literary post of the week, Writing

History of Profanity

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks now. At first, it hit me that all the terms: cursing, swearing, profanity, are somehow deficient. Cursing, in the sense of wishing someone harm, or damning them to hell, and the like, has become pretty mainstream in the 21st century.  There are still people who do not like it, but most people are more comfortable saying “damn” than the notorious f-word.  My husband has an Irish friend who would easily say that it was “pissing down rain,” but would never in his life say “goddamn.” My Irish-American father would never say either, at least in my hearing. In stark contrast, during the Hundred Years War, the French called the English soldiers “goddams,” because they heard it so often from them.

Swearing also does not mean “bad” words, but swearing oaths as we do when we testify at a trial or join the army or get married. Swearing is in the background of expressions like the British “bloody,” which began as “sblood,” from swearing oaths on “God’s blood,” or “swounds,” on “God’s wounds.” “Swounds“ is now only seen now in centuries-old novels set in earlier centuries yet. To my knowledge, only a small number of religious sects, like the Amish, refuse to swear any oaths, no matter what the circumstances. It seems that swearing is pretty normal for most 21st century people as well.

Profanity is an interesting term.  It comes from the philosophical split of the sacred and the profane, the holy and the human. To profane something is to make something which is holy into something human, to bring sacred things to the level of human existence, the normal, the everyday. In the twentieth century, Canadian French had the only “bad” words that were truly profanity, in that they were religious terms used in instances of anger or frustration. “Hostie” and “tabernacle” are the words for the Roman Catholic Eucharist wafer and the large receptacle where consecrated wafers were stored on the altar, respectively. However, what most of us consider profanity has nothing to do with the holy and much more to do with human sexual and other biological functions.

Also, many of our “bad” words in 21st century English are Anglo-Saxon. All right, I’m a nerd and have studied far too many medieval languages. However, I have to stifle a laugh whenever anyone says, “Pardon my French.” Why would I pardon your French, when the word you belted out is Anglo-Saxon, and ironically, was made into a “bad” word by the very French you are blaming? In 1066, the Norman French who conquered England decided to marginalize the prior occupants of the island by recasting them as barbarians who could not even speak correctly. A former colleague, with whom I taught medieval legal history, used to say that the words used by the people who tended the animals were different from those used by the people who ate the animals. Look at “sheep” versus “mutton,” which comes from the Middle French mouton. The French terms became a sign of more polish, more culture, than the Anglo-Saxon terms.

This juxtaposition runs through all of our language, not just the “bad” words. Consider: “keep” versus “maintain,” “get” versus “obtain.” The feel of the words is so different, or at least the Norman French campaign to make us see the French as more refined succeeded, didn’t it? Is it any wonder that all of the “bad” words that cause a sophomoric giggle amongst 12-year-olds are Anglo-Saxon: “fart”, “ass,” “tits,” and the rest (which I leave to your imagination as this is not an 18-and-older blog)? I draw odd looks when I apologize for my Anglo-Saxon, but most of my friends know I am just being a pedant.

I love the history of language, and the history of rude words is even more fascinating. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. I’d love your thoughts and comments.


27 thoughts on “History of Profanity”

  1. Great post, Elizabeth! I love word origins. Perhaps with your background you can confirm whether the history of these two “bad” words is correct (just grab the first letters):

    Ship High In Transport
    Fornicate Under Consent (of the) King

    Please sent me a tweet and let me know!!

    1. Even though they are not correct, these are great, Jenny. As I said in the tweet, I suspect that these have the same origin as “snafu,” where one can be a proper gentleman and still use rude language! I love the inventiveness of it. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; thank you for commenting!

  2. Fascinating topic and one that hits home since I was pondering on when it’s licit to use profanity in literature. I have also come across words that would be considered rude in contemporary Castilian, but were widely used in Spanish Baroque literature. As my mother would say,”it´s not the word, it´s the intention.”

    1. Your mother’s expression is wonderful, and very true. My background is Irish; one of my favorite sayings is “An Irishman can curse you to hell and make you look forward to the journey.” It is all in the intention! In the next post, I will talk about the words in English that are the same as you describe in Spanish–perfectly acceptable in an earlier period, and rude now. It is fascinating how we do that with words–all proof of the power of words.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Violante.

  3. Finally got around to checking out and following those in my historical fiction campaign group. Thanks for the interesting discussion. Always wondered about that expression “pardon my French”. And you could go on and on, I find this fascinating. Lately I’ve been wondering why a certain word seems to have endured for so long, become increasingly popular, and has no equal. You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you?

    1. I’m so glad you stopped by and enjoyed the post. As a matter of fact, I’m going to discuss that certain word in the next post. I also had a revelation about the “Pardon my French,” which takes enough set-up that I’ll talk it about it in the next post as well.

      I find it all fascinating, which is why I’ve studied it for so long. Initially, I fell into it because Christine de Pizan was excoriated for being a prude when she objected to Jean de Meun using the colloquial “coillons,” (balls) in the Romance of the Rose.

  4. Just great! This year, I read two books that you may like (but may already know about/know the material). The first is ‘The Story of English – How the English Language Conquered The Globe’. The second is ‘Euphemania – Our Love Affair With Euphemisms’. If you haven’t seen them already, I think that you’d enjoy them with relish after reading your post. ~ Nadja

    1. I’m going to go scour the humanities library on the way out the door today to see if we own these. I’ve heard of the first one, but never read it; the second one sounds interesting, too. Thank you for stopping by, Nadja, and even more thanks for suggesting the books. I definitely need to write a foul-mouthed character, lol!

  5. I popped over from SheWrites. What a fascinating post! I do like one French swear word. Merde has a much nicer ring than the Anglo-Saxon equivalent, don’t you think? And the delinquent teens I work with don’t know it’s a swear word, so I can get away with it!

    1. Nice to meet you, Liz. Thanks for popping over. Yes, merde does have that ring; on the milder side, I always liked zut alors! as well. The beauty of the unfamiliar swear word is its usefulness around those who don’t understand. It sounds like you have the perfect situation. 😉

      I am behind on my next installment for this series, which deals in part with that Anglo-Saxon equivalent. I hope to get that finished this week, if family crises and the day job allow.

  6. Hi,
    Wonderful post, I too love words and the journey that learning a new language takes you on in discovering them. Learning new french vocabularly and expressions for me is like an ancient philosopy, it teaches me as much about how people think or thought in the past as it does actual meaning.

    I also love the different way that we use the same words. For example ‘magnificent’ isn’t that different to the french ‘magnifique’ except in its pronunciation (sounds more like ‘ma nee feek) but what is quite different is that children start using this word at 3 and 4 years of age, I was astounded when my son came home using this word I was still having trouble pronouncing it and wondering about it’s common usage. It was quickly followed by ‘superb’ (pronouced like ‘su pear’, very commonly used by children when they are enthusiastic about something) and last Christmas (he was 7) as he started eating, he announced to me ‘C’est impeccable’. I love it! It’s a gift to have language enriched by such experiences.

    Thanks for sharing your blog on SheWrites.

    1. Thank you for coming by, Claire. It is so true that a different language teaches us so much about the inner workings of the culture and the people. How wonderful that your son is learning French so early. I remember getting off the plane in Paris many years ago, and being amazed that the 3- and 4-year-olds were jabbering away in this language when I was only a neophyte.

      I’m meeting so many wonderful people on SheWrites; I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my blog.

  7. Absolutely fascinating! I have a love for etymology, and the roots that you have alluded to here (especially the impact of 1066, and how the Norman French worked to marginalize the Anglo-Saxons) are really interesting. Looking forward to the next installments!

  8. don’t ask why I’m just not getting on here. I have no excuses 🙂 It truly is fascinating how we’ve morphed things so badly. I’d love to hear more on the subject!

  9. Such a great post! It is interesting to think about how common cursing is getting. Even I use words I would never have dreamed of using in high school or college.
    Excuse my French is almost an idiom. I wonder where its origins are?
    Great one for the party! Thanks for participating!

    1. Thank you, Susie. You have a good point about how common cursing has become. I never heard my father say anything worse than “holy mackerel” or “dang it!” I try to speak according to my audience, but even there, I say things I would never have said ten years ago!

      I suspect that “excuse my French” comes from the common English practice of blaming everything scurrilous on the French, in the manner that condoms were called “French letters” in the eighteenth century. But I should research that.

      Thank you for a great party–I found many bloggers to follow, and several people found their way here.

      1. I would love to know where that idiom comes from. Could be a fun post for you to write!
        I am so glad you came and made a few new friends! Everyone shared their best stories! I think I read all of them!

      2. Susie, thanks for the suggestion. I’m always happy to trace down word origins (my not-so-secret nerdy delight!). Thank you for having the party–I did meet some wonderful people and I’ll be mining the comments for some time to come.

  10. This is really interesting. I love word origins, and I’m always too lazy to really do the research. Cursing is definitely part of the vernacular now, and in a bad way. I’m disgusted at all the stuff my 6-year-old is exposed to.

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Stacy. I have always loved language, and have had the excuse of studies to do the research. I remember when my sons went to school–the things they said when they came home!!! I’m afraid it’s gotten worse since then, as they are 19 and 20.

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