For the purposes of this blog, “British” refers to the British Isles, meaning not only the United Kingdom but Ireland as well. I mention that now because “feck” is of Irish origin, emerging in the nineteenth century as a verb meaning “steal.” From Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: (1916): “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.”
Some decades later, clever Irish people took advantage of how similar “feck” is to another word and began to use it as a Hibernian alternative. This line appears in The Bogman (1952), by the Irish writer Walter Macken: “The whole feckin world I’d give to be with her on the banks of the Ree.” Since then, various forms—including “feck off’,” “fecker,” and “feck it”—have been seen in the work of other writers, mostly Irish, in reproducing dialogue in novels, plays, and films.
A power user is the playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh, whose parents were Irish but who was born and raised in London. I was initially excited to see the Corpus of Contemporary American English list 51 uses of “fecking” between 1995 and 99, but it turned out 44 of them were from McDonagh’s play The Cripple of Inishmaan, which was published in the American journal The Paris Review. Example: “Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite.” (The other seven “fecking”s in COCA came from Irish contexts as well.)
There has been a sprinkling of American uses over the years, for example in the title of a 2014 blog post by Charles Pierce of Esquire: “Not in My Fecking Backyard.” (It had to do with a controversy in Ireland.) I’ve noticed an uptick recently, which I peg to McDonagh’s popular 2022 film The Banshees of Inisheran. The word is used endlessly in it, including in costar Kerry Condon’s mic-drop line “You’re all feckin’ boring!”
In an interview, Condon contended, “It’s not a swear word. You can say it until the cows come home. My mother doesn’t swear ever. But she says ‘feckin’ all the time.” Stan Carey, who is both Irish and a scholar of language, bears her out, noting that in the 1990s TV comedy Father Ted, Father Jack shouts “Feck off!” regularly enough to make it a catchphrase. “’Feck’ is family-friendly, “ Carey wrote on his blog, “even according to advertising standards authorities…. As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel. People who are genuinely furious – as opposed to merely annoyed – or who want to be properly abusive, tend not to use feck: it just isn’t forceful enough.”
“Fooking”—commonly rendered as “fookin’”—is an example of what is known as eye dialect, spelling a word the way it’s pronounced, in this case from the north of England. Someone offered this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2003: “The result of someone with a Mancunian accent trying to say the word ‘fucking.’” An oft-repeated quote from singer Louis Tomlinson, from West Yorkshire, is “I hate fookin’ avocadoes.” And Adrian Chiles’ book We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, about supporters of West Bromwich Albion football, has the line, “He can’t see a fookin’ thing … and he’s got to drive we home.” (Note also the regionalism of “we” as the object of a verb.”)
As for American use, it’s sparse but growing. Journalist Charles Pierce, again, has a favorite epithet on Twitter: “Fookin’ eejit” (idiot). I searched Twitter for tweets containing “fookin’” and emanating in a 200 kilometer radius of New York City and it turned up a couple of dozen hits over the course of a week, including this from an account emanating from East Hampton, N.Y.: “For fook sake man! Im eating my fookin lunch here!!”
17 thoughts on ““Fecking,” “Fookin'””
Check out this song! It’s a truly beautiful example of Irish usage.
Sounds about right, as a Brit, it was Father Ted that probably had the biggest influence on using feck.
By the way, ‘Britain and Ireland’ is a less controversial/more accurate way of saying ‘British Isles ‘ considering most of one of the second largest island isn’t British.
Right but I’m trying to square the use of the word “Britishisms” in the title of the blog.
To be frank, I cringed when I saw “British Isles” and the justification of it.
It just comes across as patronising to Irish people and using it in front of Irish people will get you one of the following: an eye roll, a sigh, a mark on your copybook, a polite correction or any combination of these.
You might need to use ‘Irishisms’ alongside ‘Britishisms’.
Thank you–I appreciate the insight. I am going to try to figure out a better kind of terminology.
A problem with “fook” is that lots of people in Northern England and Scotland pronounce most of of the “*ook” words to rhyme with “spook”. I’m never sure which vowel sound the Southerners are making fun of.
This shows the danger of generalisations. Yes, many Northern people say ‘book’ to rhyme with ‘spook’, often with a strange spooklike ‘w’ floating in the word; but Manchester is different from nearby parts of Lancashire, with, for example, ‘bah gum’ being replaced by ‘by ‘eck’; and my pronunciation of ‘book’ is ‘buck’. Also, as pronounced, spunge, lurry, dunkey.
Back to the word, in Cannery Row, John Steinbeck uses a barely-concealed alternative of ‘fug’.
I remember my alarm when reading an old newspaper to see a court case in which someone was charged with the offence of ‘hamefucken’.
So what did ‘hamefucken’ mean, John? It just makes me think of David Cameron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piggate
I think that I worked out from the article context, and from search glimpses in the midst of intrusive pornographic links, that it meant breaking and entering a home for the purpose of theft. This would be consistent with some earlier definitions, making it an attack on, or theft from, the home.
These earlier definitions give an interesting shade of meaning to the modern use of the word. I might do an old newspaper search for ‘fucken’, and see whether there were any other uses.
I did have a look. In a Scottish newspaper of 1750, there is a report of ‘Hame fucken, or invading ….at his own Dwelling -house, and beating and abusing him to the effusion of his Blood.’
Otherwise, for the rest of that century, and well into the next century, the use seems to be agricultural, appearing frequently in advertisements as ‘fucken’ and as ‘Infucken’ and ‘out fucken’, implying ingress and egress of something. So, in general, I’d suggest that the word indicates some form of forceful entry. And at that point, I shall outfucken.
Ireland is not a British isle,
The “British” in “British isle” means “the archipelago to the north of Brittany” as the word was a Roman Empire coinage.
Have you got a source for that? I assumed British Isles only referred to the whole archipelago when Ireland was owned by Britain. Romans got the name of Britain from the ancient Britons which only referred to what’s now Great Britain, I’m not aware that the Romans used Brittania to include Hibernia as well.
The name Brittany postdates the Romans, so that seems unlikely. I don’t know how far back British Isles goes. From what I understand (open to correction) most actual Irish people accept it as still OK and better than the clumsy alternatives such as “Anglo-Celtic archipelago.” But pretty clearly British is derived from Britain.
Then their is the Australian variant of “ken” which is usually pronounced with the neutral vowel. Ken oath, is thus a a substitute for “you bet!”
West Bromwich is adjacent to Birmingham in the West Midlands. It is nowhere near Manchester or the North and the accent is entirely different.