F-ing History of Curse Words

What I'm about to say will shock you: I try not to gratuitously curse on this blog. I know, I know, you don't believe me. But, I swear (pun) I do.  It's not because I have a problem with cursing or that I've learned any lessons in my pseudo-adulthood that have made me want to be more polished, professional, or polite. I just decided early on that writing expletives is easy and that there was almost always a more descriptive, more unique, more exciting word to stand in. Except sometimes, of course, when people are just plain being assholes.

I had a high school English teacher who would dock us points in every essay for using any variation of the word "thing" -- including "anything" or "something" -- believing firmly that "thing" was never be the best descriptor.. I made kind of the same rule for myself with profanity here. That's not to say that this blog is devoid of four-letter phrases; I totally relish well-placed vulgarity. But, I do try to reign in my tendency to default to curse words because I think it makes me a better, more thoughtful writer.

That being said, in real life I curse like a sailor. In fact, I probably curse more than a sailor. Because the only sailors I've met are the WASP-y, yachting types who only curse when mumsy is not around. I totally smoke those guys with cursing.

I'm not saying any of this to brag or sound badass. (Think of all the WASP-y sailors I know! I could never be badass!) In fact, I'd probably be better served to tone it down in my daily speech, especially in mixed company (sorry to all y'all's parents). But I've always loved cursing -- I mean really enjoy it -- and I wanted to consider why. And I thought: maybe my affinity for the profane started as a sort of backwards linguistic revolt against the fact that arbitrarily labeling certain words as "bad" is inane and ridiculous.

I've always thought it was ridiculous that a certain specific handful of words -- and we all know which ones they are -- are prohibited.  Demarcating "bad words" seems like such an unnatural, prudish exercise, a bizarre Victorian distinction that only Lord Grantham still likes anymore. Yet, in an age where it's impossible to get a consensus on anything* and where language evolves at a tweet-driven pace, somehow all American English speakers agree: these specific words are "bad words." I'm not saying some of us don't use them anyway, but I'm saying we all know exactly which ones we aren't supposed to.

It's also somehow inherent and understood without explicit (pun) teaching where the "bad words" fall on a gradient. It's pretty much the "F" one is the worst, then the "B" one, then "S" one, then the "D" one, and then the "A" one.** There are, of course, an infinite number of crass, slang words, and maybe more that arguably are "curse" words, but these are the core group, right? Where does that come from?

So, I decided to look into it for you. I started with the mac-daddy of cursing, the "F" word. How is it simultaneously the worst profanity and also the most ubiquitous? Well, it turns out that the two go hand-in hand:
Robert A. Leonard, professor of forensic linguistics at Hofstra University, says that the most "successful" swear words tend to be the most versatile -- the ones we use in all sorts of situations, regardless of their literal meaning.

"We have curse words center on three main areas," Leonard says. "Sex; death and religion; and effluvia, let's call it. So what are the most iconic curse words in English? You can fill in the blanks for all three. The prototypical curse words have the largest gap between their literal meaning and their situational meaning." (Source: Glen McDonald, The Making of the F-Bomb: Why Do We Curse?)
It makes sense, doesn't it? We all know that the "F" word is a vulgar term that means sexual intercourse, but we only partly use it to convey that meaning. We also -- and maybe even more often -- plug it in for emphasis as an exasperation, an adjective, or that elusive linguistics construction, Tmesis (think "abso-fucking-lutely"). So, the "F" word's versatility may be responsible both for its prevalence and for its particularly vile ranking.

When I asked Stan Carey, the writer and linguist whom I referenced a few posts ago, about his favorite curse words, he pointed me to the interesting etymology of the word "shit." Like the "F" bomb, which in popular lore is often claimed to have derived from "Fornication Under Command of the King," the "S" word has recently been attributed to being an acronym. (Neither word are actually acronyms -- though an entertaining little bit of of false trivia, acronyms were not commonplace until around World War II and these words date back much further than that)

"Shit" may have been confused for a more recent word "partly because it was taboo from [around] 1600 and rarely appeared in print (neither Shakespeare nor the KJV has it)." But, in fact, "shit" has been in force as a term for excrement since the 1580s and used for "obnoxious person" -- i.e., "you little shit" -- since the early part of that century. Our parents said they were "shit-faced drunk" long before we did -- it's 1960s student slang -- and Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't give two shits about each other as early as 1922, when the term "to not give a shit" first came around. (Source: Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary).

And, to take another one of our standard slangs, the "B" word was used as a term of contempt applied to women as early as 1400.  "Son of a bitch" was first used in "1707 as a direct phrase, but implied much earlier" (the term "Biche-sone" can be found in "Of Arthour & of Merlin," circa 1330). Though, of course, the acronym "S.O.B." only dates back to the first World War.

Basically, a little bit of research taught me that elicit words are not some nouveau-Puritanical invention or even a staid Victorian legacy; they've occupied their place in the obscene cannon for centuries. The contours of acceptable dress and behavior and censorship and parlor-room conversation and what-you-can-show-on-television may have evolved dramatically over the years, but the core expletives remain largely the same. "Profanity" is not, as I thought, an arbitrary designation of a category of speech; it's words that have retained their punch and vigor and vulgarity and shock value throughout massively changing times. And to me, the fact that these words continue to be outlawed is a sign of the power of language, not the capricious grip of polite society.

So, next time you're inclined to complain, despair, insult, or tell someone off, remember that you're just adding your profane voice to the broad and noisy chorus of indecent history. Doesn't that shit feel good?

* minus one point

** George Carlin has a slightly different list, but I think a number of his aren't so much "curse" words as just crass and rude.

Special thanks to Stan Carey for the tip, Douglas Harper, and Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, excerpted here on Salon.
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Write comments
June 8, 2015 at 8:15 PM delete

Pretty damn interesting.
There's a great Federal District Court Opinion that spends some time pontificating on the meaning and use of profanity that you might like.
[Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. McPherson Companies, Inc., The]
I have to say that Leonard's postulation is inherently circular, however. The so-called versatility is a mere construct relative to a particular culture even within the bounds of the same language. For example, the good ol' "See You In Tea" is much more prevalent in British and Caribbean English than in American English. The statement about references to sex and excrement (and the body-parts involved), though is particularly true even across languages. I suppose what makes them "profane" or "vulgar" is the reference that they make to images of our less, shall we say, sophisticated bodily functions that are particularly of acute sensory interest to us for biological reasons. They are useful for emphasis because even in tmesis, they make reference to something that is shocking to our senses when experienced. That's powerful oversimplified of, course, but that's what makes sense to me when looking at how the concept of vorboten words operates among different languages. I always heard that the F word as an acronym for the crime of fornication "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" by the way, I'd never heard the King one before.


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