Last week, a sweary fact about kestrels turned out to be not only HH’s most popular fact of the week, but one of our most popular facts ever. Back in the sixteenth century, kestrels were known as windfuckers and fuckwinds.
Having said that however, there’s a theory that claims you should in fact change those Fs to Ss. Some etymologists (presumably looking to make the history of the English language slightly less offensive than it actually is) will have you believe that those windfucker and fuckwind nicknames for the kestrel are actually misreadings: they come from a time when the archaic long S character < ſ > was often used to be used in place of < s > at the beginnings and middles of words, and so it’s entirely possible that that long S was simply misread as a lowercase F < f >.
So those kestrels? Perhaps they weren’t so much fucking the wind as they were sucking it. So to speak.
It’s a neat theory, certainly, but alas it’s not the case; these nicknames really were as uncompromising as they sound. Take a look at this page from Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, for instance, and you’ll see under the French word crecerelle—well, pretty clear proof that there was no sucking involved whatsoever:
But why call kestrels windfuckers and fuckwinds at all? Well, pragmatically the name probably refers to the fact that kestrels have a habit of hovering expertly in one place while they hunt, during which their posture could be said to, er, resemble doing something else.
Etymologically meanwhile it’s worth remembering that the F-word wasn’t always as opprobrious as it is today: it’s always meant “to copulate”, but back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it wasn’t a swear word so much as it was just a fairly rough and impolite bit of throwabout language. (For instance, another translator’s dictionary from around the same period—John Florio’s Italian-English Worlde of Words—drops the F-bomb more times than an episode of The Wire).
It wasn’t until people found that the F-word was being used more as a sweary intensifier than a literal expression in the prudish late 1700s (and then the even more prudish Victorian era after that) that it began to be considered genuinely bad language; the F-word vanished from all major dictionaries in 1795, and didn’t reappear until 1965.
Want more on the history of the F-word?