Friday, 6 January 2012
One of the delights of the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library last year was the ‘swearing corner’, a display of material including a copy of Viz and Lady Chatterley’s Lover which we could either judiciously avoid or enthusiastically explore. Of course we explored it to the full, like the lady who found the rude words in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. "Fek" was there, or was in the ether thereabouts, and made its way into my Evolving English Explored.
I had not looked into the origin of "feck", and “feckin’”, which I had always assumed were Irish dialect for "f*ck", the spelling driven by the pronunciation, and thus providing an acceptable substitute to "f*ck". But this is quite erroneous, and what has disabused me is the expression “I’fackins”, which I came across last night while reading John Gay’s play The Mohocks, a silly ‘Tragi-comical Farce’ written to comment on the topical riotous and violent behaviour of a gang of aristocratic thugs who terrorised London in early 1712.
There’s a curious thing that seems to have happened with the use of this text as a social document. Either Gay was actually writing about things that happened, or he reflected the panic in the popular press, or his satirical exaggeration (for that is clearly what it is) has been taken as for real. In the second scene, where the local watchmen are discussing the awful deeds of the Mohocks, Starlight describes them cutting off people’s noses (one of the most often-noted acts of the Mohocks), till ‘all the ground [was] covered with noses – as thick as ‘tis with hail-stones after a storm.’ Another watchman, Frost, beats this with ‘I saw them hook a man as cleverly as a fisherman would a great fish – and play him up and down from Charing Cross to Temple Bar – they cut off his ears and eat them up, …’ Starling counters this with ‘Poh – poh! – that’s nothing at all – I saw them cut off a fellow’s legs, and if the poor man had not run hard for it, they had cut off his head into the bargain.’ And with that we know we are in the territory of the boast competition (of which my favourite is Dylan Thomas’s story of going to school armed with the boast that will finally silence his fellows - that he can fly). The play also mentions women being strung up by their ankles, but interestingly compares them to press-gangs, the recruiting gangs which kidnapped able men for enforced labour in the navy.
Swift in his Letters to Stella mentions the Mohocks’ acts of cutting people’s faces, notes one occasion that a sword was run through a sedan chair (and states that he will not take a sedan as he feels he will be more at risk), notes that one person charged with being a Mohock was a baronet, but also puts much of the brouhaha down to Grub Street invention. The Spectator from No 324 also kept up a contemporary commentary on the Mohocks: quoted in John Timbs’ Club Life of London (1866), the journal describes the particular activities of the Mohocks, which would probably now come under the heading of ‘assault’ rather than ‘grievous bodily harm’ – pricking people’s bottoms with swords, tripping people up with swords, poking people’s eyes, and forcing people into barrels and rolling them downhill (but for this last Timbs’ reference is Gay). Certainly some incidents of gratuitous and extreme violence against individuals did occur – in one case a servant was cut about the face for no reason when seeing a visitor out. Certainly the culture of street gangs was endemic to London by this time, but equally one can imagine the story being whipped up by bored rich kids wanting to toy with the fears of the bourgeois, and no doubt in the panic random acts of violence were labelled with the name Mohock. Issue No 324 of the Spectator intelligently proposed that ‘some thoughtless Youngsters, out of a false Notion of Bravery, and an immoderate Fondness to be distinguished for Fellows of Fire, are insensibly hurry'd into this senseless scandalous Project’. By Issue No 347 The Spectator was doubting the whole story, suggesting that the Mohocks were either a case of mass-hysteria or a story deliberately put out by men to stop their wives from going out to have fun together.
So, in the absence of impartial evidence Gay’s satire appears to have become the source for, or at least to have supported the evidence for some of the crimes credited to the Mohocks, and given the fact that the play was published in the same year as the outbreak, maybe it was John Gay who actually invented the story of the ‘fishing’, which does appear on one website as a reported fact.
But back to "fek". ‘He must have good luck, i’fackins that ties a woman’s tongue’, states Joan Cloudy in Scene 2 of The Mohocks. J C Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1865) doesn’t help on this, but the OED traces "feck", "fags", "faikins", "feggings", "fackins", and "feckins" back to distortions of "fay" and "faith". So “i’fackins” is not different from the Shakespearean “i’faith”. The "-kin" part is a frequent diminutive to lessen the shock-horror of direct reference to God etc., by pushing the reference on from one subject to something related to it. Thus "by our Lady" becomes "by our Lady’s kin", shortened apparently to "blinking". "In faith" becomes the improbable "in faith’s kin" shortened to "i’fackins", which gradually shrinks to "fac" and "feck" – and all that remains of "kin" in "feck" is the "k" sound; but I’m conscious that the closeness to "f*ck" (I know we can now say it but I’m not sure of the propriety of writing it) probably strengthens "feck". But if a proportion of the "–king" in "fecking" comes from ‘kin’, it would be brave to suggest that a greater proportion does not come from analogy with "f*cking".
So, the long and the short of it is that "feck" is at heart a thoroughly commendable religious affirmation, and thus entirely appropriate to ecclesiastical folks like Father Ted.