Friday, September 28, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #271: The F Word by Jesse Sheidlower

Most people wouldn't read dictionaries for fun. But, if they did, they'd probably read fun and quirky dictionaries, and they'd read them in some way that lets them read a bit, enjoy that, and then put it down until the next time.

So if you aspire to be more than "most people," I can suggest that Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word, which I recently read in the updated 2009 edition, is a fine book to have on your nightstand, where you can dip into it a bit before bed, on those nights when you feel like it.

It is, yes, a dictionary. But it's a dictionary entirely made up of words with "fuck" in them -- and a few very obvious euphemisms included for purposes of completeness -- which makes it more interesting and racy than your average desk Webster's.

And Sheidlower, who published the first edition of this book in 1995, is exactly the person to do it: he's an Editor at Large on the OED and is generally considered the pre-eminent expert on the obscene side of the English language. [1]

According to Amazon, which as we all know is never wrong, this is still the current edition of F Word: the final word (at least to date) on all of the ways you can say Fuck in English. It is published by the Oxford University Press, and is impressively scholarly, with a long introduction by Sheidlower on etymology and usage and taboo status and when Fuck first appeared in various media. It also has this excellent statement of purpose, buried on page xxxvi:
This book contains every sense of fuck, and every compound word or phrase of which fuck is a part, that the editor believe has ever had broad currency in English. It does not contain words meaning 'to have sex' or 'to victimize' that are used, often unconsciously, as euphemisms for fuck, such as lay, screw, shaft, or do it.However, it does include euphemisms for fuck that directly suggest, in sound and meaning, the word itself: thus the inclusion of freaking, foul up, mofo, and others. 
It's full of historical usages of all of those words, of course, and can get a bit dry as you work through ten pages of usages of all of the senses of 'fuck, verb.' But it's also full of the wonders of the language, from go fuck a duck to hate-fuck to beans and motherfuckers to absofuckinglutely to ratfuck to unfuckable.

It's a fucking great book: this is what I'm saying. For anyone who likes this language and isn't too old-maidish about it, it's a book you should be familiar with. It's one of the most entertaining dictionaries I've ever read. [2]

[1] This, of course, makes me wonder if Sheidlower has counterparts in the other major world languages, and if they all get together and discuss whether Hindi or Catalan have more evocative words for talking about shit, or if French really is the pre-eminent language of the sexual act. That would be an awesome conference.

[2] The very most entertaining dictionary I've ever read, obviously, is Manguel and Guadalupi's The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. But that's not a proper dictionary, and so is probably cheating.

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