SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
One man's obscenity is another man's name. This week, a scholar of medieval history announced he might have found the earliest recorded evidence of what we must call here the F-word being used in English to describe intimate relations. Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University says he was examining court papers from 1310 when he noticed the name of a man going before the court was Roger - let me be careful here - F-word-bythenavele. Dr. Booth told the Daily Mail he thought the name might be some kind of medieval joke. In the 1300s, people often went by names that signified something about them - Baker, Clark, Farmer, Mason. So how does a man become known as Roger F-word-bythenavele? Sounds like a character in a Mel Brooks comedy. Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, said Dr. Booth - British academics can make any word sound classy - or it's a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit.
By the way, if you come to the Simon Says page on our website, NPR.org, you'll find a link to an article that spells out the name. That ought to drive a little web traffic. Court records disclosed that Roger F-word-byethenavele was called to court three times in 1310 and 1311 before he was outlawed. In the 1300s, outlawed could be a euphemism for being executed. Roger F-word-bythenavele might have been hung by the neck. 1310 would be a couple of centuries before a monk reportedly scrawled the word on a manuscript by Cicero, which has commonly been considered the first appearance of the F-word in English writings. Paul Booth says he's alerted the Oxford English Dictionary.
You don't find many F-word-bythenavele descendants these days. After Roger was outlawed, it might've been smarter to become Smiths. All of which might make you wonder what makes a word vulgar or turns a word into an obscenity? Our research department - who may have welcomed the chance to dig into a question that wasn't about the Fed's interest rate - says it took a couple of centuries for this one syllable to become a hand grenade of a word that inflames baseball umpires, teachers and the FCC, but is beloved by Marines and stand-up comics. People create obscenities by giving special power to words to hurt, offend, dazzle, outrage or defame. People say, how dare he use that kind of language. David Mamet, who has so often made the F-word eloquent, once said, of course I'm alienating the public. That's what they pay me for.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) If I had the copyright on the word [expletive], I'd say [expletive] this job and yourself. Get on the [expletive]. No need for hard work...