flighty art of throwing the Frisbee. In case you didn’t know, the story if the Frisbee is a curious one.
In the 1870s a baker named William Russell Frisbie took his family's baking business into newer horizons of pies and pastries. He named his gradually expanding pie company ‘ the Bridgeport Frisbie Pie Company’ and soon expanded all over Connecticut including New Haven. He embossed the name of the company in all his pie tins.
Bored Yale Students who no doubt enjoyed these pies as a treat soon discovered the serofoil properties of the empty pie tins when inverted. Soon the students were playing the game of ‘throwing the pie tin’ across the campus.
In the 1950 a Californian UFO enthusiast called Walter Morrison had designed a flying saucer throwing game that was manufactured by wham- O’ and was doing a promotional tour of schools and colleges. He stumbled upon the Frisbie pie tin throwing craze in Yale and decided to adapt this to his flying saucer game and took the name of Frisbee ( dropping the' i' to avoid any copyright infringement case from the Pie owners!) and soon the Frisbee was born.
We have come to the end of our journey, dear reader. We have had fun I hope.
We faxed and facsimiled, and swore quietly under our breath, uttering the infamous 'f' word.
We have pondered on the origins of fantasy and marvelled at the beautiful diaphanous robes. We watched the great Le Petomane fart his way to fame at the Moulin rouge and held our breath for all the right reasons.
We watched with breathless anticipation as Funambulists crossed on a very tight rope high above the earth. We wore filigree jewellery and threw an empty Frisbie pie tin just for fun.
See you soon. I wonder what stories G will bring?
© 2011 Mohan Kumar
Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 26, 2011:
You have a much better understanding of the English language and how to put things together than I ever will. I have always enjoyed reading especially things well written, funny (got my f word in), with a hint of teaching at the same time. Really enjoyed reading.
James A Watkins from Chicago on April 25, 2011:
I so enjoyed this marvelous article. The origins of Fizzle and Frisbee were especially illuminating. I too am among those fooled by the origins of the "F" word. Thanks for setting the record straight. Well done!
Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on April 10, 2011:
@ Cogerson -Thank you!
@ Lynda- much obliged for that 'f' cascade!
@Twilight Lawns - thank you very much!
@WillStarr- thank you again for your kind words.