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.