Tuesday 11 May 2010


I’ve never been one to utter what in English are quaintly known as four-letter words. My parents never swore, my brothers don’t swear, my partner doesn’t swear. My colleagues at work didn’t, most of my friends don’t.
Not using a word oneself doesn’t necessarily mean not being familiar with it in the mouths of others. I still remember my surprise at boarding school in the south of England when, having grown up in the north (but in an RP-speaking family), I first heard a southerner say fʌk. Till then I’d supposed the word to be fʊk, as pronounced by northerners with no FOOT-STRUT split.

The theme for our choir’s summer concert this year is the Seven Deadly Sins.

One of the songs we’re due to present is a Lily Allen number, with which those of you who have lived a less sheltered life than I have may already be familiar. Unfortunately because of other commitments I shan’t be able to take part in our performances on this occasion, so I shall be spared the dilemma of wondering whether I can bring myself to sing in public what I would not say even in private.


  1. Well, it would sound a lot worse with *bleep*s, I'm sure.

    I guess I shan't link you to Tom Minchin's latest opus then.

  2. Bewildering choice of repertoire... (So now the physical activity referred to by the four-letter vocable that is at issue here, is a _deadly_ sin?) BTW, as a nation of little character the Dutch are, of course, given to cosmopolitan swearing; especially the phonetically (and otherwise) challenged are apt to insert the odd [fɵk] or [fɵkɪŋ] into their conversation every four seconds.

  3. Just imagine it's Latin: fac you.

  4. I still remember my surprise at boarding school in the south of England when, having grown up in the north (but in an RP-speaking family), I first heard a southerner say fʌk. Till then I’d supposed the word to be fʊk, as pronounced by northerners with no FOOT-STRUT split.

    It would be a wonderful story if this were what inspired you to become a phonologist!

  5. Latin fac has the TRAP vowel even in the New Pronunciation. It's a fun word mainly for German-speaking children who learn Latin ([dɪk dʊk fAk fɛɐ]). I was going to add "and know the English word from songs and films", but that's quite superfluous.

  6. Ineffably nefarious goings-on for a member of a church choir! Sperate deos memores fandi atque nefandi!

    John, the fʊk anecdote is pricelessǃ How did you suppose it was speltʔ

    In the case of your family your purity of speech was presumably the vicarage tea-party effect. Was Gabriel's family churchy too? And what of your colleagues? What an island of godliness UCL must be!

  7. When I first learned the F-word, as it is now quaintly called, I understood it (I know not how or why) to be pronounced with the GOOSE vowel, and persisted in this error for some months. STRUT it is, of course.

    Lipman: I was certainly taught in Latin class to say fac with the PALM vowel, very carefully distinguished from the STRUT vowel as above. There was, to be sure, an outburst of snickering anyhow, which Mr. Carr simply waited out, as doubtless he had done every year since time immemorial. At the top of every first-year assignment he had us write "Labor vincit omnia", and at the top of every second-year assignment (when we had learned the subjunctive), "Latina vivat!"

    I heard many years later that he had actually died (of a heart attack) in front of his class, thus definitively repudiating the charge that Latin teachers never die but just go on declining.

  8. Very off-topic again, but quod the fac:

    I actually remember my very first Latin lesson, where the schoolmaster came in with a print of some painting that had "[name of the painter] fecit" in the corner, the point being to show how Latin is everywhere. As if 10-year old children had always wondered what that "fecit" meant they saw so often. Luckily, our modern textbook was tailored to more normal everyday situations, starting with Pater vocat. Ancilla currit. = "Daddy calls. The maid's running".

  9. @mallamb: most people in the North of England associate an ʊ with the letter u naturally, just as Germans and Dutch do. It is the original pronunciation of the letter. You often hear Northerners say things like, "Southerners pronounce their Us as As."

    I got confused when I saw the film "District 9" (set in South Africa) as the main character seemed to be pronouncing "fuck" as fʊk, which didn't seem to fit in with a South African accent. However, it turned out that he was using an Afrikaans word "fock".

  10. The proper way to spell the vowel in fʊk is, of course, an em dash.

  11. Lipman: or perhaps "quoad the fac"?

    Ed: There is a tale of a Dutch schoolboy whose family moved to South Africa and was placed into an Afrikaans-speaking class. Invited to give a little speech about himself and his family, he began by saying Mij pa fok dieren 'My dad breeds animals'; alas, the class interpreted this in quite a different sense!

    Luke: Or two asterisks.

  12. Apologies for being so late on this one, but anyone who can rhyme Tesco with Al Fresco (LDN by Lili Allen) is alright by me!!

  13. And my apologies for being even later. There is a story of the mayor of a northern town having to introduce the explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs at a civic function. He pronounced the surname /fʌks/, and when informed later that the name should be pronounced /fʊks/ replied with horror that he couldn't possibly say that in public!


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