It’s hard to believe after watching current movies, listening to popular music or tuning in to late night television that the ever-more-prevalent expletive referred to as the F-word in polite company didn’t always exist. According to a new study, when it finally came into being, it was because a prehistoric man needed a word to describe the new effing soft food his prehistoric wife was trying to get him to eat. No effing way, you say?
“We believe the range of available speech sounds used in human language has not remained stable since its origin. Our research shows that labiodental sounds – such as “f” and “v,” which are made by raising the bottom lip to the upper teeth – began to arise only after the transition to agriculture, between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago (depending on the world region).”
In an article in Conversation, Steven Moran, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Comparative Linguistics at the University of Zürich, and Balthasar Bickel, a professor of General Linguistics at the University of Zürich, summarize their new study, “Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration,” published this week in the journal Science. They searched for the origin of the labiodental sounds – “eff” and “vee” — which you just made if you’re mouth-reading this by raising your bottom lip to your upper teeth. (Non-mouth readers … go ahead and try it now.)
According to their research, labiodental sounds appear in the majority of world languages today but is difficult for cultures who have edge-to-edge bites rather than the more common overbite. The edge-to-edge bite, while not great for speaking, is perfect for biting through tough foods, which those on paleo diets can attest to, and led the researchers to the Paleolithic age and the advent of agriculture, cooking and otherwise processing tough foods into soft foods. With the awkward edge-to-edge no longer needed as much, it evolved to the scissor overbite we use today.
“Our research shows that labiodental sounds – such as “f” and “v,” which are made by raising the bottom lip to the upper teeth – began to arise only after the transition to agriculture, between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago (depending on the world region).”
That links the emergence of words using the “eff” and “vee” mouth and teeth formations to the Bronze Age. While human babies have always been born with slight overbites, they quickly moved to the necessary edge-to-edge after developing teeth and moving from mother’s milk to tough vegetables and tougher raw meat. As softer grains and cooked mushy foods became more common, the overbite/scissors bite never changed and was kept into adulthood.
And the effing F-word? It may have its root in the Latin futuere (futuo) which had the same meaning, but most language historians trace it to the 1400s and various Germanic words like the German ficken, Dutch fokken, Norwegian fukka and Swedish focka, all of which have very similar meanings.
Let this be a warning to those on paleo or tough raw foods diets – you may lose your power to brag to your mush-eating friends about how eff-ing healthier you are than they.