Musings on Swearing and Vulgar Language


(Warning: I swear in this post… frequently. You can’t write about swearing without actually swearing a bit. Or a lot. Easily offended folks might want to look elsewhere.)

I find myself swearing more often these days than I ever did in the past, at least at home (not at my wife, of course). I’m not sure whether that’s a condition of my age, or the result of decades of experience that has left me with a weary recognition that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and I am simply expressing myself rather freely about its deterioration. And I express myself with greater frequency every day.

After decades of caring and arguing passionately about issues, events, governance, community, history, science, language, baking bread, ukuleles, tequila, writing, and politics, you might think I should, as the song above goes, have no more fucks left to give. And that’s somewhat true about many things, but not about everything. I still have a few fucks left in the closet that I can drag out.

I am not prudish about swearing, but before I reached this stage of my dotage, I was never one to swear casually. Or at least not very often. I always felt that swearing had a place and time when it was most effective, best voiced for maximum impact. But now when I listen to the news or read a newspaper, whether it be international, national, or local, I find myself swearing rather a lot. The apparent, accelerating stupidity of our society doesn’t encourage moderation in language. “Another anti-mask/anti-vaxxer protest? Are you fucking kidding me? Where are the fucking police? Why aren’t these assholes in jail?”

(Or, as entertainingly put in a recent article on McSweeny’s: “Oh My Fucking God, Get the Fucking Vaccine Already, You Fucking Fucks.“)

Pretty much everything our local council does makes me scratch my head and mutter, “What the fuck were they smoking?” Not, of course, what were they thinking, because that’s apparently not something done with any vigour at the council table. Council news almost always evokes a WTF ejaculation from me every story I read. Years ago, that might have been a harmless, “What the hell?” I have moved on from mild euphemisms like “What in tarnation have they done now?” to more expressive terms (I also express exasperation and disappointment when commenting on the flaccid quality of local media stories). Perhaps being isolated during the pandemic has also had a deleterious effect on my use of language.

Every day I drive in this town, I mutter, “Look at the fucking traffic!” Well, maybe I scream it aloud in my car (especially when I’m on or trying to turn onto First or High Street). And then I add some colourful invectives about how our inept council has failed to do anything about the increasing traffic problems that get worse every week. Swearing about council’s ineffectiveness is a widespread local hobby, and as potent for getting them off their collective asses to actually do something useful as thoughts and prayers are at assuaging America’s gun violence (don’t get me started on that fucking topic!).

I find I say “fuck” or one of its forms rather more often than other curse words, although shit and its concatenations come a close second (bullshit comes readily to my lips when reading council news)/ My usage of the other classic swear words remains minimal, perhaps because some still strike me as redundant or simply egregious.

Swearing is complicated and fascinating. Curse words are generally divided into two categories: religious (profanity and blasphemy) and those related to body parts and functions (waste elimination gives us many scatological terms). These are also the same two major themes in comedy and the same words you can anger people with can also make them laugh in another context. For example:

Swearing has become detached from the actual words: the emotional meaning separated from the description. The dictionary definition of the words themselves doesn’t generally apply to the swearing. When you tell someone to fuck off, you don’t intend for them to go somewhere and copulate. When you call them an asshole, you are not actually referring to their rectum. When you hit your thumb with a hammer and shout “Jesus!” you’re not actually calling on the Sky God to come down and kiss it better. You don’t really mean that person you called a “little shit” is actually a small coil of feces. Swearing is its own context, full of metaphor and synecdoche.

(This is part of the story in Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language by Ruth Wajnryb, Free Press, 2005. It’s an excellent book on the hows and whys of swearing by a witty linguist.)

Why and how we swear — culturally and generally, not me specifically — is actually quite an interesting topic for those of us interested in language (I have a lifelong passion for words and language). But it’s been poorly documented over the ages, and only recently been the topic of study.

It seems every culture swears, although the terms and topics differ, and often change over time. English is chock-a-block with old curses and swearing that are no longer in use, but can be dragged out for some entertainment when you want to say something nasty without directly offending anyone. Swyve (or swive), for example, was the coarse word for copulation in Old and Middle English, but it gradually got replaced with fuck (whose etymology derives from the Germanic fukken, not from any acronym). “Swyve-off, you swyving swyver!” That’ll get people scratching their heads.

Why, too, I have to wonder, are words about female genitalia and female sexuality considered more offensive than those about males. Female organs and sexuality apparently threaten male dominance, so they get insulted and mocked by males. Look at the insulting words used for female prostitutes compared to those for males in the same profession (some of whom are even idolized with terms like gigolo). Harlot, for example, began as a term for a good-for-nothing man, and migrated over to a term of abuse for a wanton woman. There’s no equivalent term for a wanton (“scarlet”) man I can find.

Blasphemy is about disrespecting religion and what religion considers sacred (also called sacrilege). Originally the term profanity was also about religious issues (profane comes from the Latin meaning “outside the temple”). Nowadays it refers to pretty much everything obscene, vulgar (also from the Latin meaning the “common people”), racist, sexual, religious, and sometimes things people just don’t like or agree with.

Being a non-believer, to religious people I suppose I blaspheme by my very existence. While I seldom feel the need to express it in words, as an ardent supporter of the absolute separation of church and state, I will admit to ridiculing the Talibangelists and other religious extremists on social media, especially those who engage in political action (like when they recently passed oppressive, anti-abortion laws in Texas).

Whether you swear a little or a lot, whether you use abusive, coarse language or mild euphemisms, you do it, too. It’s how we respond to some things or events, how we let off steam, how we express strong emotions like annoyance, amazement, joy, fear, or surprise. In part, it’s an automatic response. And sometimes it’s remarkably creative.

The shock value of swearing diminishes with every hearing or reading. The literary world went ballistic over the language in Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960s, but by 2000, none of those same words shocked anyone watching The Sopranos on TV. (Penguin Books was actually taken to court, charged with obscenity for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s novel in 1960).

Then there are all those suggestive words, that aren’t actually dirty or swearable, but can be depending on context, and are used to great effect in comedy. You can use cock safely when talking about farm fowl, blow when talking about balloons, ass when talking about certain barnyard quadrupeds, suck when talking about vacuum cleaners, breast when talking about a piece of chicken or turkey meat, semen when talking about fertilization, balls about golf or tennis, nuts about squirrels, and tits when talking about small migratory birds. But unless safely ensconced in context, they may produce a giggle or a nudge-nudge-wink-wink (innuendo can be very entertaining).

And why are some words unsuitable for media or publication? We have this vague line of propriety that separates vulgar from merely impolite (aka “dirty”), yet we frequently refrain from using the latter words in conversation or most media as if they were obscene.

Why, for example, is “fart” considered vulgar or impolite? After all, it’s as natural as its counterpart, a burp. It’s as natural as a sneeze, cough, or a hiccup, but we don’t shy from describing them. We often say chest when we mean breast, and get all giggly when it’s plural: breasts. “Breasts” seems almost a clinical description compared to their many euphemisms: tits, jugs, knockers, hooters, melons, boobs, bongos, etc. A nipple is a natural feature on all mammals, but saying it (or describing one) can provoke smirks and snickers. At least among the young.

Fart jokes always get a laugh (think of Mel Brook’s film, Blazing Saddles and whoopie cushions). Farting comes from the Old English verb feortan which became the Middle English ferten and farten, and the nouns fert and by the late 14th century it shows up as fart. The word has a good, solid genealogy. I also remember when I was in grade 7 or 8, reading a Greek play that had the line, “Louder than Zeus I’ll fart under my blankets” (Cyclops, by Euripides, I believe). Aristophanes’ play The Birds has 42 references to farting. I giggled over those plays.

Since the Greeks, we have become all prudish about talking about farts and farting, and have developed a cornucopia of euphemisms (more than 300 according to this site) to describe flatulence, including cut the cheese, break wind, pass gas, bottom burp, toot, shoot a fairy, rip one, pollute the air, benchwarmer, anal applause, and many more, all to avoid saying the word fart (when I was in hospital for my surgery last year, the doctors and nurses kept asking me if I had flatus or flatulence because passing wind was a good sign after prostate surgery. No one asked me if I could just fart.).

I digress somewhat, but it’s bemusing that we develop euphemisms for vulgar or obscene words which themselves are euphemisms for something else. It’s like saying what you mean by not saying what you mean. Yet everyone knows exactly what they all mean. It’s not like the listener doesn’t know you mean fuck when you say bonk, tupp or screw and that all of them mean fornication. But fuck has more uses than mere sex. Like shit, it can be used as a verb, noun, adjective, exclamation and, although clumsily, as an adverb. Most swear words are not as versatile and exist as a simple noun or sometimes an adjective (try using asshole as a verb, for example). But not all euphemisms can be used effectively as verbal exchanges. You can tell someone to screw themselves, but saying “Bonk yourself” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Back several years before we moved here, we had neighbours from Newfoundland who swore constantly. I felt they diluted the power of swearing, made it impotent to express strong emotions by doing it so often. I was never sure if they were angry or just normal when they said something like, “It be a fucking nice day, eh, boy?” “You be goin’ to the fuckin’ store today, eh boy?” You’ll note that none of those uses can be substituted with screw, bonk, tupp, or any other alternative.

Back then, I primly saved up my carefully calibrated list of naughty words to use depending on the scale of the event or the irritation I felt. I had a fully-stocked register of terms that ran from bloody, bugger, and damn at its mildest to the torridity of shit and fuck and their conflations like bullshit and motherfucker. I also had a ready-to-mouth collection of alternatives like geez, shoot, fudge, and “you so-and-so” to use in the company of children, relatives, and employers. Holy mackerel, I said as I hit my thumb with the hammer in front of my grandparents.

I don’t know where, when, or how this vocabulary of abuse entered mine. I can’t recall my parents or grandparents ever swearing. Not once in my life did I hear them utter anything even among what I considered mild and somewhat quaint. I remember being around eight years old and using at home the word “bloody” that I had likely heard among schoolmates (described in the 1887 OED as a “horrid” word). That earned me a whack about the ears from my father and I never said it again in my family’s presence. I thought I was all grown up when I learned to utter “damn” under my breath, but, of course, not within the earshot of my parents. But in the 1950s and ’60s, there was still a myth that certain words had a lower-class stigma and that cultured people were above using them. Poppycock, of course (the “cock” part of that word comes from the Dutch “pappekak” — “kak” means shit, or more politely dung, not a reference to a penis).

I suppose I learned to swear as we all do: by osmosis. I absorbed the words from others. Given all the time we spend teaching and studying language, it’s surprising we don’t dedicate at least a class or two to swearing and have some dictionaries dedicated to the words. But even without the heft of academia behind them, people are marvellously inventive when it comes to swearing, especially in crafting those portmanteau words and phrases that mix swearing and common words. Tre-fucking-mendous! Abso-fucking-lutely!

I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I’ve used the wonderful little “fuckwit” a lot of late, especially when referring to local politicians. Somehow, no other word seems to fit as well (dumbfucks and dipshits are overused). And since I call their insipid comments and vapid ideas “twaddle” should I now refer to them as “fucktwaddle”? I digress again.

I remember as a youngster sneaking a peek through the library’s dictionaries looking for swear words, and being disappointed they were missing. By the time they appeared in print, they no longer had the power to titillate me. And titillate has nothing to do with tits (aka breasts): it’s from the Latin for “to tickle.” (By the way, the spellchecker in MS Word and Grammarly won’t highlight swear words as errors, but won’t offer them as suggestions if you misspell them, either.)

I wasn’t surprised to find that most dictionaries didn’t even include the common swear words (there’s a “dirty dozen” list in Wajnryb’s book, and George Carlin did a delightful monologue on the “seven words you can’t say on TV.”) until the 1960s (the early ’70s for the OED), and even today many are omitted. (Samuel Johnson didn’t include them in his 1755 dictionary, either). Some publications try to turn them into cryptograms like f**k and c**t (plus constructs like “the F-word” and the “C-word”). Not that that fooled anyone.

Cunt, possibly the angriest of the lot (the subject of the whole of chapter 6 in Wajnryb’s book), was first printed in the 1965 Penguin English Dictionary but omitted from the OED until many years later. Cunt itself probably comes from older English: queynte (used by Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale), which by the 18th century had morphed into quim and quiff. “You swyving quim” just doesn’t seem as angry, does it? Some lexicographers give the Latin “cunnus” (vulva) or “cuneus” (wedge) as the word’s origin.

(You might at this point recall the Monty Python skit where Eric Idle can’t say the letter “c” and replaces it with a “b”… the Pythons rarely swore in their televised skits, and when they did it was always for maximum effect. In live performances they swore more often.)

The definitions of those included words in dictionaries still seem rather fusty and stilted, as if the editors were forced to concede their existence, but still resisted a fulsome explanation.

I found a bland definition of “fuck” in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (OED; 3rd edn., 2002, p. 405), another in the Concise OED (8th end., 1990, p. 475), but in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (1998, p. 562), it also included fuck-all, fuckhead, fucking, and fuck-up. Seems we Canadians have a way with words. The Dictionary of Historical Slang (by Eric Partridge, ed, by Jacqueline Simpson, Penguin, 1972, p. 535) includes 23 different variations including fuckable, fuckish, fucksome, fuckster, fuckstress, fuck-beggar, fuck-pig, and fuck-finger. I may add a few of these to my vocabulary (along with a few other terms in the book) for future use.

Although I admit I swear more often these days, I still feel some umbrage when I hear it being over-used (I feel similarly when I hear younger folk insert “like” into every sentence, often several times). Maybe I still have a residue of that language-is-class-so-be-gentile-and-don’t-say-shit upbringing after all.

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Ian Chadwick
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  1. Anonymous

    Shit is interesting in that it can be negative, positive, or even neutral. Good shit, the shit’s happening, shit-hot, take a shit, do bears shit in the woods, scared shitless, holy shit, I know my shit, shitty day, we’re going to drive the shit out of this car, get your shit together… all forms that the word fuck cannot aspire to.

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