‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a frack,’ replied my husband unwittily when I asked how he’d feel if shale gas was discovered at the bottom of our garden. But he did illustrate why the word has proved so good for campaigners. Someone at Balcombe had painted a sign saying: ‘Frack off.’
The word enables the debate. Quibbling about hydraulic fracturing would hardly have had the same impact. In this way, fracking serves the same purpose as did bonking in the 1980s, when it purported to supply a non-moralistic term for the act. I am not sure the illusion lasted, for the parallel case of bunga bunga in Italy soon enough suggested dirty old men.
However, fracking positively benefits from its taboo associations. It is as if the oil companies frack you up, like Larkin’s mum and dad. Only the tiniest change to that taboo term admitted it into print. In 1948, when Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, his publishers persuaded him to use the word fug, which led Dorothy Parker (or Tallulah Bankhead) to exclaim: ‘So, you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck!’
Hemingway preferred frig: ‘We do not let the gypsy nor others frig with it’ (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940). This old word originally had a different obscene denotation. In 1959, when Keith Waterhouse used it in Billy Liar (‘Take your frigging mucky hands off my pullover’), I’m not sure whether it was as a euphemism or a realistic representation of current slang. Too late to ask him now.
I suspect, too, that fracking has glided so smoothly into its berth because of the success of fragging. This was an invention of the Vietnam war. ‘To frag,’ explained a Canadian paper in 1970, ‘is a term meaning to use a fragmentation grenade “to cool the ardor of any officer or NCO too eager to make contact with the enemy”.’ It abbreviated fragmentation in a similar way to that in which fracturing has been shortened, making it punchier. In the case of frag, it was literally a four-letter word that was born.
Fracking (1953) predates fragging (1972), but fragging found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in the year of its birth, while fracking had to wait until June of this year.