Words from the Nerd Side

History of Profanity

This post originally appeared on my blog of literary history and words, which has become moribund.  There are some great comments on the original post, which is here.


I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks now. At first, it hit me that all the terms: cursing, swearing, profanity, are somehow deficient. Cursing, in the sense of wishing someone harm, or damning them to hell, and the like, has become pretty mainstream in the 21st century.  There are still people who do not like it, but most people are more comfortable saying “damn” than the notorious f-word.  My husband has an Irish friend who would easily say that it was “pissing down rain,” but would never in his life say “goddamn.” My Irish-American father would never say either, at least in my hearing. In stark contrast, during the Hundred Years War, the French called the English soldiers “goddams,” because they heard it so often from them.

Swearing also does not mean “bad” words, but swearing oaths as we do when we testify at a trial or join the army or get married. Swearing is in the background of expressions like the British “bloody,” which began as “sblood,” from swearing oaths on “God’s blood,” or “swounds,” on “God’s wounds.” “Swounds“ is now only seen now in centuries-old novels set in earlier centuries yet. To my knowledge, only a small number of religious sects, like the Amish, refuse to swear any oaths, no matter what the circumstances. It seems that swearing is pretty normal for most 21st century people as well.

Profanity is an interesting term.  It comes from the philosophical split of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the human. To profane something is to make something which is holy into something human, to bring sacred things to the level of human existence, the normal, the everyday. In the twentieth century, Canadian French had the only “bad” words that were truly profanity, in that they were religious terms used in instances of anger or frustration. “Hostie” and “tabernacle” are the words for the Roman Catholic Eucharist wafer and the large receptacle where consecrated wafers were stored on the altar, respectively. However, what most of us consider profanity has nothing to do with the holy and much more to do with human sexual and other biological functions.

Also, many of our “bad” words in 21st century English are Anglo-Saxon. All right, I’m a nerd and have studied far too many medieval languages. However, I have to stifle a laugh whenever anyone says, “Pardon my French.” Why would I pardon your French, when the word you belted out is Anglo-Saxon, and ironically, was made into a “bad” word by the very French you are blaming? In 1066, the Norman French who conquered England decided to marginalize the prior occupants of the island by recasting them as barbarians who could not even speak correctly. A former colleague, with whom I taught medieval legal history, used to say that the words used by the people who tended the animals were different from those used by the people who ate the animals. Look at “sheep” versus “mutton,” which comes from the Middle French mouton. The French terms became a sign of more polish, more culture, than the Anglo-Saxon terms.

This juxtaposition runs through all of our language, not just the “bad” words. Consider: “keep” versus “maintain,” “get” versus “obtain.” The feel of the words is so different, or at least the Norman French campaign to make us see the French as more refined succeeded, didn’t it? Is it any wonder that all of the “bad” words that cause a sophomoric giggle amongst 12-year-olds are Anglo-Saxon: “fart”, “ass,” “tits,” and the rest (which I leave to your imagination as this is not an 18-and-older blog)? I draw odd looks when I apologize for my Anglo-Saxon, but most of my friends know I am just being a pedant.

I love the history of language, and the history of rude words is even more fascinating. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. I’d love your thoughts and comments.


24 thoughts on “History of Profanity”

  1. Awesome post. Even though my worlds are created, I do draw from medieval Europe for bits of them. I’ve tried to research curses and what would be considered swear words that would be appropriate. Nothing irritates me more than authors dropping the ef-bomb in worlds/time periods where it would have meant nothing, just for the shock value of it. Unfortunately, that word is becoming so commonplace the shock value has worn off.

    1. Kathi, you’ve described my feels for a lot of shows that so many people rave about … HBO’s Deadwood being a prime example of that. And of course, even if the F-bomb is apropos for the time, it doesn’t mean that it’s apropos for all occasions. Use it to much and it becomes meaningless…

      Which, sometimes, I think, was the intention.

        1. Eden, it’s interesting that you cite Deadwood. I read an article several years ago that the words that would have been used are so tame in today’s world the writers felt they had to use 20th/21st century swear words to bring the audience in to the story.

          They might have a point–my siblings and I used to guffaw behind our hands at my father’s use of “dadgum” and “goldurn.” An interesting problem indeed.

      1. “Black Sails” on Starz. Love the show, I just didn’t know pirates were that fond of the eff-bomb.

        I spent over an hour researching a word for my current WIP that could take its place if my character felt so inclined to cuss. Which he does. It wasn’t easy.

        1. I hear you, Kathy. I spend so much time poring over the Oxford English dictionary to verify whether the word I want existed at the time. I don’t think the f-bomb was as popular as depicted on some of these shows. I have a post on that, too, but it is certainly full of those words itself–it’s hard to write about these words without using them.

          1. One of the web pages stored on my phone is an etymology dictionary. I’m constantly checking it for words and phrases. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give suggestions so then I’m stuck trying to figure out a replacement!

            1. I wonder if there is a thesaurus app–I’ll take a look around to see. I used to tell my freshman classes they were forbidden to use thesauri, because I would get the weirdest words from them (male “characteristics” instead of “characters”), but once you know most of the words, they are great memory joggers.

  2. Great post! I get a huge kick out of words and language too. It’s interesting though, what some people think is too modern. Someone recently flagged the term “on the sly” in my magical 17th century world, but the term comes from Middle English — so not too modern after all, I think. 🙂

  3. I like the angle in which you approached this subject Elizabeth. And it can be a touchy subject depending on how one feels about said swear or profane words. I thought I’d start with this post first before I embarked on the history of profanity part 2. Be afraid, be very afraid, as I am not a fan of profanity. I think it has been over-used and is not appreciated for its rudeness and vulgarity. But that’s just me. 🙂

    1. It’s not just you, Karen. Profanity is over-used in American society, where some people drop the f-bomb every sentence. It ceases to shock, and that is not a good thing. Words should always carry their power with them, that’s my two cents’ worth.

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