The Etymology of Swearing

A little while ago we wrote about the Science of Swearing.  But we’re also interested in the etymology of swearing – that’s the origins of the words.  One thing we’re really interested in is the way the meanings and use change over time.  It’s all very studious round here you know.  Even during the summer holidays!

In our earlier article we said that swear words in every language fell into one of three categories. They are either about body functions or sex, or connected to religion.  But it’s not quite that simple.  At least, not historically.  There’s profanities (swearing or oaths) and there’s obscenities.  What’s the difference?

Profane? Obscene? It’s all Swearing.

Well, to be profane, is to be unholy.  So, a profanity is “taking the Lord’s name in vain”.  Jeez, Oh Lord! Hell!, Jesus Christ! For Gods sake!  All profanities.  And very very sinful they are too!  Then there’s the obscenities.  That’s the bodily functions stuff – bloody, shit etc.  And the sex – don’t forget the sex! – and genitalia.  And OMG (profanity) is there a shitload (obscenity) of that!   By the turn of the 20th Century, the two started to be pretty much lumped together as “swearing”.


What does it all mean?

The meanings of swear words get blurred when they get used as swearwords.  “Fuck” is an obvious example.   As an expletive, it really doesn’t mean “have sexual intercourse”.  We might sometimes use it in it’s literal sense, but mostly it’s the taboo that counts.  It emphasises bad.  Or sometimes good.  Or even indifference (“I don’t give a fuck”).  It also gets bunged in (sorry …) to sentences to mean whatever the (fuck) we want it to.  It’s original meaning is completely lost, once it’s used as a swear word. The important thing is that it’s an expletive.

The same goes for lots of obscenities.  When we call someone a cunt, we don’t actually mean they are a vagina.  Nor is “bugger the bills” a demand to have anal sex with your debts, however tempting that may be….

The Lost Words

What’s a real shame, is just how narrow our swearing vocabulary has got.   Lost in the annuls of time are chinkstopper, plugtail, fartleberries, lobcock, and huffle.  We’ll bring you more of that, if you can take it, next week.  Though top marks to you if you not only already know their meanings, but get them into everyday speech!

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