Final Word

Rude results when urban legend and acronym meet


Storytelling, especially as a means to keep traditions and values in communities alive from generation to generation, is probably as old as mankind itself, with at times surprising twists.

More often than not, widely shared stories in communities are the carriers of legends and myths. Traditionally such stories are described as ‘folktales’ – tales or legends “originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially (those) forming part of the oral tradition of the common people” or “any belief or story passed on traditionally, especially one considered to be false or based on superstition”.

British antiquarian William Thoms is generally credited with coining the term ‘folklore’ in 1846.

In a post-industrial world a particular strand of folklore, called ‘urban legends’ developed – the word ‘urban’ itself coming from the Latin word urbanus, meaning ‘of or pertaining to a city or city life; in Rome’.  

Over time the use of the term ‘urban legend’, first recorded in print in 1925 in the New York Times, took on the meaning of ‘contemporary legend’ – generally a story that is either untrue or an exaggeration or sensationalised version of the truth. Along the way, by retelling and embellishment or adaption for local environments, it gains the status of folklore.

Some rude results

Sometimes when acronyms get mixed up with existing words, or gain the status of an independent word, the result can become pretty rude.

An example that immediately springs to mind, is the claim that the acronym for Store High in Transit (SHIT) that we dealt with in this column some time ago. It is claimed by some sources that it came from regulations governing the shipment of guano and its dangerously explosive ‘by-product’ propane gas.

Add the influence of urban legends to the mix, and matters can get a lot worse, as I discovered while researching the origin of the term ‘urban legend’.

There is a legend that in early England licenced brothels were said to have displayed an acronym above their doors to indicate that they were premises for “fornication under consent of the king”. The claim is that it is from this that we get the four-letter ‘f-word’, so popular in less polite language today.

There are a few other variants to this legend as well, such as that it refers to prostitutes in the 19th century being charged “for unlawful carnal knowledge”. Or comes from a 15th century legal term for rape as “forced unnatural carnal knowledge” or wad as a medical term  knowledge this legend as well, like er  m regulations governing the shipment of quano ace in the wake ofs a medical term used when a soldier was diagnosed as suffering from venereal disease and stood for “found under carnal knowledge”.

Nobody is absolutely sure where the word comes from, but it most likely originated from a Germanic word, which gave us the modern German word ficken and the Middle Dutch word fokken, to thrust and to copulate. In Swedish focka means to strike, push or copulate, depending on context.

No one is sure about the original root, and tracing its origin is complicated because the word was so strongly taboo for so long that very few records are available. Fact is that for a period of 170 years, from 1795 to 1965, it disappeared from all general dictionaries of the English language.

The word has been around, however, since much earlier and the “…earliest known use of f… was recently discovered by Paul Booth of Keele University. The name Roger Fuckebythenavele appears three times in the Chester county court plea rolls between 8 December 1310 and 28 September 1311. The name, presumably a nickname hinting at sexual inexperience, appears in the rolls as part of a process to have the man declared an outlaw,” reports The Telegraph.

As late as 1948, the publishers of The Naked and the Dead persuaded Norman Mailer to use a euphemistic alternative, fug, instead. It is said that someone, meeting Mailer after the work was published, remarked: “So you’re the man who can’t spell f…”

Result not always rude

But getting the stories behind the origins of words wrong and linking it to acronyms, sometimes probably because that is more exotic than the truth, does not always deliver rude results.

A good example is the word ‘posh’ for ‘smart, stylish, splendid or luxurious’. Many believe the word comes from the days of popular sea voyages between India and Britain, marketed to the wealthy by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company.

The most expensive cabins were located portside when traveling to India and starboard on the voyage back home because it was away from the heat of the sun. The story goes that the acronym POSH was printed on the tickets for those cabins, indicating ‘port outward, starboard home’.

Fact is, however, that no records of such tickets could be found and the origin of the word ‘posh’ remains uncertain.

A more likely root is that it comes from criminal slang going back to the early to mid-19th century, when the word ‘posh’ was used to indicate money after an earlier use of it for a coin of small value or halfpenny from the Romany word posh for ‘half’.

Another possibility is that the word came from an Urdu word safed-pōś, which means ‘well-dressed’ and that in turn comes from the Persian word pōś meaning ‘covering’, which also gave Turkish the word papoosh for a luxurious soft leather slipper.

by Piet Coetzer

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