Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"What kind of fuckery is this?"

     Does a word ever just pop out at you, and you think, "Never heard that one before."
     That happens sometimes, you bump into some odd, obscure term like "qualtagh." Many people shrug; they can't even be bothered to look it up. ("Qualtagh," a Gaelic term referring to the first person met after leaving the house on special occasions.)
     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.
Amy Winehouse
      I've been listening to the British singer Amy Winehouse a lot over the past week—late, I know. She died over three years ago. I was vaguely familiar with her, but she caught my fancy just now, with her muted trumpet voice, and I went on a spree, listening to her catalogue—when on the second or third hearing of "Me & Mr. Jones" the first line immediately after the intro suddenly came into sharp focus: "What kind of fuckery is this?"
     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.

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. 
Post-postscript—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..."


  1. I listened to a few of Amy's albums and found her talented, and a little fucked up. But as far as pop songs using the "f-word"....I liked Liz Phair's "Why Can't I", which was her venture into pop music. Though not favorably reviewed, it was a catchy tune which included the lines:

    "Here we go, we're at the beginning
    We haven't fucked yet, but my heads spinning"

  2. Nature vs. nurture:

    I know that “women” and “womanhood” is not a monolithic entity. But women have explained to me that a woman’s view of the sex act is fundamentally different from that of a man.

    And accordingly the use of that term is fundamentally offensive to women.

    If that is the case then perhaps there is such a thing as "natural law" rather than it's all "relative."

    1. Marcus Valerius Martielus, the sometimes bawdy Roman epigramist and poet usually refered to as Martial, exposed this myth about the supposed delicacy of womanhood nicely in a little poem, here translated by Herrick.

      "To read my book the virgin shy
      May blush (while Brutus standeth by),
      But when he's gone read through what's writ
      And never stain a cheeck for it."

  3. It seems like all of the "fuckery" usage you dug up has negative connotations. I remember seeing it in music reviews in the early 1990s, and almost always in a positive sense. For example, in describing the "guitar fuckery" on a Sonic Youth record (if it was bad, it would be "guitar wankery").

  4. When it comes to an influential pop song thought to be obscene, it's hard to beat The Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie," actually banned for a time in one Southern state and the subject of an FBI investigation for obscenity. But the tune never had a single "bad" lyric. It was all the result of garage-type recording equipment, slurred singing, wild imaginations, and, you bet, a different generation.

    1. The professor I link to at the end of the post spent a considerable amount of time talking about "Louie Louie."

  5. A very fine use is in the Hunter/Garcia song Wharf Rat:
    "Half of my life / I spent doin' time for / some other fucker's crime
    Other half found me stumbling around / drunk on burgundy wine"

  6. Mr.Evans:

    You might be missing the point.

    It has nothing to do with any putative delicacy on the part of women. I know women nurses, doctors, soldiers, hunters, and marathoners. I know many women tougher than many men.

    And yet male workers routinely exposing their genitalia to female workers would be deemed to be creating a hostile workplace. A stronger guy hitting a weaker guy is no big deal. We routinely see it at sporting events and in a familial situation with two brothers fighting. But a man hitting a woman is met with universal revulsion by both men and women alike. Look at the recent controversy involving National League Football Players.

    One almost never hears of a man complaining of sexual harassment from women. But women often make that complaint – and it has nothing to do with their delicacy or lack thereof.

    1. If you say so. I do like the little poem and welcomed an opportunity to share it.

  7. What I can't stand is when someone dances cutely around the word. There used to be a clothing line called "French Connection United Kingdom," or FCUK for short. Har har.

    1. I remember when it had a display in Macy's--enormous pylons reading "FCUK." I thought how long we've come from white gloves and tea dances.

  8. The Kinks' "Apeman" has "the air pollution is a fuckin' up my eyes," although lyrical transcripts will have it as "foggin'." Can't think of an earlier use in Classic Rock...

  9. Chrissie Hynde in the Pretenders song"Precious" has the line "But not me, baby, I'm too precious/Fuck off!" She could swear with the best of them (love their first album).

  10. With regard to the OED: I believe their current policy is ongoing updates online. So while there may never be a new printed edition of the OED, the OED remains a living document -- so Ms. Whitehouse may well be cited posthumously if a tired scholar reads Sounes but not Johnstone!


  11. I believe my social science background is stronger than Mr. Steinberg’s. I also believe his literary background is stronger than mine. In the latter realm he raises very interesting issues ripe with subtleties.

    A serious fiction writer should certainly use the f- word and the n-word to write realistic dialogue. And I further concede that in rare instances these words might just be the “perfect word” in a serious literary offering.

    But I just wonder how far does “transgression” for the sake of “transgression” help a work of art? This is related to the issue of how far does a “stylistic” innovation help a work of art?

    I am slightly older than Mr. Steinberg. I am not likely to have an epiphany after exposure to a literary or an artistic endeavor. Rather I measure its worth by asking myself whether or not I now see the world with at least a half degree of difference. That was true after walking through the special Monet Exhibition a number of years back at the Art Institute. That was true after literally sitting at the feet of Yo Yo Ma and hearing him play three of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Also true after watching episodes of Seinfeld and Colombo with Peter Falk.

  12. Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run." Neko Case also has a way with fucking words: from her latest album:

    I'm a man
    You'll have to deal with me
    My proxy is mine
    You'll deal with me directly

    And if I'm dipshit drunk on the pink perfume
    I am the man in the fucking moon
    'Cause you didn't know what a man was
    Until I showed you

    As for the putative delicacy of women discussed above, let's just say my experience says otherwise.

  13. Broadway: The Motherfucker With the Hat

    I'm not much of a swearer, but prefer to limit myself to times when I need to make an impact. So you really know I'm mad! Or when expressing frustration to my computer, which gets the brunt of my foul language. I enjoy the new trend of swearing on tv but bleeping it rather than changing it to silly G-rated phrases. The bleep is less jarring than strangely polite substitutes. But it's ridiculous that newspapers and tv newscasters say things like "the f-word" etc. when quoting someone. If the quote is newsworthy, then just say it. Are children really watching / reading the news anyway? If they are, then they're old enough to see it as it is. There are too many real concerns in the world to get all aflutter about a few letters written in a particular order. So what? Doesn't mean I enjoy hearing them over and over, though. Less offended by words than by the vocabulary-challenged.

  14. On the matter of women saying fuck in public, ages old social convention dictated against it, but that surely is breaking down, regardless of how they might feel about the act itself. It is unlikely that a modern day Mark Twain, on hearing a woman below the age of 40 swear, could say "She's got the words but she ain't got the Music."

    It's probably true that women are more conflicted in their ranking of sex among life's pleasures because it isn't always pleasurable for them, particularly when an insensitive or brutal partner is involved, and can lead to painful consequences. The point is made by the old joke about a couple being asked whether they prefer sex or cake. The man says, "Sex, obviously."
    The woman asks, "What kind of cake?"

  15. A couple of more songs using fuck


    And then there is this.


  16. Re: the Postscript. I assume "incompitance" is the more ironic misspelling than "every word in the centence." : )

    Re: the Post-postscript. I have to assume that your mother is the "Casablanca" version of shocked, SHOCKED! that you would explore this subject in your goddamn blog. ; )


    "And accordingly the use of that term is fundamentally offensive to women." I'm going to have to disagree and back Thomas Evans, Bill Savage and the 3:25 Anonymous with regard to that specific claim. I spend much less time around twenty and thirty-something women than I used to, ahem, but hear "fuck" used by the ones in my vicinity with far more regularity than when I was in their age group. Seems to me that the days when the vast majority of women shied away from the word, assuming there were such days, are well in the past.

  17. Not shocked. A bit ruffled. A very small bit.

  18. My favorite: Jane Fonda as Bree Danial in "Klute", among other good F quotes in the movie.

    "And for an hour... for an hour, I'm the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world."

  19. Re not refraining from public obscenities on the ground that we've all heard or said it all before -- I dunno, is there no longer any value in limiting the coarsening of public interactions?

  20. Jakash:

    Thanks for the response. I believe your observations about twenty something and thirty something women are correct.

    I am not a prude. And as a moderate libertarian I believe women have the same right to do what men do.

    But recently several post-feminist female scholars have spoken up on the benefits of women having some sense of modesty. They argue that this gives women some psychic resources against being used, devalued, and objectified by men.

    It is certainly not my place as a late middle age guy to preach to women as to how best for them to lead their lives. Rather it is for women -- individually and as a group -- to figure that out for themselves. Rather I only seek to be a keen social observer who observes not only the surface meaning but the deeper significance of things.

    The f- word is crude and misogynistic. When used by men it seeks to devalue the sex act and thus their relationships with women.

    Is a woman’s use of the term an expression of self- loathing? Is it an expression of their contempt of the men who have devalued them? Do they seek to coopt the term so as not to be further hurt by men? I am only in the position to pose questions – not to give answers on this subject.

    1. Jerry,

      "When used by men it seeks to devalue the sex act and thus their relationships with women." To the extent that this is true, then why can't it be used by women to devalue the sex act and thus their relationships with men?

      You and the "several post-feminist female scholars" seem to discount the possibility that there are many women who pursue and enjoy sex for its own sake, the way men stereotypically have, and are not necessarily experiencing "self-loathing" or "contempt," nor feeling that they're being hurt by the men in their lives.

      Seems to me that believing that "women have the same right to do what men do" might result in greater acceptance of that possibility (and reality.)

    2. Jakash maybe an aside to the discussion. Im in my 60s. Heard the word but, being a lady, had not the habit of swearing. Came from a place and time that someone saying "Keep your damn dog off my lawn." could end up being ticketed by the police for swearing in public. Even Dad, a training sergeant in the Army, might only holler Goddammit if especially angry at home. I first hollered "fuck you!" at the age of 24 as my (then) husband pulled back his fist to hit me. It.Stopped.Him. So. A power word. An "I'm as tough as you, buddy" word. A swaggering word. At the time. Used as the act, it delineates the differences between making love, a one night stand and just getting it done..rather animalistically...with another person, a hole in the wall or even a beachball These days, the word fuck and all its dropdowns seems to have replaced every other word in the dictionary. It is rather boring and seems to indicate a lack of actual vocabulary and/or imagination

  21. Jakash:

    I have no problem if women enjoyed casual sex as much as men. But there are myriad and sundry indications that is not the case.

    Look – we guys are ruled by our hormones and hardwiring. There is no shame in that also being the case for women.

    On PBS a few years back I saw a program on human sexuality. Women researchers at a major university conducted a yearlong study where they had the same women – from time to time – pick faces of men whom they found the most desirable.

    When the women were most likely to become pregnant they chose the rugged, square jawed features of alpha-males.

    And at times in their monthly cycle when they were least likely to become pregnant – they chose men with softer faces. The assumption was that those men were more likely to remain faithful and be good help mates in raising children.

    It really does appear that men are hardwired to want to spread the genes and sow the wild oats and women want to have families and successfully raise children.

    And there is much popular programming about the quiet desperation women feel as their biological clocks tick and their childbearing opportunities dwindle.

    Single women wearing high heels and other provocative but uncomfortable clothing have been compared to the fishing technique of chumming. Bait is thrown into the water to attract fish. Women want to have many to choose from.

    Of course women have the absolute right to say “no” – and how a woman is dressed is no justification for sexual harassment or assault.

    Over the years I have encountered women haters. These are the fellows repeatedly brushed off by women. They may be brushed off because of their looks, personality quirks, or low socioeconomic status. They manifest this women hating by crude sexual language and imagery. That is why I am wary of a guy where everything out of his mouth is “f” “f” “f”.

    1. Jerry,

      I don't know if 3:27 a.m. is early or late. The hour between 3:00 and 4:00 always seemed to be the indeterminate hour, to me. ; )

      Hey, I'll readily concede that there are biological differences between men and women. Just as there are inherent differences between two different men. And two different women. There are broad generalizations one can attempt, but there is so much variation that I'm not sure that they're as useful as they may have been before "civilization" held practically as much sway as genetics.

      The women I hear and overhear utilizing a well- (or less well-) placed "fuck" as part of their conversational style are not woman-haters, I can assure you of that.

      According to the stated standard of men being wild-oat sowers, with women as nurturing mothers, men would NEVER get married and women would all prefer to marry by age 20, at the latest. In the distant evolutionary past, men didn't marry, since there was no such thing as marriage. And many (most) women were probably mothers before 20. Civilization and modernity have changed all that, to a large extent. These days, many men feel a biological clock ticking, too, not wanting to be too old to experience their fatherhood years when they can enjoy them most fully. And many women have absolutely no interest in starting a family before they're 25, at the earliest, or maybe 35. They may well look forward to and enjoy a period of wild oat gathering, while still wishing to raise a family when they're ready.

      But you know all that. As is often the case, it seems that you are attempting to generalize, while I'm trying to point out that society is too varied to allow for many handy generalizations. I think that it would take lots and lots of studies to determine to what extent your generalizations with regard to fucking (to get in the spirit of the post) apply and to what extent they don't, anymore. But I think that about wraps it up for me on this one -- thanks for the conversation.

  22. Jakash:

    I mostly agree with what you are saying. I merely claim that hardwired biology is a major factor. So is economics. So is modern culture.

    All this started out with my pointing out that an excessive use of the f-word might be misogynistic.

    I agree that this should wrap up our discussion. I will assume that you will check back to read this comment. No need to acknowledge doing so.

    Best regards.

  23. How do you listen to Amy Winehouse all week and not go back to drinking?

  24. Hmm, all that talent, wealth and fame, dead at 27. Let me flip the question around: how does a person listen to Amy Winehouse and keep drinking?

  25. Radiohead's "Creep" "You're so fuckin' special"

  26. Thanks Neil.

    Winehouse' music is partially rooted in Two Tone, so it is no surprise she picked up Jamaican words too.

  27. The funniest fucking feature about this throwback column on the side of EGD, to someone who's commented on the post, at any rate, is the weird opportunity it offers to reply to somebody a year after they replied to you, which was 2 years after the comment they replied to.

    To wit: This reply is to Okie, 9 comments up the thread from here. Since she still seems to comment occasionally, perhaps she'll see this? Likely not.

    Anyway, that was quite a comment, Okie, and surely added to the discussion. Your story of hollering the word at 24 is disturbing, but certainly apt. I can only hope that you didn't have to face such a situation after that. Your conclusion about the overuse of the word rendering it boring these days is a good point, too. But, I gotta say, while I may have harassed a beachball at one point or another in the past, uh, it was never in *that* way! ; )


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