Funny story: in a previous post written under the influence of jetlag, I wrote “eff” instead of “egg.” Before I had a chance to correct it, reader John Stewart noted that effing–euphemism for fucking–is itself a Britishism.

This surprised me: I have gotten used to effing in these parts and had no sense of a transatlantic origin. But John is correct. The OED’s examples are all British, starting with this from Robert Graves’ 1929 “Goodbye to All That”: “He was charged with..using obscene language to the bandmaster; the bandmaster, who was squeamish, reported it as: ‘Sir, he called me a double effing c—.'”

I have a sense that effing’s U.S. popularity stemmed in large part from radio and later TV personalities seeking to avoid Federal Communication Commission strictures on foul language. A 2004 New York Times piece about shock jock Gregg “Opie” Hughes noted that even after moving to satellite radio (where the FCC has no sway), “Mr. Hughes often carefully and sometimes almost primly avoided expletives, using euphemisms like ‘freakin’ ‘ or ‘effing’ even though he was free to spew the foulest language they could come up with.”

A Google Ngram shows a 100 percent increase in U.S. usage of effing between 1998 and 2008

Relative frequency of “effing” in U.S. books, 1998-2008

British usage is still about 50 percent more common, according to Google Ngram, but at this point, effing has passed its sell-by date on both sides of the Atlantic, with an unappealing naughty little child quality. Take a recent headline in Jezebel (which has used effing an astonishing 71 times in its history): “What’s the Big Effing Deal About Having a Second Baby?”

Nor does British actress Emily Blunt’s quote about her marriage to John Krasinski augur great things for the union: “All I can say is that it’s an effing blast.”

15 thoughts on “Effing

  1. While I don’t dispute your evidence, I’ve yet to hear it in casual conversation; of course, my statement proves nothing.

  2. There’s an old joke in Blighty:
    Question: How do you get an elephant into a Safeway carrier bag? (Safeway was a supermarket that was taken over by Walmart. Plastic bags with the company’s name on them were provided for customers to take their shopping home in.)
    Answer: You take the S out of Safe and the F out of way.
    You then wait for the person being told the joke to say, “But there’s no F in way!” And eventually the penny drops.

    1. Safeway was acquired by Morrisons. But yeah, I’ve heard that joke before. Then there are other euphemisms, like freak(ing), frak(king), smeg(ging) etc. (Battlestar Galactica / Red Dwarf etc.) I also heard Chris Hansen (American) use the word “effing” on t’ Telly.

  3. The term “effing and blinding” is occasionally used as a polite reference to cursing in general. I assume that “blinding” stands in for “bloody” as “effing” does for “fucking”. Has this crept into US usage?

    On a related note, the TV sitcom “Father Ted” introduced me to the wonderful “feck”. I assumed this was an invention by the writers so that they could get foul-mouthed Catholic priests on TV, but an Irish friend assures me that it already existed in Irish usage.

    1. I’m pretty sure, even in the absence of actual evidence, that ‘blinding’ literally means uttering the curse ‘God blind me!’, which I believe is also the basis of the mild British expression of surprise or awe (etc.), ‘blimey!’. Seems very possible to me.

  4. effing and blinding refers to another great British expletive “Blimey” short for “may god blind me” if something is not true etc. Hence effing and blinding

  5. I am reminded of the brilliant sketch with Ronnie Barker, as a weatherman, when the “F” in the word Fog fell off his weather map and he turned to camera and said ” sorry about the effin’ fog”

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