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Column: What does ‘feck’ really mean?

It’s practically our national swearword – but what do we mean when we say ‘feck’? And where did it come from? Stan Carey explains. (Contains strong language)

Stan Carey

Warning: This piece contains very strong language.

LOOK AWAY NOW if curse words bother you.

Feck is a popular minced oath in Ireland, occupying ground between the ultra-mild expletive flip and the often taboo (but also popular) fuck. It’s strongly associated with Irish speech, and serves a broad range of linguistic purposes that I’ll address briefly in this post.

The most familiar modern use of feck is as a euphemistic substitute for fuck, as in the phrases Feck!Feck off!feck itfeck-allfeckerfeck(ed) upfair fecks (kudos), (for) feck(‘s) sakefecked (exhausted, ruined, in a bad situation), and the intensifier feckin’ or fecking, which often collocates with helleejitgobshite or some such insult.

Here are a few literary examples:

I’m so feckin’ hungry I could eat that feckin’ horse. (Amanda Whittington, Ladies’ Day)
Feck off Greeley or I’ll call the Guards and have you deported. (Peter Murphy, Lagan Love)
Oh thank Christ the fecker’s over. A pile of fecking shite. (Martin McDonagh, The Cripple of Inishmaan)
Ah Johnnypateen, will you feck off home for yourself? (same)
I went on clinging to the wall until old Fanning appeared at his front window and made feck-off gestures of great savagery. (Hugh Leonard, Out After Dark)

Feck and fuck do not overlap entirely. Feck is family-friendly, even according to advertising standards authorities (though not always). As expletives go, it has a playful, unserious feel. People who are genuinely furious – as opposed to merely annoyed – or who want to be properly abusive, tend not to use feck: it just isn’t forceful enough.

There are significant differences between feck and fuck aside from their relative strengths as curses. For one thing, feck doesn’t have sexual uses or connotations. To feck something in Hiberno-English generally means to steal it (see below) or to throw it, often impatiently or casually: she fecked the orange peel out the car window.

Decked out in all his Dublin gear he stomped up the street suffering what may have been his first real taste of what defeat can do [to] a passionate soul. Off came the scarf and he fecked it into a garden. [via]

The word got a boost from its recurrent use in the 1990s TV comedy Father Ted, in which Father Jack shouts “Feck off!” regularly enough to make it a catchphrase. Here’s Pauline McLynn, playing Mrs Doyle, mouthing off to Dermot Morgan’s eponymous priest about the “fierce” language in a novel she read:

YouTube/FatherTedChannel

Searching Twitter for feckfeckerfecked and so on shows how actively and naturally the word is used. Its tonal range is likewise impressive:fecker, for instance, can suggest affection or admiration as well as indicating dismissal or derision, while feck off meaning “depart” needn’t have negative implications: Will we feck off home at this stage?

Feck appears quite frequently in Irish newspapers, sometimes in reported speech:

“I haven’t an effin’ clue what he’s talking about,” the councillor whispers to the journalists. “But, feck it, it sounds absolutely brilliant!” (Lorna Siggins, Irish Times)
When we attack all out, with no feck-acting, football becomes a great game again. (Billy Keane, Irish Independent)

Feck also functions as a noun, dating from at least the 15th century. Apparently it comes from a Scottish variant of effect, so it’s a good example of aphesis (also aphaeresis): the loss of an initial sound in a word. Here are the three senses included in the OED:

1. The greater or better part; a great quantity [Robert Burns: "I hae been a devil the feck o' my life"; Robert Louis Stevenson: "He had a feck o' books wi' him"].

2. The purpose, the intended result; the point (of a statement, etc.).

3. Efficacy, efficiency, value.  Feckful: efficient

(Feckless derives from the last of these. Fek is Esperanto for shit, but this is coincidental and incidental.)

In English As We Speak It In Ireland, P. W. Joyce says feck (or fack) is a spade, “from the very old Irish word fec,” while Bernard Share’s Slanguage says feck can mean “sight, spectacle” (from Irish feic “see”, same pronunciation) and is the name of a card game and an implement used in the game of pitch and toss. Terence Dolan also reports on this.

Feck as a verb once meant “keep a look out”, maybe from Irish feic. And then there is the Irish slang feck “steal, take”, which the Chambers Dictionary of Slang says may originate in Old English feccan “to fetch, gain, take”, or German fegen “to plunder”. We see this usage in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Because they had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.

So where does the curse, the not-quite-rude word, come from? It’s commonly assumed to stem from its coarser cousin fuck, the simple vowel change undercutting its power and making it more suitable for public expression. But Julian Walker, an educator at the British Library, offers a more roundabout route:

“In faith” becomes the improbable “in faith’s kin” shortened to “i’fackins”, which gradually shrinks to “fac” and “feck”…

The Irish writer Pádraig Ó Méalóid cites a couple of sources that point to the same etymological path, so he also doesn’t subscribe to the “euphemistic deformation theory” that feck as a euphemism came about by mimesis of fuck: “What we have instead is a euphemistic meaning layered on top of a much older existing expression”.

Feck me, but feck evidently has a feck-load of meanings, uses, and origins. More are welcome, as are your opinions and reports on how you say or hear or feel about the word.

This post originally appeared on Sentence First. Stan Carey is a freelance writer and editor based in Galway. He writes about language at Sentence first and can be found on Twitter at @StanCarey.

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