- The f-word has 15th-century Germanic origins.
- Curse words have been used for centuries, maybe more.
- The words' taboo status lends them their power.
This week's historic health-care vote evoked strong reactions, including from the vice president of the United States. "This is a big f-ing deal," Joe Biden whispered to Barack Obama, as the men shook hands in front of a cheering crowd and an open mic.
Biden's remark was intended for Obama's ears only, but that nearby microphone broadcast his profanity to the world. Now, as blogs buzz about whether the comment was inappropriate or uncivil, language experts say that the slip is simply another example of how normal it is to swear in everyday speech.
In fact, while the specific words we consider vulgar have changed over time, curse words have been around for hundreds of years, maybe more. Words like the f-bomb are powerful because they do a particularly good job of expressing strong feelings.
"'Big f-ing deal' is a perfectly reasonable thing to say when you're talking to a friend about something that was a big f-ing deal," said Geoff Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information. "It's emphatic and has an intensity of emotion. To say 'This was certainly a big deal,' or, 'This was an awfully big deal,' does not convey that emotion."