Etymology of Words: The Good, The Bad, and The Pretty

As some of you are aware I have returned to school for the first time in 20 years. This is a responsive to an assignment that was due today. I found it interesting and a little more bloggy than a school assignment calls for so figured I would double-up and share it with ya’ll. Knowing most of you are bloggers yourself I assume you consider yourself a logo- or lexophile so go ahead, enjoy it!

According to Merriam-Webster the first use of the word “friendship” occurred before the 12th century, however, it does not cite any sources for the basis of that statement.  In Old English, we find it spelled frēondscipe, which is very similar to the German Freundschaft. Both frēond and freund refer to two or more individuals being attached to one another by feelings of personal regard, preference, and platonic love. They are friends. Interestingly enough, however, I would point out that the closest resemblance to our American spelling is the Dutch version, vriend. Moving on to the suffix, “-ship” the definition in its use with the word friend indicates a ‘relationship between’ and is replicated in Old English as -scipe, the German as -schaft, and in the dutch, –schap. Thus, friendship means a relationship of personal regard and preference between two or more individuals.

Okay, so today I was with four ladies ranging in age from their early twenties to mid-sixties, and I was telling them of this assignment and how it was really giving me a difficult time (I’ve probably just being stubbornly avoiding it). Anyway, the next thing I know they are talking about the origins of the word “Fuck.” Their discussion was fascinating and so I decided to use it, spice up this little assignment a bit. I recorded the conversation and this is how it went: Three out of the four women sitting with me said it had originally been an acronym F-U-C-K though they differed on the language. The first lady, in her twenties, said it stood for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,’ while the second lady in her thirties said it was ‘Fornication Under the Consent of the King.” The third woman, a gal in her mid-sixties said the acronym came about from the sex offender holding units in Great Britain’s prisons. She indicated that the sexual offenders were held in the F.U.C.K. It was the unit that held the rapists and, therefore, to fuck someone was to rape them. As a side note, she continued on explaining that “motherfucker” came from the white man raping the mothers of the slave children in Early America. And that actually made sense. The fourth woman, who is in her fifties had an entirely different explanation. She said that the term “originated in France because the streetwalkers would wear a fur, and that’s what they called it.” I asked for clarification, “They called it ‘fuck?’” and she replied, “Yes.” At this point I had to make a joke,

Man: “I like your fuck.”
Streetwalker: “I like yours too, wanna get together?”

Anyway, we all had a good laugh and I went home ready to do this assignment.  I have gone online to the number one urban legend debunker SNOPES.com knowing they’d have an answer to this riddle. And sure enough, all three women claiming that the word had originally been an acronym were incorrect. But what about the streetwalkers adorning themselves with fucks to attract men? Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. Wrong!

So as it turns out the word comes about like most words do, slowly emerging and changing over time. There are many theories but no precise answers. Snopes — known for their intensive research practices — official stance is that the word most likely comes from Germanic origins.  This is what they pulled up as relative to the investigation:Middle Dutch fokken = ‘to thrust, copulate with’; Norwegian dialect fukka = ‘to copulate’; and Swedish dialect focka = ‘to strike, push, copulate’ and fock = ‘penis.’ The earliest surviving citation of the word fuck was published in 1503 in The Oxford English Dictionary. There is another fascinating book worth considering a peek at if you are a logophile. It is entitled Dictionary of Word Origins and features 8000 English words and outlines their supposed histories. Its author, John Ayto cites a proper name, John le Fucker, as dating back to 1250. I have unfortunately not enough time to get the book ordered to the library in time to complete this assignment so I’ll just leave it at that and let you investigate as you desire.

And finally, my third word. The pretty word. It came up in the discussion too, strangely enough, though I must point out not in connection with the word fuck. My pretty word is “Mermaid.” Sadly the manifestation of this word is not as interesting as I expected it to be. ‘Mere’ is Old English meaning ‘sea’ and maid comes from the Middle English ‘Mayde,’ meaning unwed female.  In the 14th Century mermaid was spelled in Middle English as ‘Mermayde,’ which I kinda find attractive and mysterious… the letter ‘y’ in the word could even be visualized as representing the fishlike tail of the sea maiden herself.

Artist: John William Waterhouse
Artist: John William Waterhouse

And just for bonus points to anyone having read this entire response, a little more word trivia from Snopes.Com:  “Acronymic explanations catch our fancy due to the “hidden knowledge” factor. Most of us feel a bit of a glow when we think we’re in possession of information others aren’t privy to, and when a titillating or apt story is thrown in behind the trivia, these things just take off. ‘Tips’ does not come from ‘To insure prompt service,’ yet that canard is widely believed. Likewise, ‘golf’ didn’t spring to life out of ‘Gentlemen only; ladies forbidden,’ and ‘posh’ did not take its place in our vocabulary from a shortening of ‘Port out; starboard home.’

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

The Online Etymology Dictionary

Snopes

Wiktionary

Bonus link:  Long Live Lexophiles and Logophiles

So, any thoughts?

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