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What's In A Name? Maybe, The First Recorded Use Of A Swear Word

Everyday dress from the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), created in 1910.
Art Resource
Everyday dress from the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), created in 1910.

One man's obscenity is another man's name.

This week a scholar of medieval history announced he might have found the earliest recorded evidence of what we must call here "the F-word" being used in English to describe intimate relations.

Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University says he was examining court papers from 1310 when he noticed the name of a man going before the court was Roger — let me be careful here — F-word-bythenavele.

Dr. Booth told the Daily Mail he thought the name might be some kind of medieval joke. In the 1300s, people often went by names that signified something about them: Baker, Clark, Farmer, Mason.

So how does a man become known as Roger F-word-bythenavele? Sounds like a character in a Mel Brooks comedy.

"Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator," said Dr. Booth — British academics can make any word sound classy — "or it's a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit."

By the way, you can find a link here to an article that spells out the name. You'll see our problem.

Court records disclose that Roger F-word-bythenavel was called to court three times in 1310 and 1311 before he was "outlawed." In the 1300s, outlawed could be a euphemism for being executed. Roger F-word-bythenavele might have been hung by the neck.

The year 1310 would be a couple of centuries before a monk reportedly scrawled the word on a manuscript by Cicero, which has commonly been considered the first appearance of the F-word in English writings. Paul Booth says he has alerted the Oxford English Dictionary.

You don't find many F-word-bythenavele descendants these days. After Roger was "outlawed," it might have been smarter to become Smiths.

All of which might make you wonder: what makes a word vulgar, or turns a word into an obscenity?

Our research department — who may have welcomed the chance to dig into a question that wasn't about the Fed's interest rate — says it took a couple of centuries for this one syllable to become a hand grenade of a word that inflames baseball umpires, teachers, and the FCC, but is beloved by Marines and stand-up comics. People create obscenities by giving special power to words to hurt, offend, dazzle, outrage, or defame.

"People say, 'How dare he use that kind of language!'" David Mamet, who has so often made the F-word eloquent, once said. "Of course I'm alienating the public! That's what they pay me for!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.