Origins of frigging

Frigging & Fucking! The Kinky Origins of Fuck’s Milder Sibling

These days, there’s not much of a taboo around saying the word ‘fuck’. Everyone from your grandma to small children seem to use it without hesitation, so when we hear someone use ‘frig’ in place of fuck, we tend to assume they must be trying to be polite — or perhaps are just very religious.

But it wasn’t always so.

Frig has its own colorful history distinct from fuck. Depending on who you talk to, it’s no less offensive. Let’s delve into it, shall we?

Frigging or Fucking?

For the last century, frigging has often been used in place of fucking, typically seen as euphemistic. Most people stop at that, but for multiple centuries prior to the 1920s, frigging and fucking had two completely separate meanings. Fucking was the word for sex and derived from the Germanic fokka (to strike), whereas frigging was used to mean masturbation, especially female masturbation.

It seemed to have retained its meaning in England well enough for the Sex Pistols to have popularized it in the late 70s in their song, Friggin’ in the Riggin’. While there is a bit of fucking in that song, frigging dominates and the song is still very much about masturbation on a boat, though it has lost its gender association.

Sex Pistols - Friggin' in the Riggin' (1978)

In a more recent translation of the Marquis de Sade’s work, the translators very carefully chose frigging (as opposed to wanking, jerking off, pleasuring oneself or even fapping) for “se branler”, though it was a notably difficult choice.

This was in 2016, and I daresay it hasn’t made much of an impact in shifting the commonly accepted meaning of frig back to its masturbatory roots. Perhaps Nicholas Cage will return for a second season on Netflix’s History of Swear Words to firmly cement the meaning of frigging once and for all.

Frigging AND Fucking!

Part of why this confusion has taken place is because the two words were commonly used together. An example of this cited in An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speakng World by Geoffrey Hughes refers to a ‘lovely Phil’ who is “well versed in the various manners of fucking and frigging”, while in A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Language by Gordon Williams suggests that this was a common occurrence in the 17th century.

When we see this pairing in combination with strong taboos against sexuality in general, it’s easy to see how the two might get confused. It was so taboo that there’s even an instance of spelling frig with a ‘ph’ — “Phrigg you, Catherine!”, suggesting that the author had only ever heard it spoken and didn’t know how it was spelled.

It is worth noting that the use of frigging, and consequently whether it became synonymous with fucking, depends on where in the anglosphere you happen to be. Frigging is much more popular in the US than in the UK, and Australia barely uses it at all. Even in the US, it’s predominantly used in Maine and New Hampshire, and then also in South Dakota and Nebraska, but barely used anywhere else.

Some wonderful people took the time to map out the popularity of the various words in the fuck family of expletives in the US and I love that that’s a thing people have done.

Innocent Origins

The general consensus in dictionaries and among modern etymologists seems to be that prior to the 16th and 17th centuries, frigging wasn’t a dirty word. It wasn’t a euphemism for fucking, and it wasn’t even a word for masturbation — female or otherwise. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much agreement about where it came from, though there are a few different options.

If you Google it, here’s what comes up as the origin :

Late Middle English: of unknown origin. The original sense was ‘move restlessly, wriggle’, later ‘rub, chafe’, hence ‘masturbate’ (late 17th century).

Whereas the Wiktionary comes up with this :

From Middle English friggen (“to quiver”), perhaps from Old English *frygian (“to rub, caress”), related to Old English frēogan, frīgan (“to love, release, embrace, caress”), frīge (pl., “love”). More at free.

Alternative etymology derives frig (Early Modern English frigge) from Middle English frikien (“to keep (the arms and hands) in constant motion”), from Old English frician (“to dance”).

The Online Etymology Dictionary says:

Frisk (v.)

1510s, “to dance, frolic,” from Middle English adjective frisk “lively” (mid-15c.), from Old French frisque “lively, brisk,” also “fresh, new; merry, animated” (13c.), which is ultimately from a Germanic source (compare Middle Dutch vrisch “fresh,” Old High German frisc “lively;” see fresh (adj.1)). Sense of “pat down in a search” first recorded 1781. Related: Frisked; frisking. As a noun, “a frolic, a gambol,” from 1520s.

It seems to me that this is a pretty broad smattering of meanings and origins. Is it Germanic or French? Are we dancing, quivering, or chafing? Are we fresh or free? How do we reconcile these various ideas? Is there a singular source of them all?

Goddess Frigg(a) or Freyja

Astonishingly, in searching for the origin of the word ‘frig’, the goddess, Frigg (sometimes Frigga), is never brought up apart from a few lone voices in the comments section. In Old Norse mythology, Frigg is Odin’s wife and some scholars believe she is synonymous with Freyja — the deity after which the word Friday is named. Some believe Frigg and Freyja were twin sisters. Others believe they’re different manifestations of the same goddess. And yet others believe they’re completely separate and have nothing to do with one another (yeah, ok, sure).

Whether they are the same divinity or multiple distinct beings, there is an association with marriage, sexuality and fertility. The name Frigga is also said to mean “wife” or “beloved”. She was often called upon to bless weddings and stood as a symbol for marital love. An important sidetone is that she wasn’t painted as “faithful”.

There are stories where she sleeps with different men and it’s not shamed. Some sources suggest that in those days, good hospitality included laying with the host’s wife. As the stereotypical “good wife”, Frigga was also often invoked to help in domestic chores such as spinning wool. Perhaps this is where “to keep (the arms and hands) in constant motion” originates.

If we were to use the word ‘frig’ to mean actions associated with Frigga, all of these disparate meanings start to coalesce into a logical portrait of what we know about this goddess. She is lively and loving, good with her hands and very sexual.

Frigging Freedom

The interpretation of frigging’s origins that excites me the most is the connection with the word ‘free’.

They stem from the Proto-Germanic feminine noun *Frijjō, which emerged as a substantivized form of the adjective *frijaz (‘free’) via Holtzmann’s law

This origin is particularly exciting to me because it suggests that perhaps freedom is, at its root, synonymous with love.

If we consider Freud’s idea of the death instinct (I know Freud has his problems, but this one is useful), one might conclude that there is also a life instinct. Certainly, the life instinct would include the proliferation of life that is dependent on sexuality, but it seems that freedom would also be an important part of that life instinct.

Freedom can take on a wide variety of meanings. Dancing and frolicking have a long history with freedom. Sexuality has a long history with freedom. So does loving oneself!

Masturbation VS Sex

If fuck came to mean ‘to have sex’ and frig came to mean ‘to masturbate or rub’, and then subsequently friggin’ came to be the less offensive or less extreme version of fuckin’, what does that say about how we view the difference between masturbation and sex?

In the cis/hetero world, masturbation, whether solo or with another person, is typically not considered sex. It’s seen as less than or inferior to or on the way to penetrative sex. However, in the queer world, many have adopted an expanded view of sexuality where the valuation is not so rigid. Many lesbians would consider mutual masturbation, or any non-penetrative sex to still be sex. With this view, there should be no difference in valuation.

Yet when we make the connection to freedom and a life instinct, suddenly a beautiful shift occurs. To frig oneself is to love oneself, to liberate oneself, and to embrace life with open arms. It’s frigging magical!

Frigging is alive with movement and joy and love and creation. Compared to fuck’s more violent origins, it really *hits* differently. I will never confuse them again.