The Four Most Ridiculous Word Origin Myths

  • May 30, 2010
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The F-Word

The Story

If the Internet is any indication, a lot of people heard this story in school – just what are they teaching kids these days? The story is that the modern f-word is a result of an acronym that gradually morphed into a word. The original acronym changes: Filed Under Carnal Knowledge (a classification system for sex crimes), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (a sign, apparently, that was hung above misbehaving sailors and adulterers in the stocks) Fornication Under Consent of King (the most bizarre of origin stories, which claims that in the old days people had to get consent of the king before they slept with anyone: how on earth was this supposed law enforced, and do we want to know?)

pillory stocks

And you thought your parents were strict.

The Truth

Acronyms that turn into words are a recent phenomenon – there’s only a single recorded instance of an acronym turning into a word before the 20th century. So whenever you hear a pseudo-definition like this, look upon it in suspicion. The earliest mention of the f-word in England appears in the 15th century, and similar words appear in German, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian. A possible origin is an Old High German word ‘pfluog’ meaning ‘to plough a field’, but nobody really knows.

Keep in mind that it’s hard to track these things because people are usually averse to writing dirty words down in official documents. So if you’re a linguistics major looking for an interesting PhD topic, here’s one for you.

Why Has the Story Stuck?

If there’s one thing we’re even more interested in telling silly stories about than death, it’s sex. Like the missionary position definition suggests, we’re also into telling stories about how ridiculous people in the past were. These stories combine both of these. It’s also a good way to excuse your own swearing – how can a word really be bad, if it was invented by a King?


No, the other King.


Rule of Thumb

The Story

As anyone who has ever met a women’s studies major or seen the Boondock Saints knows, the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ refers to an old-fashioned English law under which a man was legally allowed to beat his wife, as long as the stick he used was no wider than his thumb. This piece of linguistic misogyny has stayed on uninvited in the English language, and is used to oppress women to this day.


Who is worse, the guy doing the beating or the guy taking the time to record it?

The Truth

The human thumb was a common measurement device before standardized measurements became commonplace. In many European languages, the words for thumb and inch are either similar or the same. Several European languages also have the same or a similar phrase, for example the Swedish “Tumregel” (rule of thumb) and German “Faustregel” (rule of fist).


These guys really liked that rule.

Luckily for German wives, there’s no evidence that the term originated with rods, for wifebeating or otherwise. It’s probably simply a reference to measurement. A ‘rule of thumb’ is a rule that applies in general, but which cannot be relied upon in every single situation. A thumb is a simple, effective way to take a measurement, but isn’t exactly good when it comes to fine tuning.

Why Has the Story Stuck?

Mistakes about this term’s origin go back to the 19th Century, when legal rulings in several American states condemned the old ‘rule of thumb’ which allowed wifebeating. Things hadn’t changed much in 1982, when the US Commission on Civil Rights’ report on spousal abuse used the term in the same context. The bogus definition has reached wide usage since then. Like many of the other stories on this list, this probably has something to do with the fact that oppressive laws and beatings are so much more interesting than measurements used for woodworking and agriculture.


Unless they were building one of these.

Written by C. Coville – Copyrighted © Image Sources