Two linguists explain

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You should go read "Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake", The Toast 6/14/2016. Gretchen McCulloch interviews Kate Wiles about the imitation-Old-English that Paul Kingsnorth uses in The Wake, a novel about resistance to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

I'm facing a paper deadline and don't have time to do justice to this great conversation, but here's a short excerpt to whet your appetite:

Gretchen: The Wake uses fuck quite a bit, with the spelling fucc or fuccan because it’s avoiding k. Here’s an example sentence from page 99: “go fucc thyself i saes and let thy frenc freonds do the same”. It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?  


He’s fallen into the most basic of heffalump traps. Everyone calls it an Anglo-Saxon four-letter word but it’s really not. In fact, none of the Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words were Anglo-Saxon four-letter swear words. Most of them aren’t even Anglo-Saxon. There’s no denying they had a filthy sense of humour so there’s plenty of smut. But they were a pragmatic bunch and their taboo words, certainly as we have them recorded, were pretty literal: shit had all the scandalous effect of ‘defecation’; words for sex were no ruder than ‘intercourse’ in the contexts that we find them used and ‘bastard’ just meant illegitimate.



  1. Michael Watts said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 7:38 am

    It’s set in 1066, so is fuck old enough? Should Kingsnorth have been using swive or something else instead?

    Apparently, "something else". Etymonline suggests that swive developed the relevant sense around 1300.

  2. Bloix said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    Well, but the point is that fuck didn't mean fuck and anyway it wasn't a curse word.
    One of the oddest words in English is windfucker (and the variant fuckwind), meaning the common kestrel, for its manner of holding a stationary position by flying into (beating against) the wind.

    The kistrilles or windfuckers that filling themselues with winde, fly against the winde euermore.
    – Thomas Nast, 1599

  3. David L said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 7:36 pm

    One of the oddest words in English is windfucker (and the variant fuckwind), meaning the common kestrel, for its manner of holding a stationary position by flying into (beating against) the wind.

    And impressive little fuckers they are, when you see them hovering over fields and at the sides of motorways.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    *starts planning G. M. Hopkins parody*

  5. Bloix said,

    June 15, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

    And if you write it quick, the Toast will print it.

  6. GH said,

    June 16, 2016 @ 8:56 am

    While the author explains that he has tried to use words with Anglo-Saxon roots as much as possible, that doesn't mean that they necessarily need to have the same meaning now as then. If "fuck" existed in OE, even if it meant something else (or meant the same but didn't have the same force), I think it would be fair game by his own rules.

    The discussion seems to assert that "fuck" did not occur in OE, but was borrowed later. However, the evidence for that appears to be equivocal: all we can really say is that it is not directly attested. (The OED holds that "fuck" probably was inherited from Germanic.)

    As for the authenticity of the swearing, I'm sure they are right, even though lack of attestation would seem to make it difficult to speak authoritatively. It brings to mind David Milch's famously sweary HBO show Deadwood, set in the 1870s Dakota Territory, which also substituted more modern swearing for the type of oaths the characters would more likely have used. The argument made by the producers was that when they originally tried to use more authentic swearing, it just seemed quaint to modern viewers: "… if you put words like 'goldarn' into the mouths of the characters on 'Deadwood', they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam."

    I find it interesting that the two linguists never actually propose any examples of the kind of swearing the author should have used. I tried to look it up online, and the best reference I can find is the video here, which at 13:00 lists various holy oaths that would have been offensive in the Middle Ages if taken in vain: "by God's bones!", "by God's nails!", "Christ's precious heart!" (If she indicates a more specific time frame for when these oaths were used I missed it, but obviously that last one cannot be from Old English.)

    I'm not at all convinced that such oaths would have been effective as a literary device.

    All of that said, I couldn't get more than a couple of pages into The Wake because the wholly unauthentic bastardization of the grammar annoyed me so ("i is"/"thu is", "thu" in the objective case, etc.).

  7. Adam Roberts said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 10:35 am

    Wiktionary (whose etymologies I often find very detailed and useful) says this:

    "The word may be attested in a 772 charter which mentions a place called Fuccerham, which possibly means “ham ‎(“home”) of the fucker” or “hamm ‎(“pasture”) of the fucker”. The earliest verifiable use of the word in an unambiguously sexual context in any stage of English appears in court documents from Chester county, England, which first mention a man called "Roger Fuckebythenavele" on December 8, 1310.[1][2] It was first listed in a dictionary in 1598"

    Since this comes after the hypothesis that the word 'may go back to the Proto-Indo-European *pug-, *puǵ- ("to strike"; source of Latin pūgnus ‎(“fist”) among many others), or to Proto-Indo-European *puḱn-, *pewḱ- ("to sting, stick, stab")' I suppose the pasture mentioned is a boxer's or swordswman's pasture. But perhaps it was the pasture of a notoriously randy individual.

  8. Terry Hunt said,

    June 17, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

    @ Adam Roberts

    Or perhaps, the pasture belonging to a man with the name (rather than the nickname) Focca, Folca or Fuca, which may have derived from a "strike" meaning but no longer carried that immediate personal implication, just as, for example, Julius Caesar's name did not imply that he personally had long hair (as one of four suggested origins of the name Caesar)?

  9. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 18, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    Gotta say, I cannot imagine actually sitting down and reading this book. If the language aspect received enthusiastic thumbs up from the experts I might dip into it a bit, but even then I find this sort of pseudo-anything writing mostly just an annoying distraction, even when done well. Done badly, as it apparently is here, it is unbearable twee.

    Then I learn that "the book sets up the narrator as this guy who’s anti-Christian and into the “old gods” (the Norse pantheon) instead" You want me to read this? Let's discuss the payment schedule. I warn you, I won't come cheap.

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