What the Eff Is Up With the “A” in “Effing A”?
Swearing loves the alphabet—or euphemisms for swearing do, at least. To avoid saying fuck outright, we might just drop an F-bomb, sidestep with the F-word, or register “initial” reactions with WTF. Some swears play with spelling: see you next Tuesday. Yet others, including a number originating from military expressions, are acronyms: snafu, or situation normal: all fucked up. That’s no BS, an abbreviation of bullshit that Mark Peters has written a whole damn book on.
But what about fucking A? What is this A doing? Is it standing in for another swearword? What the fuck is this A in fucking A?
|The Dude wants to know. YouTube/The Big Lebowski|
First off, what the fuck does the expression fucking A even mean? It’s versatile, as any fan of The Big Lebowski can tell you. As I hear and use it in American English today, fucking A—or, more often, fuckin’ A—largely functions as an interjection. It can express excitement. You got the promotion? Fucking A, man! It can vent frustration. Dude, you drank my last can of LaCroix? Fucking A.
But fucking A does a lot of its work announcing a kind of agreement—a subtle, knowing, or sympathizing kind of agreement, if my ears are any measure. It figures humorously in a scene in Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space, when disillusioned cubicle drone Peter Gibbons finally finds contentment:
Some see fucking A as standing in for other swearwords: ass, asshole, or, pointing to a source in British English, arse. Speaking of British English, another effort claims fucking A comes from fuck all and Fanny Adams. But why abbreviate ass and not fucking? On the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list, others have reported fuck an A or a riff on the Flying-A gas stations. Evidence is lacking for these explanations.
The written record of fucking A grounds the expression in the 1940s, especially as used by U.S. soldiers during World War II to express emphatic, intensive assent. The first citation Jesse Sheidlower provides in his sweary essential, The F-Word, comes from a passage in Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead: “ ‘You’re fuggin ay,’ Gallagher snorted.” (This fug has its own interesting story to tell.) Here, the character is conveying a sense of You’re totally right or absolutely correct.
As Sheidlower suggests, fucking A may have been taken from phrases like “You’re fucking A-number-one right.” This makes fucking an intensifier. And this makes A shorted from the adjectival expression, A-number-one, which had been signifying something first-class or outstanding in American English at least a 100 years prior, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED dates A-number-one (or A No.1) back to 1838 and roots it in A1, which Lloyd’s Register in London famously used to classify ships in the best conditions. This A, of course, enjoys its distinction due to its esteemed position in the alphabet.
Sheidlower also notes fucking A can be used as an adverb and infix, as well as in the expression You’re fucking-A well told. (Fucking well told is another expression for absolutely right, according to the Dictionary of American Slang.) And the expression, of course, has evolved over the years, though it still retains its affirmative character. Even when expressed in dismay, I think fucking A still can take a see-this-from-my-perspective plea.
Two also root the expression in the U.S. military: One argues that the A stands for affirmative, used in aviation; the other that the A stands for able, which named the letter A in the US military radio alphabet used during Wold War II. Another, fucking amen, underscores the expression’s sense of “heartfelt agreement,” as the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang glosses the expression. Fucking aye and fucking A-OK have also been proposed.