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Friday Free-for-All | June 27, 2014(r/AskHistorians)
Unsurprisingly, most cusswords tend to come from the very basic, popular stratum of a language. Remember, “vulgar” comes ultimately from vulgus, the common people. Therefore, many of our swear words are quite old. As far as we know, there have always been swear words. The anarchist collective Luther Blisset/Wu Ming wrote a wonderful historical novel called Q, set in the era of the Protestant Reformation (I highly recommend it). One thing Anglo-American critics noted in their reviews of the book was the “anachronistic language”, by which they clearly meant the “fucks” and “shits” that litter the book. Luther Blisset wrote a rather nice essay in response to their critics (well worth reading even if you haven’t read the book, which is also well worth reading). As they note,
>Human beings always cursed and swore, they did it in all ages, always by referring to catabolism, rough sex and the genitals. In Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian etc.) we still use the Latin words, e.g. “merda” [shit] and “culum” [ass]. As far as the history of the Italian language goes, one of the earliest written sentences in Vulgar (ancient Italian) is “Fili de le pute traite” [Pull, you sons of whores!], which appears on a Twelfth Century fresco in a Roman church.
For reference, the modern forms of those words in those languages are merda, merde, mierda, merda, [rahat] and culo, cul, culo, cu, cur, respectively. The essay has a small image of the fresco (it’s in the Basilica of San Clemente), but here’s a bigger one–the man on the far right is the one doing the cussing in “Vulgar”.
But I assume you’re asking about our current English cusswords, not cusswords in general. The history of the English language is a particularly interesting one, and the etymological origins of English words are particularly diverse. According to some surveys of dictionaries, English words break down to about:
>Latin (including words used only in scientific / medical / legal contexts) ≈29%
While in common speech, Germanic words make up a higher proportion of our vocabulary, if we looked at the dictionaries of other languages, we’d see much less diversity. Most words in French dictionaries come from Old French, most words in German dictionaries come from Old German, and so forth. The Angles and the Saxons were German, so English’s roots are German, so where did the rest of these things come from? Greek and Latin give us a wide variety of technical words. Automobile, for instance is an invented word combining the Greek autos “self” and the French mobile “moving,” from Latin mobilis “movable”. Greek and Latin gives us many of our technical neologisms, but little of our vulgar language.
Most of English’s French vocabulary come after the Norman invasion (1066 is the standard dividing line between Old English and Middle English) which created a situation with a lot of bilingual people in England who naturally began peppering their English with French words. These words were generally fancy words, that might exist along side their less fancy country-kin. These words filtered out into the mono-lingual population and become part of the standard English vocabulary. Our modern English word for “cow” is nearly identical to the modern German Kuh, whereas our word for “beef” is nearly identical to the modern French bœuf. Why? The peasant dealt with cow, the lord dealt with the beef. You see the same redoubling all over English: we have the gutteral Anglo-Saxon mono-syllables “stop” and “halt” (cf. contemporary German stoppen and halten) and the much fancier French-Latinate “cease” (cf. contemporary French cesser). We have the Anglo-Saxon “thinking” or “mindful” vs. the French “pensive”. We have the Anglo-Saxon “sweat” and the French “perspire”, and so forth (as one last example, we have the Germanic “and so on”, “and so forth” vs. the Latinate “etc.”) . You can find lists of comparisons online–here’s a basic one, here’s a more detailed one (scroll down, this starts with Norse borrowings into English).
So where does that leave swear words? Well, we say “Pardon my French” when we prepare to swear, but perhaps more accurately we should say “Pardon my Anglo-Saxon”. The words fuck, shit, ass, and whore, for instance, are immediately recognizable as relatives of their modern German cousins: “ficken”, “Scheiße”, “Arsch”, “Hure”. Unsurprising, the swear words we use today come from the lower status Anglo-Saxon, not the higher status Norman French. When we want to speak more delicately, we use French-Latinate words like “copulate”, “defecate”, “derriere”, or “prostitute” (though those did not all original refer delicately to obscene things; for instance, defecate only meant “to poop” from the mid-19th century on, which only goes to show the lingering differences we still see between harsh and rude Anglo-Saxon words and their refined and dainty French-Latinate equivalents).
Most other swear words have come to their current meanings relatively recently, though like “defecate” above, they long existed and only gradually acquired their prurient connotations. Most of these words, however, still have clear Anglo-Saxon roots. Crap, for instance, originally meant “chaff” or “dregs”, and was only applied to meaning “feces” or “to defecate” by extension later on–the first references to this meaning we have come from the end of 19th century. So “crap” meaning “something to be discarded” predates the more specific meaning of “excrement”. Feces (British “faeces”), crap’s Latinate cousin, actually follows a similar trajectory, though it meant “waste matter that is discharged from the bowels” at a much earlier point (the 17th century).
Bitch is of more uncertain origin. Etymonline writes:
>Old English bicce “female dog,” probably from Old Norse bikkjuna “female of the dog” (also fox, wolf, and occasionally other beasts), of unknown origin. Grimm derives the Old Norse word from Lapp pittja, but OED notes that “the converse is equally possible.” As a term of contempt applied to women, it dates from c.1400; of a man, c.1500, playfully, in the sense of “dog.” Used among male homosexuals from 1930s. In modern (1990s, originally black English) slang, its use with reference to a man is sexually contemptuous, from the “woman” insult.
It was always negative (the second citation the Oxford English Dictionary gives is “Come out thou hungry nedy bytche” from 1575), but it wasn’t always vulgar. OED notes, “Not now in decent use; but formerly common in literature.” Son of a bitch also has quite a long history, there’s an ambiguous usage from 1330 (“Abide þou þef malicious! Biche-sone þou drawest amis Þou schalt abigge it ywis!”), but the next similar usage we have is centuries later in King Lear, ” One that..art nothing but the composition of a knave, begger, coward, pander, and the sonne and heire of a mungrell bitch“. “Son of a bitch” takes the more conventional form, indicating that it is becoming a standardized expression, from 1707 onward. When exactly it became a vulgar term is not exactly clear from the literature, though likely around or slightly before this period.
Cunt is even more of a mystery. Its roots are clearly Germanic, and it’s similarly unclear when precisely “cunt” began to be considered as a vulgar word. It’s unclear whether the earliest usages, geographical usage like “Gropecuntelane” (1230) and personal names like “Godewin Clawecuncte” (1066), are related in some way to women or genitals, or whether they come from an unrelated Norse word, possibly some form of topological feature. Etymonline has a nice little piece on its origins here, though the Oxford English Dictionary‘s piece (behind a paywall) is considerably longer and with more detail. It appears to have only become a particularly vulgar word around the 18th century, though it appeared in print dating back to the 13th with references to sex from at least 1325 (“Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig, And crave affetir wedding.”). And early particularly clear example is from the Medulla Grammatice of 1425, a gloss explaining newish French-Latinate words that were making their way into Middle English with their more conventional Anglo-Saxon synonyms, includes an entry:
> Vulua, a count or a wombe. [note: “vulua” is an old form of “vulva”, obviously]
Whatever its exact origins, it has a long history in English (similar forms are attested in other Germanic languages), though it appears to have long been the conventional word for female genitalia, rather than the particularly crass one it has became. OED notes, “Although it does not seem to have been considered inherently obscene or offensive in the medieval period, as suggested by its use in names and in medical treatises of the time, it is now normally considered the strongest swear word in English. Until relatively recently it appeared only rarely in print, and there are a number of euphemistic substitutions for it; until the late 20th cent., written uses are typically in private sources or texts which were privately printed, especially on the mainland of Europe.” It was printed with dashes in some but not all of the great 18th century dictionaries, though references to “cunny” and “coney” suggest it may been considered obscene even in the the 16th.
Dick was rhyming nickname for Rick (short for Richard). Since Richard was long one of the most common English first names names, by the 1550’s it had the meaning synonym for “fellow, lad, man”. Dick wasn’t only name to mean “man”, compare it to “jack”, as in “a jack of all trades”. OED‘s first example of “dick” meaning “penis” dates only to the 19th century, an obvious extension of the meaning of “man”, possibly under the influence of a type of riding whip also called a “dick” in slang (though there’s no evidence of that). It’s interesting to note the first use of dick as slang for “detective” is recorded only a few years later after the first recorded use of dick for “penis”.
Cock obviously once meant “rooster” exclusively, as in “the cock of the walk”. It was applied to first names as a diminutive (“Wilcox”, “Hitchcock”). It has been used to refer to penises since at least 1618, possibly under influence of the usage of “cock” to mean “a tap” (cf. “stop-cock”) in addition to the meaning of rooster. OED also notes that in German, the word for “rooster” “Hahn” or its diminutive “Hähnchen” also have long of histories meaning “penis”, indicating that this may be an older association. Just for fun, the first recorded usage of cock to mean penis is a punning line in a poem called “Amends for Ladies”: “Oh man what art thou? when thy cock is vp?” (get it? lol).
Of the common swear words, just one more comes to my mind: pussy. Puss has been a “conventional proper or pet name for a cat, freq. (sometimes reduplicated) used as a call to attract its attention” since at least the 16th century. While there are no recorded Old English uses of the term, it appears about the same time recorded in Middle Dutch and there are multiple cognates in other Indo-European languages, such as “Lithuanian puižė, familiar name for a cat, puž, puiž, call to attract a cat, Irish puisín, (with diminutive suffix) pussy cat, (regional) puis puis, call to attract a cat”, meaning it probably just comes from the long standing practice of attracting a cat. However, there is an older Germanic meaning in words like the old Norse puss meaning “pocket, pouch” and the Low German puse meaning vulva which indicate there may be separate Germanic root that converged with the cat associations. Anyway, from the cat-meaning, a woman has been called a “pussy” or a “puss” since the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s unclear when exactly the first reference to “puss” or “pussy” as vagina began, as many of the first uses are ambiguous, though likely in the 17th century. The usage meaning an effeminate male dates only to the early 20th century.
tl;dr English swear words either been with us for as long as long as English existed as a language, or they started out having other meanings and then got applied to genitals or feces and therefore took on vulgar connotations.
As a bonus, there’s a whole variety of cuss words that simply are no longer vulgar referring to religious objects. The British usage of “bloody” is one of the last surviving of these, but anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that there were many more like “zounds!”, from “[God or Christ]’s wounds”, that used to make up a class of swear words that just are no longer vulgar in English. Quebec use “sacres” (from the same root as “sacred”), and carry forward a rich tradition of swearing based on holy objects (ostie, sacred host, tabarnak, tabernacle, etc.) rather than focusing on genitals, sexual acts (including questions of illegitimate birth), and excrements. Read more about it here. Of other English swear words, perhaps I should add damn and hell in this religious category. Damn is perhaps our only French-Latinate swear word, from the Old French damner “damn, condemn, convict,” which derives from the Latin damnare “to adjudge guilty; to doom” from noun damnum “damage, loss, penalty”. It was in wide use as a profane interjection by the 17th century, when one character asks another whether theywanted to “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?” In 1762, we see that someone would say, “Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut,” indicating that damn was in use as a noun as well as an interjection. Etymonline notes, “Damn and its derivatives generally were avoided in print from 18c. to c.1930s (the famous line in the film version of “Gone with the Wind” was a breakthrough and required much effort by the studio)”. The religious uses of damn (“sinners damned to hell”) of course continued to printed regularly.
Hell is a very old word. It shares its roots with Germanic terms for the resting place of the dead (cf. German Hölle, Swedish Helvete, and Icelandic Helvíti [víti means “penalty”]). While the pagan Germanic beliefs about the dead differed from those of Christians, it became the standard translation for the Latin concepts (“in infernum” is glossed in several of the oldest Old English texts as “in helle”). It was also used a reference, again in the oldest English texts, to places of suffering here on earth, which could be an extension of either the Christian or pre-Christian meaning of hell. Interestingly, the first use we have “hell” as an obscene interjection only comes from the 19th century, though “go to hell” is a bit older. Shakespeare writes “Let Fortune goe to hell for it, not I” in the Merchant of Venice and the next usages that OED cites are both bowlderized, “Go to h—ll, if you be please” (1788) and “Gentlemen, you may go to H—ll” (1816), indicating that this usage was definitely seen as vulgar by the late 18th century. My favorite usage, though, is from 1602, where we already see someone proudly declaring “The hell thou wilt. What, turn law into verse?” The first sentence almost sounds as if someone is simply archaicizing contemporary speech. Almost as amusing as “The hell though wilt!”, in 1680 we get “Old Nick, I am sure, would not be a Whore, It’s grown such a Hell of a calling” [Old Nick is a euphemistic name for the devil]. You can, however, see the religious origins in these “swear” words when we actually see people swearing by things, as in where Dryden writes, “By Hell she sings ’em back, in my despight [sic]” (1691). The first use of “got drunk as all hell” is from a sea shanty recorded 1768-70, with “how the hell” being also first recorded in that same period (1785).
So, many English swear words are quite old and may were used in the past in ways that are surprisingly similar to how I use them today. Others, considering their utility, are surprisingly recent. Motherfucker, apparently, is a novelty of the 20th century, with the first record of it being in a letter from World War I, “You low-down Mother Fuckers can put a gun in our hands but who is able to take it out?”. As a side note, you may be happy to know that the fourth quotation for the verb “motherfuck” in the venerable OED is Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”. Fucking as an intensifier is similarly recent, only being attested from the 19th century:
>The Woman writhed under each stroke, and cried, ‘O Lord!’.. The Doctor..thus addressed her (the congregation must pardon me for repeating his words.) ‘Hush, you * b—h, will you take the name of the Lord in Vain on the Sabbath day?’
The extension of this sense of fucking used as infix is even more recent, only dating to the early 20th century. It’s all pretty unfuckingbelievable if you ask me.