I Eff, You Eff, She Effs

I was tickled by this line from a Roger Scruton essay:

I too am tempted to eff the ineffable.

But I wondered: Is “eff” really a verb? (Is “scrute” or “whelm”?) To the online OED! (A proxy subscription to which is surely among the greatest little perquisites of university affiliation.) Alas, it seems that “to eff” is indeed listed as a verb in that definitive lexicon, but not with quite the meaning Scruton assigned to it:

1.intr.Brit.colloq. To utter the word ‘fuck’; to swear, use profanities. Originally and chiefly in to eff and blind: to use strong expletives, to swear frequently; cf. BLIND v. 1c.

1943 M. HARRISON Reported Safe Arrival 31 They’d eff and blind till yer ear-‘oles started ter frizzle. 1959 A. WESKER Chicken Soup with Barley I. ii, He started effing and blinding and threw their books on the floor. 1965 J. GASKELL Fabulous Heroine 50 He would argue and eff in an intellectual ecstasy all afternoon. 1989 J. GALLOWAY Trick is to keep Breathing (1991) 26 A man and a woman shouting, effing and blinding and the little girl starts screaming. 1999 L. HIRD Born Free (2000) xiv. 109 A bairn starts screaming up the back and I hear the mother effing away, smacking it. 2003 C. BIRCH Turn again Home iii. 47 She’d turned up at Edmund and Isabel’s blind drunk in the middle of the afternoon. Disgusting! Effing and blinding she was in front of the children.

2.trans. and intr.slang. Used as a euphemistic alternative to FUCK v. (in various senses).

1945 E. HEMINGWAY Let. 2 Apr. (1981) 579 Just tell them to Eff off. 1950 E. HEMINGWAY Across River ix. 78 ‘Eff Florence,’ the Colonel said. 1958 D. SANDERSON Night of Horns xxv. 165 You sure effed things up. 1961 J. A. WILLIAMSNight Song 155 Eagle ain’t even cold yet and you cats are effin’ over him already. 1963 L. MEYNELL Virgin Luck viii. 191 ‘Eff off,’ Johnny told Antonio. Antonio effed off to the other end of the bar. 1967 K. GILES Death & Mr. Prettyman ii. 62 ‘What did he matter?’ ‘Effed if I know.’ 1988 S. RUSHDIESatanic VersesV. ii. 330 Eff off. Go crawl back under your stone. 2002 S. TUROW Reversible Errors (2003) 194, I tell him to eff himself… You know, in my time, I had some stones.
A quick click to the next word in line confirms that ineffable comes not from to eff but from the negation of effable, an obsolete adjective meaning “that can be pronounced” or “that can be, or may lawfully be, expressed or described in words.” It, in turn, derives, via the French effable, from the Latin effabilis, an adjectival form of the verb effari (to utter), itself a combination of ex (out) + fari (to speak). Considering that “to eff,” as OED defines it, is “euphemistic,” I am not sure whether we should call that which it euphemizes effable or ineffable.

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