The Making of the F-Bomb: Why Do We Curse?
It's a middle school rite of passage: Sneaking over to the dictionary in the school library, flipping to the "F" words, and finding out if it's really there....
The history of swear words -- blasphemies, invectives, expletives -- is actually a relatively broad field of study in etymology and linguistics. Every language has its taboo words and phrases. But because of their very forbidden nature, tracking the origin of these terms through time can take some serious sleuthing. The English language boasts an impressive array of evocative and versatile profanities. So exactly how and when did swearing begin?
It's entirely possible, according to one school of thought, that human language itself began with swear words. Melissa Mohr. author of the recently released "Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing," says some linguists think swearing goes all the way back to the days of the caveman.
"There's a sort of Victorian theory that the very first words were swear words," Mohr says. "The idea is that swearing is very emotional and are used when we're feeling emotional. That's when we use swear words. So that the first cries of pain kind of gradually developed into words and that's the basic of language itself.
"I don't think that's necessarily true -- but who knows? Maybe it's true. But I wouldn't swear that it's true."
In any case, the first instances of swearing in the written record go back almost as far as writing itself. "There's very clear evidence of swear words in ancient Latin," Mohr says. "Depending on how far back you go, that's 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. And there's the idea of blasphemy in the Bible, so that can go back to before Rome."
The very oldest conceptions of what we might today call swearing are usually religious in nature. "In the Bible, it's the idea of swearing by God and vain swearing, using God's name in vain," Mohr says. "That kind of swearing is older than obscene swearing -- the sexual and excremental obscenities. Or more recently, the racial slurs."
In the earliest writings of the English language, swear words as we think of them today -- colloquial language in everyday conversation -- are harder to find. That's because such writings were formal religious or literary texts, says Larry Mitchell, linguist and professor of English with Texas A&M University.
"I used to teach old English, the language of Beowulf, and there isn't much there at all that we could say is swearing of any sort," Mitchell says. "We have about 3 million words that survived from Old English, but we just don't have enough of the language of the common people to be able to say if there was or wasn't (swearing). Although it's hard to believe there wasn't."
In the various dialects of Middle English, from around the late 12th to the late 15th century, recognizable instances of swearing can be found all over the place. "In Middle English, you find a word like 'swive,'" Mitchell says. "You''ll find this if you read Chaucer. The problem, of course, is context -- how words and phrases were used in earlier times isn't always clear. We don't have recordings of people talking naturally. It's very difficult to compare periods in terms of bad language or swear words or curse words."
Aside from popular invective like "swive" (to fornicate), most taboo language was still religiously affiliated. "In earlier times, most of the so-called bad language was in some sense related to religion, because that was a much more important part of our lives then," Mitchell says. "So something like 'zwounds' or 'zounds,' for example, which comes from the phrase 'God's wounds.' Or 'God's bones' was another."
Even the earliest word scholars were, by nature, given to taxonomy and classification. In the 17th and 18th centuries, dictionaries of slang, invective and other impolite terms began popping up. Probably the most famous, Mitchell says, is Francis Grose's 1785 book, "Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," later published in a paperback edition called "Lexicon Balatronicum."
In 1673, an author by the name of Richard Head published a guide called "The Canting Academy, or, The Devil's Cabinet Opened" -- a rather tongue-in-cheek dictionary of underworld terminology. The full title of the book is worth lingering over: "The Canting Academy, Or, The Devil's Cabinet Opened: Wherein is Shewn the Mysterious and Villainous Practices of that Wicked Crew, Commonly Known by the Names of Hectors, Trapanners, Gilts, Etc., to which is Added a Compleat Canting-dictionary, Both of Old Words, and Such as are Now Most in Use, with Several New Catches and Songs, Compos'd by the Choicest Wits of the Age, a Book Very Useful and Necessary to be Read by All Sorts of People."
As the English language has expanded in a million directions, so has the concept of swearing. Robert A. Leonard, professor of forensic linguistics at Hofstra University, says that the most "successful" swear words tend to be the most versatile -- the ones we use in all sorts of situations, regardless of their literal meaning.
"We have curse words center on three main areas," Leonard says. "Sex; death and religion; and effluvia, let's call it. So what are the most iconic curse words in English? You can fill in the blanks for all three. The prototypical curse words have the largest gap between their literal meaning and their situational meaning."
In her research, Mohr said she simplified the divide into two classifications, religious and vulgar, which is reflected in the title of her book. "You can argue forever over what's an invective, what's a curse. But basically, if you look at it historically, they boil down into these two terms that are in my book, the holy and the sh-t."
Which brings us to the grandaddy of English swear words -- the glorious F bomb -- which can be successfully deployed as noun, verb, interjection, adjective, adverb and gerund. Our most accommodating swear word is generally accepted to have roots in various Germanic words meaning to hit or to strike. "We pretty much know where the word came from," Leonard says. "There's no mystery there."
But in its earlier incarnations, the word wasn't obscene at all. How it became the mightiest and most versatile swear word in the English language? As with so many things in this world, we must thank the noble Scotsman.
"It pops up (as a swear word) suddenly at the end of the 15th century, mostly in Scotland," Mohr says. "You see it a lot in Scotland because there was this genre of poetry called "flyting," where these poets would compete to insult each other. It appears in all these wonderful insulting poems: "Weakly f---ed up foundling that nature made a dwarf!"
Many world travelers have noted a curious phenomenon: In non-English-speaking countries, English swear words are apparently quite popular indeed. Is this a modern phenomenon; a consequence of America's high-volume exportation of pop culture and movies? Or do we just have the best swear words?
Probably neither, say the experts. While American cultural hegemony has certainly helped disseminate certain terms, swearing in another language is a much older custom. "In some places they really use insults more than swear words, as such," Mitchell says. "They might say something about your mother, or your masculinity."
Swearing in another language can be useful when you want to swear about something, but don't want to bring out the really heavy artillery from your own language. "I think people do it more to lessen the effect," Mohr says. "Swearing in your non-native language doesn't mean as much as swearing in your native language. It's almost a politeness issue."