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There are a number of slang terms that use the term "screw". Pulling from an answer on this site:

screw-based [slang terms] abound: you can screw something up (mess it up), you can be screwy (crazy), you can be screwed (ruined, done for), you can ‘screw it’ (forget it, leave it aside), you can screw someone over (cheat them), you can screw around (fool around), you can screw someone (as in, “Screw you!”, not-so-politely telling them to go to hell), etc.

Do all of these have the same origin? Are they all equally inappropriate (as a substitute for the f-word)?

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    Screw is a euphemism for fuck, so yes, they are inappropriate, though less so. In some cases (screw around, we're screwed), it's just naughty slang, with no sexual reference. But the tabu is still there. Jan 1, 2022 at 15:14
  • Politically correct is not the opposite of vulgar or obscene, and has a more specific meaning, albeit one not often used seriously and in good faith. I suggest you edit the question accordingly
    – Stuart F
    Jan 2, 2022 at 15:30
  • @StuartF Agreed. And without seeing your comment, and in view of the excellent answer, I did it for him.
    – David
    Jan 2, 2022 at 19:54
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    Frankly, in colloquial speech, the word screw is no longer taboo. Everybody uses it. That said, you would not use it in a formal setting.
    – Lambie
    Jan 2, 2022 at 20:26

3 Answers 3

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Slang dictionary coverage of 'screw'

Screw has been in use as a slang term for several centuries at least and with multiple definitions. J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1903) devotes more than four double-columned pages to screw, screwed, and screwy, ranging across a dozen distinct definitions, none of which involve an explicit equation with sexual intercourse. Here, with citations omitted are the definitions in Farmer & Henley:

SCREW, subs. (colloquial).—1. An extortioner ; a miser. As verb. = to coerce into paying or saving money, or making a promise, yielding one's opinion, vote, person, &c. : also TO SCREW UP (or OUT), and TO PUT ON (or UNDER or TURN) THE SCREW; SCREWY (or SCREWING) = mean. [Citations from 1696 and later.]

2. (American collegiate).—(a) An unnecessarily minute examination ; and (b) a SCREW. The instructor is often designated by the same name. [Citation from 1856.]

3. (common).—An old or worthless horse : whence (loosely) anything old. SCREWY = worn-out, worthless. [Citations from 1835 and later.]

4. (common). ["screws" = "penny papers of tobacco"] [Citations from 1851 and later.]

5. (common). Money earned. [Citations from 1860 and later.]

6. (old). A turnkey : Fr[ench] raf and griffleur. As verb. = to imprison : also TO PUT UNDER THE SCREW ; SCREWING = a term of imprisonment. [Citations from 1821 and later.]

7. (old). A skeleton-key : as a verb. = to burgle : spec[ifically] by means of false keys; THE SCREW (or SCREW-GAME) = burglary ; SCREWSMAN = a burglar. Also 'to stand ON THE SCREW' = 'the door is not bolted merely locked.' [Citations from 1852 and later.]

8. (old).—A prostitute. Whence, as verb. = to copulate.

9. (common).—A dram ; a PICK-ME-UP. [Citation from 1877.]

10. (old.)—A stomach ache.

A SCREW LOOSE, verb. phr. (old).—Something wrong. [Citations from 1821 and later.]

SCREWED or SCREWY, adj. (common).—Drunk ; TIGHT. [Citations from 1837 and later.]

Farmer & Henley does not list definitions chronologically, but it does identify certain meanings as "old." In the case of screw and its variants, the meanings characterized as old are "a turnkey [that is, jailer]," "a skeleton key," "a prostitute" [and by extension, "to copulate"], "a stomach ache," and (in the form "a screw loose") "something wrong." Unfortunately, the book doesn't indicate whether the "old" senses of the term are older than the "common" senses. Moreover, the meaning "an extortioner, a miser" goes back at least to 1696, even though it is characterized as "colloquial" rather than as "old," so some senses of screw may have been hundreds of years old in 1903 without being labeled "old" by Farmer & Henley.

The earliest slang dictionary I am aware of that includes an entry for screw is B.E., A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699):

Screw, to Screw one up, to exact upon one, or Squeeze one in a Bargain or Reckoning.

The absence of "prostitute" or "copulate" as a meaning for screw is not due to any diffidence on B.E.'s part: the book includes the terms baggage ("a Whore or Slut"), bloss ("...also a Whore"), blower ("a Mistress, also a Whore"), buttock ("a Whore"), case fro ("a Whore that Plies in a Bawdy-house"), cat ("a common Whore or Prostitute"), cattle ("Whores"), common women ("Whores, Plyers in the Streets and at Bawdy-Houses"), convenient ("a Mistress; also a Whore"), crack ("a Whore"), curtezan ("a gentile fine Miss or Quality Whore"), "), doxies ("She-beggars, Trulls, Wenches, Whores"), drab ("a Whore, or Slut"), draggle-tail ("a nasty dirty Slut"), fire-ship ("a Pockey Whore"), froe ("a Wife, Mistress, or Whore"), game ("at a Bawdy-house, Lewd Women"), harridan ("on that is half Whore, half Bawd"), jilt ("a Tricking Whore"), light friggat ("a Whore; also a Cruiser"), madam van ("a Whore"), miss ("a Whore of Quality; also a little Girl"), strum ("a handsom Wench, or Strumpet"), pug ("a nasty Slut"), punk ("a little Whore"), quean ("a Whore, or Slut"), and trull ("a Whore; also a Tinker's travelling Wife or Wench"); and the terms blow off the loose corns ("to Lie now and then with a Woman"), butter'd bun ("lying with a Woman that has just Layn with by another Man"), clicket ("Copulation of Foxes, and sometimes, used waggishly, for that of Men and Women"), dock ("to lie with a Woman"), jock or jockumcloy ("to copulate with a Woman"), lib ("to Tumble or Lye together"), prigging ("riding, also lying with a Woman"), straping ("lying with a Wench"), tiffing "lying with a Wench"), and wap ("to Lie with a Man").

Absence doesn't prove nonexistence, of course, but the fact that screw in the sense of "exact upon or squeeze" appears in this dictionary while screw in the sense of "prostitute" or "copulate" does not seems significant, given the interest that B.E. evidently has in recording terms for the latter two.

In any event, A New Canting Dictionary (1725) supplies the deficiency in B.E.'s dictionary, with these entries:

To SCREW, to copulate with a Woman.

A SCREW, a Strumpet, a common Prostitute.


Assessment

A review of late seventeenth instances (in Early English Books Online) of a screw, to screw, screwed, screw'd, and screwing turns up a number of instances in which these terms are used to indicate a ratcheting up, an attachment, an ingratiation, or a contortion or distortion. Several involve exacting or extracting something of value from someone through force or duress—essentially the meaning that B.E. identifies in his 1699 Canting Crew dictionary. None suggest copulation or the activities of a prostitute.

How, then, did screw in the sense of "prostitute" arise? I suspect that it may derive from screw the sense of "ingratiate." The EEBO instance that shows the closest connection between screw and prostitutes appears in The Country Gentleman's Vade Mecum or His Companion for the Town (1699):

Well, when you come there [to the pit of the theatre], the Eyes of every Body are presently upon you, especially of the Whores and Sharpers, who immediately give out the Word, to try if any body knows you; and if they find you're a Stranger, then a Lady in a Mask, alias Whore, which (as they express it) is a good Tongue-Pad, is forthwith detatch'd to go and sound you, and in the mean time a Cabal of Bullies and Sharpers are consulting which way you must be manag'd, and passing their Judgments upon you. The Lady comes up to you with a kind of formal Impudence, and fixes herself as near to you as she can, and then begins some loose, impertinent Prate, to draw you into Discourse with her. If she finds you a Man for their Turn, and a true Squire, with some sort of Subtil and Insinuating Civility, she leaves you a little, to go and make her Report to her Friends and Allies, that are earnestly waiting to know the Success of her Negotiation, in another Part of the Pit; here some proper Measures are soon resolv'd upon, and she's dispatch'd to you again with new Instructions, and will be sure to stick to you till the End of the Play; and in all the Interludes be constantly chattering to you, to screw herself as far as possible into your Acquaintance, and familiarity. When the Play's over she certainly marches out with you, and by the Way, perhaps does you the Favour to let you have a Glimpse of her Painted Face, &c. if she sees you take no Notice of her, and seem insensible of her Design, she comes to a close Parley with you, and must needs know which way you go; be it which way it will, her way's the very same; and so to avoid the trouble of calling another Coach, if you'll set her down, she'll give you a Cast another Night; ...

This account indicates that ingratiation (or "screwing" into a person's acquaintance) was a standard tactic of prostitutes and their enablers in pursuing a particular entrapment con game. Perhaps this tactic—or a more general notion of prostitutes attaching themselves (figuratively) to potential clients—led to an association of prostitutes with the word screw.

With regard to the poster's question of which of the many slang senses of screw evolved from the "sexual intercourse" meaning of the word, I am inclined to see most of the meanings identified in Farmer & Henley a independent of that origin. Thus, for example, screwy in the sense of "crazy" seems much more likely to have arisen from "having a screw loose" (that is, having something wrong with oneself) or from screwed in the sense of drunk (that is, not in one's right mind) than from a euphemistic softening of "fucked up."

On the other hand, it seems quite possible that "screwed up" in its modern sense of "fouled up" or "erred" or "bungled" is a euphemistic rendering of "fucked up" in the same sense—although the latter term is, according J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) not recorded earlier than 1918. Other relatively modern expressions such as "screw over" and "we're screwed" may likewise involve direct crossovers from coarser versions that use the word fuck.

Still, more broadly, screw has its own long and complicated lineage of slang usage and its own (probably multiple) origins quite independent of "the f-word." Whether that pedigree frees screw from accusations of political incorrectness is subject to the discretion and judgment of individual speakers/writers and listeners/readers; undoubtedly, for many people, it does not.

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  • Very helpful to know that historically it wasn't sexual, i.e. it's not only a slang term even if it is commonly used that way these days. Jan 2, 2022 at 1:24
  • During early talkies era, there was a censorship backlash and a sort of negotiated truce among writers and censors about what words could and couldn't be used in movies. For reasons no-one knows, screw wasn't on the banned list, and it became a blanket euphemism for a whole bunch of banned phrases. This is where screwball came from, along with a bunch of other coinages. I reckon there was a permanent drift in meaning towards sexual innuendo caused by this.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 2, 2022 at 5:18
  • @PhilSweet: On the other hand, I recall seeing citations in mainstream publications during the 1970s to a periodical called Al Goldstein's Mag, which (as far as I know) never appeared on newsstands under that title. The magazine's actual title, Screw, was evidently considered unfit to print—as, indeed, it arguably was.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 2, 2022 at 6:44
  • I thought political correctness was about gender and race and disability.
    – Lambie
    Jan 2, 2022 at 20:29
  • @Lambie: From Jonathon Green, Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, 2d ed. (2005): "screw n. (1) 1 {early 18C–early 19C} a prostitute. 2 {mid-19C+} an act of sexual intercourse; also in fig. use. 3 {mid-19C+} one's partner in intercourse; usu. applied to a woman; esp. as a _good/bad screw. 4 {1960s} (US) as a synon. for FUCK n. 1(2) ["the essence, the spirit, 'the daylights'"]. 5 {1960s+} a dismissive and pej[orative] ref. to a woman, relegating her to the status of a pure sex object." Definitions 3 and 5, at least, suggest "political incorrectness" as formally defined.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 2, 2022 at 23:46
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Macmillan adds the caveats bolded below for UK usage:

screw ...

(2) [verb] [transitive] [very informal]

to cheat someone, or to treat someone in an unfair way

  • screw someone out of something: We were just screwed out of £20!

...

  1. [verb] [transitive] [impolite] [I'd use 'vulgar' in line with say CED]:

to have sex with someone

I'd include 'screw someone over', 'screw something up' and 'screwy' in the transferred sense applied to a situation in the 'very informal' category. 'Be screwed', 'screw around', 'Oh, screw it!' and ''Screw you!' are increasingly vulgar, while 'screwy' applied to a person is very rude.

Obviously, vulgar / rude usages are non-PC, while the other usages are more a matter of style choice and register.

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Screw has meant a prison guard since the 1800s. It’s thought to refer to a guard putting a key in the lock and “screwing” it open. Screw may also have been slang for key.

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    @SvenYarg's answer above includes this definition, at no 6 in the list he has provided from a source. Mar 10, 2023 at 11:03

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