A Brief History of Swearing
A new book takes readers on an obscene journey exploring foul language through the ages.
We’ve all been told that there are certain words we are to avoid while holding polite conversation. A common rule of thumb is to avoid offending anyone with foul language.
But what gives certain words this power to shock and offend? Why do people swear in the first place? From where do “bad words” originate, and how have they evolved throughout the ages?
Milwaukee native Melissa Mohr discusses the nature of curse words in her new book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.
According to Mohr, the act of swearing can be both an emotionally and physiologically cathartic process - “We seem to need these words that release our emotions,” she says.
But what determines the words our society categorizes as too taboo to say? Mohr says swearing “reflects our cultural obsessions,” so whatever topic is considered obscene or problematic in our culture can be implicated in the curse words we use.
These “cultural obsessions” have shifted throughout the ages, and swear words have followed suit. Courtesy of Mohr’s exciting research, here is a truncated timeline of swearing. (Warning: This historically foul language may offend some readers.)
- Ancient Rome (8th Century B.C.-Early A.D.)
Swear of the Day: verpa (n) – an erect or circumcised penis.
Mohr says the ancient Romans “divided people into what you might call ‘active’ and ‘passive.’ And what was stigmatized in the culture was passivity, and so all their swear words reflect disdain for people who receive sexual advances.”
- Biblical Times
Did You Know?: The Bible sanctions certain kinds of swearing.
Most people have heard the reprimand, “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.” This might involve cursing with a reference to God or taking an oath in bad faith. But did you know that certain types of swearing are Bible-sanctioned? Mohr says “there’s a lot in the Bible about how you should swear [and] how you shouldn’t swear.” Swearing “proper” oaths, as God often does in the Bible, can be considered good and is even commanded at various times. In practice, users must swear by God or a part of God (his “holiness,” “name,” or even “arm.”)
- The Middle Ages (5th-15th Centuries)
Swear of the Day - By God’s bones!
The Middle Ages witnessed the continuation of biblical swearing and the proliferation of its misuse. “There were many more religious taboos, and so the really worst words you could say to someone were, ‘By God’s bones!’” Mohr says. She notes that other types of cursing, like referencing sex or excrement, “were not powerful in the Middle Ages because . . . they did in public a lot of the things that we do privately and are ashamed of.” When bodily functions are out in the open, society doesn’t need taboo words for them.
- The Renaissance (14th-17th Centuries)
Introducing: Potty humor!
As privacy increased, words that had been acceptable to use in the Middle Ages became taboo. Enter the development of sexual and excremental curses. The “s-word” had its heyday of obscene impact during the Renaissance.
- Victorian Era (18th & 19th Centuries)
Word of the Day: ineffables (pl. n) – a euphemism for euphemisms.
Victorians were prim, proper, and most of all, prudish. During this era, cursing grew in power and shrank in practice. Mohr says “you couldn’t say ‘trousers’ because that might lead you to remember that people had bodies, and goodness gracious, where you could go from there!”
- Modern-Day Cursing
Why we swear now: To relieve pain and frustration.
The use of what we consider today’s “curse words” became more culturally acceptable after soldiers returning from modern warfare began to use these powerful words outside the battlefield. Mohr says some words, like the “f-word,” are considered “more of a joke” in modern times - “It’s still a ‘bad word’ but you can joke about it, you can use it with your friends.” That being said, Mohr notes that this cultural acceptance “changes with age . . . for older people, even the title of my book can be really offensive.” Today, the most egregious cultural taboo is the use of racial slurs.
For a funny anecdote about children's use of foul language, listen to the audio clip below.