Words from the Nerd Side

History of Profanity, Part 2

DISCLAIMER:  There are a lot of vulgar words in this post.  If you would find these words offensive, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER!

In the last post, I concentrated on profanity and cursing. Most of what is considered profanity in the 21st century is vulgarity, which again, is a misnomer. The word vulgarity comes from the Latin, and at base, means people who were not citizens of Rome, but who were from the provinces. Provincial people spoke “vulgar” Latin, meaning “not correct,” and eventually, “unacceptable.”

Vulgarism is a very interesting subject. Often the argument is made that people use vulgarisms because they have a limited vocabulary. I disagree. Most vulgar words are very satisfying to say. They are single syllables, with lots of staccato consonants, and they roll off the angry tongue in a wonderful way: crap, shit, cunt, fuck.

The other vulgarities that roll off the tongue are the multi-syllabic combinations: motherfucker, cocksucker, son of a bitch, bastard. The first two combine in iambic meter that rivals Shakespeare. Despite what one personally thinks about using vulgarisms, their use is not confined to those who have no vocabulary.

When my youngest son was about 10, he used to upbraid his brother (often with reason) using vulgar language. After I sat him down and explained that it made him sound like he had a limited vocabulary (I have changed my mind since then), he became more inventive. The next day when I came home from work, he informed me that his brother had eaten all the food in the house, and was “a gluttonous whore.” It suddenly became obvious to me that lack of vocabulary was not a problem, if my 10-year-old was speaking like someone from 1710.

Popular vulgarisms tend to cover the subjects of bodily functions or parts, including sex: shit, piss, fart, fuck, cock, cunt, tits, ass, prick, suck, bugger; parentage: whoreson, bastard, son of a bitch; and unsavory occupations, whore. None of these terms started life as vulgarisms. Chaucer uses several of them in the Canterbury Tales; Shakespeare’s Nurse in Romeo and Juliet says that “Time has her hand on the prick of noon.” Although a classmate of mine walked out of our Shakespeare class at that, no one in Shakespeare’s time would have been as gravely offended.

Of the various taboo words, shit, cunt and fuck are among the worst. Cunt is from the Vulgar Latin term for vagina, even though it has not been raised to a respectable level. Shit was the Anglo-Saxon term for excrement. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the Norman French marginalized Anglo-Saxon, and the word became vulgar. Fuck is not Anglo-Saxon, as it did not reach England until the early 1600’s, by way of the Dutch word meaning to strike or pound.

One thing I find fascinating about all of this pother about vulgarisms is not only were they acceptable terms at another time, but that, almost despite themselves, people who are offended by vulgarisms are verifying the power of words. In my own personal experience, I have been wounded most by words that were not vulgar but rejecting, nullifying, belittling.

One of my favorite quotations is from Sir Thomas Browne, 1605-1682. “Scholars are men of peace; they bear no arms, but their tongues are sharper than Actius’s sword, their pens carry farther, and give a louder report than thunder.” This is often misquoted as “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Words are powerful, life-affirming or soul-crushing. To give some of these terms more power than others is to miss the point.



7 thoughts on “History of Profanity, Part 2”

  1. You’re right Elizabeth, “words are powerful, life-affirming or soul-crushing.” So much so, that the profane words that are used today, even though they were at one time acceptable, are still seen by most as vulgar or we wouldn’t care if our young children hear or use them. We wouldn’t care if we hurt someone’s feelings by tossing that soul-crushing, powerful word at them as if it were a slap in the face. It’s how these words are understood today that makes the biggest impact. And isn’t the impact the reason why most people use those words? But what kind of impact are they making when those words are overused? Interesting.

    1. I agree, Karen. My father never, ever cursed, not even hell or damn. There were some words that he used only in times of great distress–usually with us kids–and we knew the storm was coming, even if the words wouldn’t have been seen as cursing (like dagnabit), we knew what they meant. RUN!

      I think overuse of these words have made people impervious to them, when they are just like every other adjective–but they shouldn’t be used that way. There’s a fascinating study that people who cursed when in extreme pain felt less pain than when they were not allowed to curse.

  2. wow! as a fan of etymology and a latin student, as well as somebody whose spoken language can be..uh, ‘colourful’ at times, i really enjoyed this post! the evolution of words is a fascinating subject in my opinion, no matter what words they are ;3

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