Illustration by Patrick Kyle

Where Did ‘Fap’ Come From?

How the sound effect took over the internet (and our bodies)

Over the course of the last 15 years, a linguistic shift profound to the lives of men (and, occasionally, women) has taken place. Where once, a man in a confessional mode might talk about jerking off, jacking off, beating off, whacking off, choking the chicken, rubbing one out, wanking, or just plain masturbating, today a man simply faps.

But why “fap”? Fap is a duller word than those that came before it. Gone are the implications of violence, the sense of danger or pain wrapped up with self-pleasure. Gone too is the sense of agency. To jerk off is to be a tight-fisted vigilante, wresting pleasure from our parts by dark of night — to fap is to simply produce a small noise, skin to skin, the sound of one hand, well…you get the idea.

The new flatness of fap puts the rites of Onan (the Biblical character who gets killed off by God for spilling his seed) in the same linguistic category of our other onomatopoeic bodily functions— fart, burp, sniffle, creak, yawn, cough, fap. This, you could argue, is a plus, making the act seem a little more natural, inconsequential, and, like the other sound effects out of our nether regions, a little bit funny.

But it’s not like a bunch of 12-year-olds got together after school one day and decided their favorite hobby needed a rebrand — so how did fap take over the world?

It started, like many freaky things, with Japanese comics. On April 28, 1999, an artist going by the nom de plume Clay published his first few webcomics on his new website, The Thin H Line. The letter H here refers to hentai (the Japanese word for porn), and Clay took a gleefully perverted manga from the early ‘90s called Heartbroken Angels as his inspiration. In comic #3, titled “Video Girl Etchi I” (etchi is the Japanese pronunciation of the letter H), the word “fap” was born.

Clay later said that he took the sound effect verbatim from the final panel of this translated scene of Heartbroken Angels in which God starts immanentizing his own eschaton once he gets a glimpse up a female character’s skirt.

Afterward, the sound began to echo throughout the internet. By the fall of 2002, users had submitted Urban Dictionary entries for both “fap” and “fapping.” A year later, the online forum General Mayhem, which had already been shut down for fostering the kind of dark trolling that 4chan later became famous for, defined “fapping” in its FAQ, alongside other basic internet slang like tl;dr, spam and pics, as: “The sound made while masturbating. Guys fap. Girls paf or ‘squish.’”

In 2004, fap hit YTMND — the seminal meme site that let users create one-off webpages with some images or a short gif and an audio track, on infinite loop — with a gem called *Fap fap fap*. The fap-related YTMND page with the most views, the artfully titled *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP* *FAP*, went up two years later, in late October 2006.

And then, exactly 10 years ago, fap officially took over, outranking “masturbate” in Google search popularity in November 2006 for the first time ever.

“Fap” (blue) vs. “Masturbate” (red), 2004–2016

It wasn’t until 2010, though, that fap started making its way into the mainstream. In June of that year, the D.C. political blog Wonkette included fap in a headline. In November, Gawker mentioned the term when it published a transcript of a Q&A between 4chan users and Christopher Poole, the forum’s founder. The term started gaining more currency then, to the point where “fap” actually made it into The New York Times in August, 2011, entirely by accident — it was included in a string of random words in an article about Lorem Ipsum, the standard placeholder text for websites.

Five years into the era of fap, a movement against masturbation took it as an emblem of its enemy. NoFap began when a guy named Alexander Rhodes read a study that found that men who don’t fap for a week get an almost 50 percent boost in testosterone on the seventh day (though if you actually read the whole study, it says that T levels go back down on day 8). Based on the premise that a testosterone boost is good, pornography addiction is bad, and a newfound clarity and sense of control over one’s own life can be found by abstaining from masturbation, Rhodes went on to start a website promoting a non-fapping lifestyle, and then a subreddit, NoFap, which currently has nearly 200,000 “fapstronauts,” or subscribers.

Iconic NoFap inspiration

But even with all that negative PR, the term’s search popularity didn’t peak until the late summer of 2014, when the masturbation-obsessed culture of the internet burst into tabloid headlines. 4chan users posted nude photos of female celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst — stolen using a loophole in Apple’s iCloud security — and dubbed the violation of privacy “The Fappening.”

Mainstream media outlets picked up on the name and ran with it. “For those who aren’t familiar with the term,” The Telegraph helpfully explained, “it is a mixture of ‘the happening’ — quite simply, what’s going on — and the slang term ‘fapping,’ meaning masturbation.” For the first time (on purpose), the term even made its way into the pages of the New York Times — first online, then, actually, in print.

Why, exactly, a random Japanese onomatopoeia managed to displace the traditional words for weasel-wringing is a little less clear. Linguistic change often comes from the kids up, and the youth sure love the internet, so it’s no great surprise that a new term for masturbation, an activity most often discussed between the ages of 11 and 16, would come out of a porny corner of the web.

Why “fap,” though, in particular? My best theory has to do with time, or maybe tense. Jerking off and even masturbating aren’t words for the here and now. They describe something you already did, or something you’re going to do, away from the conversation you’re having about it. But when the internet became both the medium for masturbating and the forum for discussing it, that old distance between private pleasure and public discussion collapsed — online, among friends while alone in your own home, you could technically be doing both at the same time.

But the idea that the people you’re talking to could be going to town, downtown, as they chatted with you, or they posted on a forum, is pretty uncomfortable. So it became a joke — you could post the sound of your own self-love in a forum, or type into a chat client, to make fun of the idea that people online were all horny trolls. And fap, like fart, is just a naturally funny word. In a situation that demanded a goofy way to represent real-time action, what could be better than a cartoon sound effect? Plus, it’s way easier to type.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, with his monkey (source)

Surprisingly, fap also has tradition on its side, harking back to the oldest English word we have on record for vigorous palmistry. “Masturbate” itself only dates back to the 1830s, “jacking off” and its variants only came around in the 1930s, and whacking has only meant what we think it means since 1969! But the absolute OG of Onanism, according to the OED, is the simple “frig,” which shares fap’s brevity and biologically accurate fricative-to-plosive sequence of sounds.

The term is first found in a dictionary in the the late 1500s, then poetically elaborated by the famously dirty Earl of Rochester in the 1680s, who described a “Poor pensive lover, in this place,” who “Would Frigg upon his Mother’s Face.”

Eesh. We’ll stick to fap.