Thursday, October 18, 2007

The etymology of swearing

The New Republic has a delightful article, "What the F***?", on the origins and versatility of English swearwords, most notably the "F" word. This topic is of particular interest to me ever since I started dabbling in fantasy novels. What makes a good swear word in an invented culture? What exactly do we find offensive in our own culture? What is taboo? Which is more taboo, sex words, religion words, or excrement words?

In the Goofy Foot Press's, "The Guide to Getting It On", Chapter Three is dedicated to "Dirty Words". The chapter is not concerned with the fun and perhaps sexy kind of dirty words, but instead is pointed to make you think why, especially in the U.S., swear words are most often sex words. In Sweden, for example one of their very dirtiest words means "yellow snow" (Yes, the dirtiest kind of yellow snow) and the Norwegian word for "devil" is treated in the same way as our F-word. They also touch on why most of our dirtiest words revolve around calling each other slang for female genitalia. Even little girls do it on the playground as if to say "You're the woman in sex, you piece of garbage!" whether she is talking to other girls or boys. Why does our culture associate cowardice and filth with being a woman or having a woman's genitals?

Finally, in Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue", he admits that until the 1870s, the words "Damn", "Jesus" and "Hell" were a great deal more taboo than "F_* or "Sh_*" in English (a fact evidenced by which words I feel comfortable writing in this blog in order for it to remain relatively clean). When did swearing by sex become more forbidden than swearing by God?

Ponder this, the next time you generate a random Shakespearean insult. (Okay a the random Shakespearean insult generator is just good SCA fun, but ponder anyway).


  1. Why swear? Why even study it? Shows a certain lack of self control doesn't it.

  2. Well, on referring to self-control, depending on who you are, I would suggest that jaywalking, drinking alcohol, tail-gaiting, flirting, cat-napping and a slew of other low level vices also exhibit a lack of self control. A person's tolerance of these acts depends mainly on how intensely their social society views the evilness of such acts.

    In regards to my study of swearing, everyone swears at some time, from Shakespeare (zounds), Dick Cheney (F-you), Mitt Romney (baloney), to the soccer mom who declares "oh, my heck!" in a fit of uncensored excitement. What is considered shockingly filthy to one person's ears (for instance "Liar!" was unutterable in my childhood home) may be looked on as a harmless euphemism to another (frankly, my dear Scarlet, I don't give a damn). In the creation of fiction, especially fantasy, believable swear words are essential to creating a believable world.

    On a scientific note, recent studies published by the U.K.-based "Leadership and Organization Development Journal" establish that swearing in the office actually encourages team building and "manifest(s) itself in solidarity that helps create a much more pleasurable and productive place to work" improving productivity and boosting staff morale. To everything there is a season, including a time to swear.