Fuck, fuccant, and … you wot?

The OED has updated several words, including “computer” and “fuck” as detailed in the newsletter of March 2008 on revisions

But… what on earth is a “xxkxzt pg ifmk”? According to the “code” (which hides what OED believes marks the first printed example of the rude word) the trick is to replace each letter with the previous letter in the alphabet.

That would make it “wwjwys of helj” – not a word in common usage. Maybe, they’re using a different alphabet?

Here’s the extract in full:

fuck

This entry entered the OED in the first volume of its Supplement in 1972.

The term (along with alphabetically related words) perhaps confront lexicographers with the most significant challenges of the current release.

First of all, fuck is a taboo word in English, and this has affected how regularly it appears in print. Its relative absence from the record presents issues in terms of describing its history.

The history begins in murky circumstances. The previous edition of the OED found the verb at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in texts which (for bibliographical reasons) now need to be redated to the middle of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, this is a term about which scholars have made significant discoveries in recent years, and it is now possible to reassert an early sixteenth century date, with indications that the word is earlier.

The earliest evidence found so far is in Latin, and comes from a manuscript presumably written in England and dating from 1500 or slightly earlier. But the text is a) in code and b) in a mixed Latin-and-English context:

Non sunt in cœli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk.

The string ‘gxddbov’ can be read by replacing each letter with the one before it in the alphabet (i.e. ‘fuccant’). This has a Latin third-person plural ending. This usage implies but does not show the pre-existence of the word in English.

The first definite evidence for the word, then, comes from a manuscript in Oxford (MS Brasenose College, Oxford VII), dated 1528.

The use was discovered recently by one of the OED’s regular correspondents. In this case we have the English adjectival form, which implies use of the verb.

Fuck presents a number of other issues for the lexicographer. In terms of documentation, the absence of the word from most printed text before the mid twentieth century causes quotation difficulties.

When the term or its associates do appear they are likely to be masked to avoid scandal or prosecution. Quotations which derive from recent editions of earlier texts need to be rechecked as far as possible in their earliest available form. It is not acceptable, for example, to cite D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from a modern edition on the assumption that the word is present in the first edition (in this case the quotation used was checked in a copy of the 1928 edition, privately printed in Florence).

Several of the relevant texts cited in the OED’s revised entry have proved hard to track down (or bibliographically complex, or both), but wherever possible we have attempted to cite from contemporaneous documents.

The use of asterisks to mask the word is also problematic lexicographically. Whereas we might be happy to accept ‘f—k’ in the right context, how much less certain might we be of ‘f—’? And sometimes there is no letter at all to clarify what has been omitted (‘—’). In each case the editor needs to weigh whether the quotation is allowable.

The entries for fuck and related words have been considerably expanded since OED2 (1989). There the number of meanings and associated verbal phrases under the verb amounted to six. In the revised entry for the verb there are thirty-five components, showing a significant expansion of meaning and phrasal patterning (mainly from the mid twentieth century onwards).

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