The Real Housewives of New Jersey is very often on in my house, blaring from a television or phone or tablet. I hear it more than I see it, and it is a fantastically fun show to listen to, if you have an ear for regional dialects. My god, the vowels these people use! It’s like a chorus of airhorns.
One word that the Housewives use, sometimes to excess, is “friggin’,” as in, “These people are friggin’ animals.” With that friggin’ word constantly ricocheting around my apartment, it’s impossible for me not to wonder: where does it come from? And what about all the other soundalike words we use to say “fucking” without actually saying it? What determines whether someone says “friggin’,” “frickin’,” or “freakin’”?
“Fuck,” or “fucking,” dates back as far as the early 14th century, but it’s not until the late 15th century that historical linguists have lots of examples to toy around with. There is a whole group of words that are etymologically related, throughout all the Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic). “They’re all short words beginning with an “F” and ending in some kind of stop consonant, with something in between,” says Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and author of The F-Word, a history of the word “fuck.” These words all meant something like “to strike” or “to thrust,” which led to a sexual meaning.
But though the word is pan-Germanic, English was the real “fuck” pioneer, responsible for the earliest examples of words that are definitely “fuck.” Most of the other Germanic languages now have some kind of variation with its own sexual connotation, but English was first.
The use of the word as an exclamation (as when you stub your toe) or as an intensifier (as in “New Fucking Jersey”) is much newer. “The earliest clear example of ‘fucking’ as an intensifier is from the 1890s,” says Sheidlower. Certainly expletives and profane language are harder to track than most words, given that people are often reluctant to write them down, but Sheidlower was confident that if the word was used in this way earlier than the 19th century, we’d know about it by now.
Here’s where things start to get goofy. A word that is similar to (either in sound or meaning) but is not quite a profanity is called a “minced oath.” We don’t really know how old minced oaths are; examples from centuries past tend to be more like puns or double entendres than what we’d consider now a minced oath. (“Frickin’” is a minced oath, because it has no real meaning of its own but is used because of its sound similarity with “fucking.” A Shakespearean joke where a character says “country,” with extra emphasis on the first syllable, is a pun, sort of.)
According to Google’s Ngram, which tracks the frequencies of printed words over time, the major three minced oaths for “fucking”—”freaking,” “fricking,” and “frigging”—all came about at around the same time, starting in the 1920s with minimal use and then really taking off in the 1950s and 1960s. Nobody seems to know why this happened, except that minced oaths have to be born after a word is firmly entrenched as a profanity. In other words, “fucking” has to be common before anyone would know what you were saying when you say “fricking.”
Was there also something about the culture of the mid-20th century that encouraged the use of these minced oaths? Probably! But any explanation would involve working backwards to come up with a guess; there isn’t any data about that kind of thing.
In any case, by the late 20th century, minced oaths for “fucking” were standard. And weird. The entire idea of a minced oath is bizarre, a pure example of how completely arbitrary language can be.
“You want people to know exactly what you mean, but you don’t want to be on the record having actually said it,” says Benjamin Bergen, the author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. “We don’t think that anyone we’re talking to doesn’t know the word, we don’t think they’re going to think we don’t know the word when we say something different, but we’re all party to this agreement.” “Frickin’” is an unspoken contract we’ve all signed, saying that one word is forbidden, but a similar word can stand in while in polite conversation.
You might notice we haven’t talked much about “friggin’” yet, and that’s because “friggin’” is not quite like the others. From the 15th century until the late 16th century, “frig” was an innocent verb in English, meaning to move rapidly, to rub, or to chafe. It was its own word, entirely unlike “freaking” and “fricking,” which are, essentially, made up words which sound like “fucking.” (Yes, “freak” is its own word, but “freaking,” as a verb or expletive, is entirely unrelated and born much later.)
By the late 16th century, “frig” had taken on a sexual meaning, referring specifically to masturbation, and usually female masturbation. The earliest examples were kind of punny, used by wordy playwrights and writers as a way to talk about sex cleverly. But soon the masturbatory meaning eclipsed the nonsexual meaning. “Frig” was a very common expletive, if a fairly mild one, until around 1850, when it suddenly dropped off in popularity. Until, that is, the word was reborn.
A century later, “frigging” was dug out of the closet, now used as a minced oath for “fucking.” This is, to say the least, not how minced oaths usually work—they’re typically minced oaths, not reconstituted ones. “Frigging,” previously profanity in its own right, lost both its edge and its original meaning and became wholly acceptable as an anodyne substitute for a completely different swear word. “By the mid-20th century it’s become a minced oath, so it’s not considered offensive anymore, really,” says Bergen.
Depending where you live, though, you might never hear “friggin’” from anyone except the Real Housewives. Where do people say “freakin’” compared with “friggin’”?
Jack Grieve, a linguist at Aston University in England, has created a truly magical tool to look at just this kind of thing. His WordMapper collects about a billion tweets geotagged in the U.S. from late 2013 to late 2014, and plots the 10,000 most commonly used words. You can search any word and see its geographic frequency and distribution. For our purposes, we’re using the “hotspot” feature, which adjusts for relative frequency—meaning it controls for the amount of people in each county, so New York City doesn’t just show up as the hotspot for every word.
The data isn’t necessarily foolproof as a way to tell how people speak; after all, it only measures Twitter users, and it’s only looking at how they type. But it’s still a good indicator of where people say certain things, and when it comes to minced oaths, it’s got some pretty weird data.
Let’s first try “fucking,” as a sort of control. What it gives us is basically a population map of the United States: major cities tend to use “fucking” more often, whether they’re New York, Miami, or San Francisco.
We tend to get slightly different results if we leave the final “g” off these words, and not every version shows up in Grieve’s top 10,000 list. There’s an entry for “frickin” but not “fricking,” for example.
“Freaking” and “freakin’” both show up. With the “g,” we get the highest use throughout Texas, and, for some reason, in both major American mountain ranges, the Appalachians (well, the western part of them, anyway) and the Rockies (Utah and Wyoming, especially). “Freakin” is slightly more popular, including those regions but also bleeding into Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona.
“Frickin” is totally different. The map for this word shows the highest frequency in the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, with significant popularity also southward in Nebraska.
“Friggin” is, again, a different story. (“Frigging,” with the “g,” isn’t popular enough to make the map.) This strangest of minced oaths has the highest frequency of use in Upper New England, specifically in Maine and New Hampshire, with a weird little pocket out in South Dakota and Nebraska.
I also tried some different spellings, just for fun. “Fucken” makes the grade, with very high frequency all around the Pacific Coast, from Washington to Oregon, California, and into New Mexico and Arizona.
“Fricken’,” too, shows up on the map, with an expanded map similar to the one for “frickin’.” This time, it hits Michigan, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and to the Dakotas.
The obvious question, when presented with these clear regional boundaries for our favorite “fucking” substitute, is, well, why? The unfortunate answer is the same one you often get when you ask linguists why people speak the way they do: we have no real idea.
“We do have some good explanations for regional patterns in the vowels and other aspects of sound systems of American English dialects. But when it comes to idiosyncratic, fast-changing lexical items like soda or friggin’, it’s hard to track the origins,” says James Stanford, a linguist who studies the dialect of New England at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Could it be because Mainers and other New Englanders use a dialect rich in archaic English words, like a variation on “aye” that’s sometimes spelled “ayuh”? Sure, maybe. But also maybe not. It’s not really possible to find out.
Stanford, though he doesn’t know why it’s the case, agrees that “friggin’” is remarkably popular in northern New England. “I’m around Northeast students all the time here, and I think I hear them say friggin’ quite a bit (but the unvarnished f-word is the most popular),” he writes. “But we haven’t done a quantitative study.” As usual, we have a much better sense of where, when, and how people speak. As to why Mainers say “friggin’” and Minnesotans say “frickin’,” well, that remains a freakin’ mystery.