Does a word ever just pop out at you, and you think, "Never heard that one before."
It's expected when it's some complicated, obscure term, like "qualtagh."*
But when it's a word that, well, sounds common, readily understandable, even on first hearing, a word you feel as if you should have heard but somehow incredibly haven't, it really piques your interest.
Or mine anyway. I'm open to the idea that I'm strange in this regard.
She says it three times.
At 54, I thought I had heard every manifestation of that well-known, blunt, all-purpose Middle English word, a noun, verb and adjective rolled into one, the fire axe of language behind glass, to be brought out, well, according to need. I don't use it much for its literal meaning—"Hey honey, let's fuck" is not my style—but do find it helpful, especially as an intensifier, to convey focused sincerity—"Why don't you shut the fuck up?" I would have bet I could rattle off every alternative, gerund, portmanteau associated with it.
But "fuckery"? Something new, to me.
Worried I had just led a sheltered life, I asked my wife if she had heard the term, and she said no, then added, "We've of an older generation." Yes indeed we are.
I plugged it into Google, The first hit was the Urban Dictionary. "Nonsense. To make no sense. Bullshit."
A start at least. That would mesh with Winehouse's song.
Off to the full Oxford English Dictionary, which should have had the English etymology going back 500 years (when "fuck" or, more precisely, "fukkit," first found its way onto the page, in a bawdy verse by Scottish poet William Dunbar).
But the OED let me down. Nothing at all. Straight from "Fucivorous" ("Eating, or subsisting on, sea-weed." Who knew?) to "Fuco'd" ("Beautified with fucus, painted" -- sigh, there's no end to it: "Fucus," "paint or cosmetic for beautifying the skin).
See? That's why this blog is called "Every goddamn day." Because if you flinch from speaking directly about such matters, bowing to some antique notion of uprightness, you find your 12 volume dictionary defining a 17th century term for face-painting, but ignoring a word on the lips of half the world's population for the past half millennium. And they thought the shame was in a dirty word.
Then again, my edition of the OED was published in the Dark Ages of 1978. Maybe the more recent—1995—New Shorter Oxford would redeem the brand and, indeed, it does feature "fuck" and a few of its cognates.
But no "fuckery."
Gladly, they are not the last word either, and I knew just where to look: Jesse Scheidlower and Lewis Black's excellent but unfortunately-titled "The F-Word" (unfortunate, because if you're writing a book about the word "fuck," show a little spine and use the word in the title. A clothes store in Quebec could do it, so could a big publishing house. Or as Napoleon said, "If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.")
There it is, bold as life:
Fuckery noun [FUCKER+-y, or FUCK + treachery]
Their first definition was "a brothel," a meaning they trace to John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley's 1902 Slang and Its Analogues.
Obviously not Winehouse's meaning. In "Me & Mr. Jones" she isn't wondering what kind of a whorehouse she finds herself in.
Nor does the second definition—"sexual activity; FUCKing"—shed light on the song, though it includes a line from this 1974 New Society review of popular porno Deep Throat: "Although she assesses herself a unique phoenix of fuckery, Ms. Lovelace does only what any accomplished whore is expected to do"—"phoenix of fuckery;" I not sure what it means, but I like the alliteration.
Pressing on, we close in on Winehouse's intention: "3. despicable behavior; (also) treachery," quoting not only Stephen King's 1978 novel The Stand, "That was an act of pure human fuckery" but, coming full circle, citing the song that got us started on this: "2006 A. Winehouse Me & Mr. Jones (pop. song): 'What kind of fuckery is this?'"
I suppose we could stop here. But once you start digging, you want to finish the job. If you set out to take Vienna...well, you know.
Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, the 2005 edition, stands foursquare behind Winehouse's usage, defining "fuckery" first a brothel, and then as "unfairness, ill treatment, treachery," and"nonsense." Cassell's cites it as West Indies or "UK black," which sounds right. The Rough Guide to Jamaica defines it as "irritating, bothersome, out of order" and offers a delightful example: "Dis man is pure fuckery."
"Non-English speakers regularly make good use of fuck's plasticity," explains Peter Silverton in Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing. "Jamaican English has the wonderful 'fuckery'. Pronouncd 'fuck-ree' and not considered bad language, it indicates injustice—'a fuckery dat', for example."
"Wonderful." See? It's not just me.
The West Indies seems responsible for shifting the word from sexual matters to the realm of the political. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, published in 2008, offers "fuckery" as "oppression, the inherent corruption of a dominant society" and traces that usage to Jamaica in 1979.
One reason it's always a good idea to root as deeply as you can, and an example of what happens when you don't, is served up by British writer Howard Sounes in a book he published just last year that includes a profile on Winehouse:
"Her vocabulary is particularly interesting on 'Me and Mr. Jones.' In this song Amy invents a word, 'fuckery', to describe the unreliability of her lover, asking 'what ... fuckery is this?' This twist on a well-worn vulgarity— simple, yet very expressive —may earn Amy a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in time."
Ouch. Of course, Winehouse didn't invent the term—despite the lazy fantabulizing on Sounes's part (he also blew the song title—using an "and" instead of an "&." Not to mention ignoring the odds of there ever being another edition of the OED, at least not in print).
Speaking of the song's title, our subject today is actually part of the official title of the song, which is "Me & Mr. Jones (Fuckery)" according to EMI, the song's publisher. Needless to say, that last part tends to get left off.
Sounes' howler brought to mind Frank Zappa's classic line that ""Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."
Though, to redeem the reputation of Amy Winehouse biographers, Nick Johnstone, in his Amy Amy Amy. The Amy Winehouse Story gets it right: "The third track, 'Me & Mr. Jones,' starts brilliantly, with the British slang term 'fuckery' slipping into the lyrics."
If I hadn't gone on so long already, I'd pause to reflect on the use of "fuck" in pop songs. Feel free to discuss this in the comments, though we ought to set rap and hip hop aside as a separate catagory, since it's easier to list the words in those genres that aren't "fuck." I mean mainstream, major act pop songs. The Who's 1978 song "Who Are You," comes to mind, where Roger Daltrey sings, twice, "Who the fuck are you?" but sort of swallows the word, enough that it could slip on the radio. By 1995, when Alanis Morissette unmistakably and carefully articulates "And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" on "You Oughta Know" the obscenity didn't create a stir, nor stop President Bill Clinton from citing her as a favorite artist, nor prevent the song from winning a Grammy.
Anyway, I think that's enough. I hope you didn't mind my foray into obscenity, but if you remember, by the third day of the blog, we had dirty words being projected onto a screen during a lecture for parents of prospective freshmen at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel. It's high time to return to our roots. This is online, and I do reserve the right. It's a new world, Golda.
*qualtagh: "The first person you meet after leaving the house on special occasions"
Postscript: a colleague at the Tribune shared this amusing video on the word "fuck" (though not including "fuckery"). See if you can spot the ironic misspelling in it.
Best exchange about the above column, by far:
--"I learned a lot from your column today..."
"Oh right, mom, sorry. I meant to warn you about that..."