View: Of the four-lettered f word that is not 'four'

It’s December 2023, and we still baulk like we’ve walked into our parents’ bedroom everytime we see the Four-lettered F word that is Not ‘Four’ (FFNF) in print. The standard practice has been to ‘hide’ FFNF by putting a pair of asterisks between its legs of the first and last letter of the word. That’s pretty much the same way no one calls that regional armour in cricket ‘abdominal guard’ since it protects anything but the abdomen of batters (yes, batswomen wear them too). Which is sad for ‘fork’, ‘funk’ and ‘fink’ (an unpleasant chap), for all FFNF variants are F words, but not all F words are FFNFs.

But really? Considering that when you see ‘f**k’, you read it as it would have stood without a stitch before its creator, what’s the point in keeping up with this Queen Victoria’s secret?

Elon Musk has, w***y-nilly (see what asterisks can also do when you use them for hijabi purposes?), brought back the subject of FFNF in formal and semi-formal public discourse. Lashing out on Wednesday against advertisers who have boycotted X (by which I mean ex-Twitter, and not the 24th, and third least frequently used, letter in the Latin alphabet, to also signify anything X-rated), as well as at the naff New York Times twat interviewing him, Musk said ‘Go f**k yourself!’ a few times. Not ‘Go f**k yourself!’ or ‘Go f**k yourself!’ (see options above), but ‘Go f**k yourself!’ And suddenly the whole English-listening-reading world went, ‘Aiyyo!’

FFNF has become more or less acceptable in informal circles. Post-Nixon it even became presidential, underlining force, hegemonic irritation, while post-Tr**p, it’s become downright everyday meh. I certainly value its rhetorical depth and heft. It brings a genuineness – perhaps, at times, as choreographed as middle-class Mick Jagger’s cockney – to the table that ‘Gosh!’ ‘OMG!’ or ‘Whaaa?’ can never bring.

FFNF has certainly been around for a while. The Oxf**d English Dictionary records its earliest use in the 13th century when the Scottish word suggesting Scandinavian origins in its contemporary spelling was used in the sense ‘to strike’, which was also used as slang for doing the funny business downstairs. Yes, quite like ‘Ma ki’, say, ashirvad, which can jolly well go anywhere.

In 2015, historian Paul Booth of Keele University found the name Roger Fuckebythenavele in a 1310 court document in Britain’s National Archives. Booth believes this to be a nickname – suggesting someone who does the jolly business via the navel – that was given to Roger, who was a bit of an idiot, either in bed or in general as hinted by his lack of basic anatomical knowledge. This, Booth reckons, is the first usage of FFNF in its modern bifurcatory sense as a sexual innuendo.But even as a verb denoting nookie, in an English-speaking-reading world that saw DH Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, win a court case allowing FFNF to be printed legally in 1960 for the first time in centuries – prior to the 18th century, the word ‘damned’ was deemed far more haraam than the happily acceptable ‘f**k’ – there’s a strange coyness about FFNF mingling with words like, say, ‘go’ and ‘yourself’.When talking or writing words, context samajhiye. Musk’s particular usage, literally suggesting an impossible form of onanism, clearly was meant to be disparaging, but in the same manner as, say, ‘Dafa ho jao!’ or ‘Go to Pakistan!’ is to completely civil people in uncivil circumstances. If WTF can stand next to the likes of WFH, and fracking – hydraulic fracturing – is a completely acceptable subject up for debate regarding oil and gas extraction, it would seem kosher for us, in December 2023, to pull out the asterisks from FFNF and behave like adults who, unlike poor Roger Fuckebythenavele, know our window from our knob.

I would even venture forth to suggest that as a country where English is a power, aspirational and influencer language, pulling the ghunghat off FFNF would be the right, decolonising thing to do. If print doesn’t talk like the spoken word in 2**3, then we’d rather be only reading and listening to the inter-fooking-net.