A quantitative analysis of how often Nature gives a fuck

After seeing this tweet the other evening:

I started to wonder just how sweary Nature has been over the years. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m just counting words that have been printed in the hardcopy of the journal (online-only mentions don’t count, sorry).

It turns out that the instance of ‘bollocks’ referred to in the tweet above is actually its sixth mention in Nature over the years. The first time ‘bollocks’ dropped into the journal was on April 16, 1998 in a piece by Martin Kemp about some photographs that had appeared in Nature’s pages the previous autumn. Kemp’s article was quoting what a postgraduate student was heard to have said (“What’s this bollocks doing in Nature?”) in the biology department’s tea room at Leicester University in response to Cornelia Parker’s pictures of navel fluff from (i) a sailor (while at sea), (ii) a farmer and (iii) an architect.

Kemp’s article soon prompted some critical correspondence from Ian Smith, who opened his letter with, “How lovely to see the word “bollocks” appearing, perhaps for the first time, in Nature,” before going on to suggest that Parker would not be any less eligible to evaluate the Leicester University student’s work than that student would be to evaluate hers – and so perhaps she should be invited to be an external examiner for his PhD thesis.

And so, this initimately related pair of ‘bollocks’ appeared in Nature within the space of two weeks.

The third, fourth and fifth appearances of the word ‘bollocks’ came in a single letter published in 2001, penned by *that* Leicester University student responding to the bollocking dished out by Smith in the pages of Nature almost 3 years beforehand. Although Magnus Johnson lamented the fact that his contribution to Kemp’s article would likely be the closest he would get to publishing in Nature, he described being responsible for the first time ‘bollocks’ appeared in the journal as possibly the pinnacle of his scientific career.

Anyway, never mind the bollocks, what about other swear words?

First of all, if we’re going to survey swear words used in Nature, we need some sort of classification of sweary-ness. This led me to a wonderful set of guidelines from the BBC categorizing different swear words according to whether they are likely to cause most offense, moderate offense or simply mild offense. Just imagine the posh radio 4 lady reading those guidelines out loud.

I think a more widely known (and in-depth) analysis of swear words is George Carlin’s seven dirty words – if you’ve never heard/watched the sketch, you can find it here (NSFW, not without headphones anyway). Of those 7 dirty words, only 4 have appeared in Nature, and the one that has appeared the most (more than 650 times) is in an ornithological context rather than any swear-y sense. So that leaves fuck, piss and shit (and variations thereof). I’ve found 48 shits (including 13 bullshits, 1 shit-stirrer and 1 nano-shit), 26 piss-derived expressions, and a grand total of 10 fucks. And this is how those fucks breakdown over time.


The 1937 ‘fuck’ appears in a section entitled ‘Societies and Academies’ and seems to list the titles of presentations made to them. Under the heading ‘Rome’, there is an entry that reads:

G. BORZINI: Observations on the parasitism of Sclerotinia libertiana sclerotiorum Fuck associated with other fungi.

From a little digging on Google, it seems that the thing in italics is a plant fungus and it was named for Karl Wilhelm Gottlieb Leopold Fuckel – the Wikipedia entry helpfully points out that in non-English-speaking countries, Fuckel was sometimes abbreviated as ‘Fuck.’ – although the fullstop is missing in this case in Nature.

The 1985 ‘fuck’ is similarly innocent. One of the authors of reference 11 cited in the paper Andean-trending mobile belts in the Brazilian Shield is one ‘R. A. Fuck’.

It’s only in 1989 that ‘fuck’ is first used in anger. While reviewing Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, Richard Fortey repeats a quote (“Oh fuck, another new phylum”) featured in the book. The remaining 7 instances of ‘fucked’, ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ are also found in quotes rather than being the authors’ own words, and appear in news stories, news features or the Books & Arts section. So, that’s 8 deliberate fucks in roughly 145 years; one every 18 years or so, although it’s clearly not an even distribution. If the rate of usage continues to pick up as it has done over the past few years, expect to see more clusters of fucks in the near future.

Do note, however, that this level of sweary-ness is not a patch on just a single article published in the journal Chemical Communications. It might not sound terribly risqué, but the paper Electrochemical synthesis of metal and semimetal nanotube–nanowire heterojunctions and their electronic transport properties mentions perhaps the most offensive of Carlin’s 7 dirty words more than 50 times – there’s even a bunch of them shown in the graphical abstract that accompanies the article. Perhaps a different abbreviation for copper nanotubes would have been a better choice?

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7 Responses to A quantitative analysis of how often Nature gives a fuck

  1. Pingback: Editor Discusses F—ing in Nature | ChemBark

  2. It is still one of my proudest moments. I wrote to Nature just asking for a signed certificate stating that I was the first person to get the word “bollocks” published in the magazine. I was flabbergasted when they said that they wanted to publish my letter. I love telling arrogant plonkers that I have had a letter in Nature (without going into details).

  3. Lila Guterman says:

    Fabulous post. Now I really need to go look up the “shit-stirrer” and “nano-shit” references, though!

  4. Ricardo says:

    Not in Nature, but you can find a few instances in the literature where “Hartree-Fock” has been misspelt…:-) For example: http://citations.springer.com/item?doi=10.1007/BF01184322

  5. awitze says:

    I’m pleased to have been the enabling factor (a.k.a. editor) behind the 2006 entry, in this feature by Emma Marris: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v443/n7111/full/443498a.html. Truly a career high.

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #40 | Whewell's Ghost

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