Four-letter word gets a 272-page book all to itself

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TRY TO think of a word worthy of a 272-page academic treatise. "Love" comes to mind; "death", possibly; "romance", perhaps. What you are unlikely to opt for is the F-word. But Faber & Faber, publisher of T S Eliot, W H Auden and the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, is to issue a volume on the etymology of this expletive.

The F Word: The complete history of the word in all its robust and various uses will be published in Britain next month after success in the US.

To those surprised that Faber might consider it a valid subject, the editor, Jesse Sheidlower, said the taboos surrounding the word were weaker than ever - "and it's based on real research, based on citations from the earliest to the most recent we can find", he said. "I think it's a fun book, but it's based on a lot of scholarly work."

Or in the words of Shakespeare, quoted on the book's opening page: "'Tis needful that the most immodest word/Be looked upon and learned." (Henry IV, Part II)

Mr Sheidlower is a New York-based lexicographer who studied Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge and became editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, from which the new book is derived.

The book contains a history of the F-word from the 15th century, when the English probably borrowed it from the Germans, to the present day. It is related to words in several Germanic languages, including Dutch and Swedish, which have sexual meanings as well as meanings such as "to strike" or "to thrust".

It had probably been around for centuries before the earliest known appearance in English in 1475, but carried a taboo so strong that it was never written down.

Mr Sheidlower claims that several stories about the word are myths. It was not true, he said, that it originated as an acronym of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Neither has it anything to do with English bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt where tradition has it - wrongly - that the men defied the French onslaught, then waved their fingers in what has become the V sign crying: "We can still pluck yew!" in reference to drawing back the string of their longbows.

Variations on the word abound. All are treated with scholastic rigour by Mr Sheidlower. In 1948, the writer Norman Mailer, for instance, substituted the variant "fug" in his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Shakespeare, too, never used the word itself but Henry V and Henry IV Part II contain examples of probable references; and a Latin grammar lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor gives us the "focative case" (punning on the vocative case, used for direct address), immediately followed by lewd wordplay.

Shockingly, in the demure eyes of your correspondent, The Times of London breached standards as long ago as 1882 in reporting a speech by the Attorney- General. It took the stunned editors four days to run an apology for what was allegedly a bit of typesetters' mischief.

Yet the word failed to make it on to the pages of the New York Times in its complete spelling until Kenneth Starr's report on the antics of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was published in full last year.

Jonathan Riley, Faber's chief editor for the volume in Britain, said it considered The F Word a proper and respectable book to be publishing. "It is, after all, a serious history."

And after all, Faber & Faber is also the publisher of Philip Larkin: the opening lines to his poem about having children, "This Be The Verse", contain the only example of the F word to be regularly found in dictionaries of quotations.