Hey, you know what would be embarrassing? If you thought a word meant a certain thing, but it turned out nobody else thought it meant that thing, and you made a joke that hinged on that meaning, and nobody found it funny. That would be embarrassing.
It would be all the worse if it was an oddly sexual one, where you thought the word — “frigging” — was quite rude and explicitly referred to female masturbation, but it turned out nobody else did, and they all thought it was a politer way of saying “fucking” in the emphatic sense. Your joke wouldn’t work, and everyone would think you were a stupid, confused weirdo! Trying to explain it would make things worse! It would haunt you to the point that you ended up pitching a whole article about it and contacting language experts to find out if, actually, you were right all along!
If that were to happen, you might, sadly enough, fairly immediately be told that, yep, it’s a polite “fuck.” “‘Frig’ is a euphemism for ‘fuck,’ as is friggin’, frickin’ and the made-up word ‘frack,’” says Timothy B. Jay, a world-renowned swearing expert.
“I’m of a certain age, but that word for me conjures the Sex Pistols song, ‘Friggin’ in the Riggin’,’” says Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University in the U.K., who researches the psychological benefits of swearing. “I always thought it meant the same as ‘fucking,’ but I’m basing that on what a slightly older kid told me around 1979. It seemed quite shocking at the time. These days I’d say it carries nothing like the same weight in terms of being likely to offend people hearing it.”
“For me, ‘frig’ (like ‘frick’) falls into the minced oaths category,” says Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. “It’s to ‘fuck’ what ‘shiz’ is to shit: a last-minute attempt to pull out of a linguistic nosedive.”
A minced oath is a profanity-light variation of a swear word or, back in the day, blasphemous term. This is how the socially unacceptable “god damn” became the perfectly palatable “gosh darn” or “doggone,” “shit” became “shucks” and the needlessly odd “God’s hooks” became “gadzooks.” There’s something very arbitrary at play with a lot of them where, for instance, if you say “Let’s not eff it up,” both parties are thinking the word “fuck” but nobody’s saying it.
Also in the minced oath camp is Ryan North, whose web series Dinosaur Comics frequently features a T.rex exclaiming “oh frig.” “I love ‘frig,’” he says. “People say it to sound angry, but it lands on my ears like they’re saying, ‘Oh, fiddle dee dee.’ It makes you sound like a 12-year-old trying to sound tough, and that’s adorable, and that’s why I use it all the friggin’ time. Someone very sincerely and seriously saying, ‘Hey, let’s go frig those guys up’ reads as a punchline.”
It does, which highlights one issue with the minced oath idea — “frigging” only really works for “fucking” in the emphatic sense, as heard every few seconds on The Real Housewives of New Jersey. “Frig off” doesn’t work, “My wife’s been frigging my best friend” is confusing and “Frig it” is a type of boat.
(“Fuck” is also, of course, infinitely confusing. “I’ve lost my fucking hat” might mean you’re upset about mislaying your hat, or might mean you have one particular piece of headwear you like to don for acts of intimacy. Something being fucked can mean it’s damaged or broken, making “I sat down quickly and fucked my ass” potentially ambiguous.)
So, if it just means “fuck,” how the heck did our mistaken individual end up thinking it referred to female masturbation?
It turns out “frig” has had quite a confusing journey through various stages of euphemism. While “fricking” and “freaking” are words that exist solely to replace “fuck,” “frig” has its own shiz going on, and the 500 years that took us to My Big Friggin’ Wedding were pretty linguistically eventful.
“As a verb, ‘frig’ has always been to hand since the 16th century,” says Terry Victor, slang lexicographer. “The earliest I can find it is back in 1522 when it was used to mean ‘have sexual intercourse’; by 1598 it’s recognized in the separate sense of ‘to masturbate’; 50 years later it has added ‘to masturbate another person’ to its lists of meanings, and another century adds ‘to waste time.’ There are other senses: to cheat, as a euphemism for ‘fuck’ and to rub genitals together in lesbian sex — which could, I suppose, be a corruption or confusion of ‘frot.’”
Despite all those meanings, Victor finds no references in his archives explicitly to female masturbation. So where might the kind of embarrassed idiot who thought it meant a lady having a nice time on her own have got the idea?
“The original sense of ‘frig’ was ‘to move about restlessly; to rub, to chafe,’ which was in use by the 15th century, and obsolete by the early 18th,” says Jesse Sheidlower, lexicographer and author of The F-Word, an entire book about the word “fuck.” “For sexual senses, ‘to masturbate’ is found by the late 16th century, and “to copulate” by the early 17th. In modern use, it’s used almost exclusively as a euphemism for various forms of ‘fuck.’ It’s not possible to tell which of the early examples are euphemistic for ‘fuck’ and which are just normal uses of this meaning of the word itself, but certainly by the late 19th century, there’s evidence that it was being used in several clearly euphemistic ways.”
So, over centuries of use, sometimes it’s been “frig,” a word in itself with various sexual and non-sexual meanings, and sometimes it’s been people thinking “fuck” but not wanting to say it. It definitely feels like, between periods of meaning rubbing, non-specific masturbating and copulating, it wouldn’t have taken a huge leap for the word to at least briefly adopt the jilling-off definition. Byrne recalls it being used with that meaning in the 1990s, as do fans of the not-amazingly-well-known punk band Diesel Boy (specifically their 1998 album Venus Envy and its fifth track, “Rubbing The Elf”). And probably other things, doggone it. Plus, terms referring to taboo subjects aren’t formally learned — they’re passed casually from person to person, overheard being used by older siblings and generally learned in easily misinterpretable ways.
Writer and sex educator Alix Fox both has a degree in linguistics and knows more than most about masturbation, offering sex advice on the BBC’s Unexpected Fluids and The Modern Mann podcast, and working as an ambassador for sex toy companies Womanizer, Tenga and The Sway. “The word ‘frig’ evolved to mean rubbing or chafing, which explains why many people now use it to refer either to masturbating or using their hand to stimulate someone else’s genitals — sometimes with the implication that such action may be urgent and vigorous enough to cause potential soreness, and practically set a lass’s snatch thatch on fire with the friction.”
Fox cites Irish novelist James Joyce employing the term. “In erotic letters written in 1909 to his gloriously Spongebob-esque named wife, Nora Barnacle, he used it to describe both she and others fingering her clam, and both Nora and himself wanking him off.” She provides a few classy extracts from Joyce: “I could lie frigging all day looking at the divine word you wrote and at the thing you said you would do with your tongue”; “Another question, Nora. I know that I was the first man that blocked you but did any man ever frig you?”
If James Joyce thinks a word means something, that’s pretty much what it means, right? And, according to Sheidlower, you might even be more correct using it in a masturbatory sense than a copulating one. “In terms of sexual uses, ‘to masturbate’ is the earliest sense, and it’s still in use, so if you want to regard that as the main meaning of the word, I think you’re okay to do so,” he says. “In modern use, I’d say that ‘frig’ meaning ‘to masturbate’ is the main non-euphemistic sense, and anyone using it to mean ‘copulate’ is doing so euphemistically. Also, this should be obvious, but ‘fuck’ doesn’t have a sense ‘to masturbate.’ Thus, ‘frig’ meaning ‘to masturbate’ is clearly the word ‘frig’ in its own right, and not a euphemism for ‘fuck.’”
Vindication, almost — while to most of the world, “frigging” is a minced “fucking,” the small percentage of humans convinced it refers to a female solo sex act aren’t entirely wrong, or could at least be wronger, and that’s something.
Or rather, ahem, that’s fucking something.