The historical origins of 6 swear words
Sometimes, everyday speech just can't convey your meaning. You need words with a little more oomph — expletives.
In fact, Americans swear so often, the U.S. made airing indecent or profane language during certain times a federal crime. Cue the FCC.
For the sake of knowledge though, we looked into the etymology of a few of these words (some of which violate our style guide!). Learn where they originated below.
The oldest theories trace the expletive-to-end-all-expletives back to Norwegian fukka and Swedish focka, both meaning "to copulate."
Unfortunately, we don't have much evidence of use in English, partly because the original Oxford English Dictionary's creators reportedly considered it taboo. The OED's second edition, however, cites "fukkit" in 1503, but the earliest current spelling appears as "Bischops ... may f*** thair fill and be vnmaryit" from poet Sir David Lyndesay in 1535.
Another 16th century poem, titled "Flen flyys," written in a combination of Latin and Middle English, also hints at the word. The relevant line reads, "Non sunt in celi quia fuccant uuiuys of heli." Translation: They [the monks] are not in heaven because they f*** the wives of [the town of] Ely.
The ideas that f*** is an acronym meaning "for unlawful carnal knowledge" or "fornication under consent of the king" are both false. The phrases do turn up in some court documents but not until the late 19th century, way too late for a true etymology.
Here, we actually have two words and two separate origins to consider: the noun and the verb.
The noun nods to Old English scitte, meaning "purging, diarrhea." And just the basic form of excrement stems from Old English scytel. The action, however, has a much more widespread history — Dutchschijtenand Germanscheissen. The Proto-Indo-European base skie conveys the idea of separation, in this case, from the body.
From there, we've perfected sh**-faced, sh**head, sh**ing bricks, not giving a sh**, when the sh** hits the fan, etc.
Just to set the record straight, "sh**" isn't an acronym. There's a story floating around the Internet that when crates of manure on freight ships got wet, they started to ferment, releasing methane. The gas then built up below deck. If someone descended with a lit lantern — BOOM.
As a precaution against potential explosions, transporters apparently started placing the letters S-H-I-T — "ship high in transit" — on top of the crates. Storing them above deck decreased their chances of dampness, and if they did get wet, the methane wouldn't stay trapped below deck.
As clever as the story sounds, the word "sh**" has a much older and richer history than an anecdote from European sea-trade. Not to mention sailors usually kept cargo below deck to keep it dry.
Again, English includes two forms of this word, a noun and verb. The verb appeared in the 1300s from French pissier, "to urinate," and vulgar Latin, "pissiare." The noun came later, in the 1400s, and eventually morphed into an intesifying adjective — piss-poor, piss-ugly, etc. — around World War II.
Obviously a compound word of "God" and "damn." "Damn" comes from Latin damnare which means "to condemn." And God originated with Norse goth. But when and how did we put the two together as a blasphemy?
Let's thank the French for that. They started referring to the English as "les goddems" during the Hundred Years War because of their frequent profanity, according to Geoffrey Hughes' book, "A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English."
Our word for the worst possible place (religious or not) comes from Proto-Germanic haljo, "the underworld." Some relationship also exists between "cell" and "hell" through the Proto-Indo-European word for "to cover" or "conceal" — kel.
Interestingly enough, the Biblical use of hell may stem from Old Norse Hel, the name of Loki's daughter in Norse mythology. She rules over the evil dead much like Hades does in Greek tales.
Almost everyone knows a bitch is a female dog, probably from Old Norse bikkjuna. Its use as a term of contempt to women, though, began in the 1400s.
Thewordisfirst seen used this way intheChesterPlaysofthe1400s."Whocallestthouqueine,skabdeb***h?"Basically, "Whoareyoucallingawh**e,youmiserableb***h?"
"The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," published in 1811, calls bitch "the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of wh**e."
The verb, meaning "to complain," evolved as late at the 1930s.
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