Nine Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Swear Words

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Four-letter words have been around since the days of our forebears—and their forebears, too. In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, a book out this month from Oxford University Press, medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr traces humans’ use of naughty language back to Roman times. NewsFeed asked Mohr what surprising tidbits readers might stumble upon amidst the expletives. Here are nine talking points from her opus for your next (presumably, pretty edgy) cocktail hour.

(FROM THE MAGAZINE: Help! My Baby Swears)

1. The average person swears quite a bit.

About 0.7% of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words, which may not sound significant except that as Mohr notes, we use first-person plural pronouns — words like we, our and ourselves — at about the same rate. The typical range, Mohr says, goes from zero to about 3%. What would it be like to have a conversation with a three-percenter? “That would be like Eddie Murphy,” Mohr says. Presumably from Eddie Murphy Raw, not from Shrek Forever After.

2. Kids often learn a four-letter word before they learn the alphabet.

Mohr’s work incorporates research by Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who uncovered the 0.7% statistic above and has also charted a rise in the use of swear words by children — even toddlers. By the age of two, Mohr says, most children know at least one swear word; it really “kicks off” around the ages of three or four.

(MORE: Why Swearing Helps Ease the Pain)

3. Some of today’s most popular swear words have been around for more than a thousand years.

“S— is an extremely old word that’s found in Anglo-Saxon texts,” Mohr says. What English-speakers now call asses and farts can also be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons, she adds, though in those times the terms wouldn’t have been considered as impolite as they are today.

4. The ancient Romans laid the groundwork for modern day f-bombs.

There are two main kinds of swear words, says Mohr: oaths—like taking the Lord’s name in vain—and obscene words, like sexual and racial slurs. The Romans gave us a model for the obscene words, she says, because their swearing was similarly based on sexual taboos, though with a different spin. “The Romans didn’t divide people up [by being heterosexual and homosexual],” she says. “They divided people into active and passive. So what was important was to be the active partner.” Hence, sexual slurs were more along the lines words like pathicus, a rather graphic term which basically means receiver.

(MORE: Children Who Hear Swears on TV Are More Aggressive, Says Study)

5. In the Medieval era, oaths were believed to physically injure Jesus Christ.

In the Middle Ages, Mohr says, certain vain oaths were believed to actually tear apart the ascended body of Christ, as he sat next to his Father in heaven. Phrases that incorporated body parts, like swearing “by God’s bones” or “by God’s nails,” were looked upon as a kind of opposite to the Catholic eucharist—the ceremony in which a priest is said to conjure Christ’s physical body in a wafer and his blood in wine.

6. However, obscene words were no big deal.

“The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do,” Mohr explains, “so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.” Multiple people slept in the same beds or used privies at the same time, so people observed each other in the throes of their, er, natural functions much more frequently — which made the mention of them less scandalous.

7. People in the “rising middle class” use less profanity.

“Bourgeois people” typically swear the least, Mohr says. “This goes back to the Victorian era idea that you get control over your language and your deportment, which indicates that you are a proper, good person and this is a sign of your morality and awareness of social rules,” she explains. The upper classes, she says, have been shown to swear more, however: while “social strivers” mind their tongues, aristocrats have a secure position in society, so they can say whatever they want — and may even make a show of doing so.

(MORE: How Much Does Obama Swear, Compared to Other Presidents?)

8. Swearing can physiologically affect your body.

Hearing and saying swear words changes our skin conductance response, making our palms sweat. One study, Mohr notes, also found that swearing helps alleviate pain, that if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, you can keep it in there longer if you say s— rather than shoot. Which is a good piece of info to have next time you’re doing a polar bear plunge.

9. People don’t use cuss words just because they have lazy minds.

Mohr discusses the myriad social purposes swearing can serve, some nasty and some nice. “They definitely are the best words that you can use to insult people, because they are much better than other words at getting at people’s emotions,” she says. Swear words are also the best words to use if you hit your finger with a hammer, because they are cathartic, helping people deal with emotion as well as pain. And studies have shown that they help people bond — like blue-collar workers who use taboo terms to build in-group solidarity against management types. When asked if the world would be better off if everyone quit their cussing, Mohr answers with a four-letter word of her own: “Nope.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For last week’s post, click here

MORE: Where’s the Most Foul-Mouthed Place in America? Check this Map

81 comments
khare
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s277253
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'Conjure' is neither an accurate nor appropriate word to use for defining transubstantiation.

ACharlemagneWaterchapel
ACharlemagneWaterchapel

@s277253 Because everyone should be super-concerned with the doctrinal nuances of Christianity. Mmmmhmmm. Bloody funny that you're talking about appropriate word usage, given the text of the article.

Mewzik
Mewzik

@s277253  yes it is. look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus.

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TrimeldaMcDaniels1
TrimeldaMcDaniels1

Swearing is when you call upon a Deity to support the speaker's veracity. You are not supposed to do this unless the State requires it.


Cursing is when you wish harm to some other person. 


Profanity is when you use vulgar or "uncouth" words in anger or broad speech.  


The Bible forbids swearing as a sin. Cursing is a sign of malice and bitterness. Profanity is bad taste but there is NOTHING in the Bible that says that using a profane word for a body part or a body function is going to offend God. 


Don't get in the habit of using profanity because it makes you look ignorant. Try to praise and love God with your words. But the Lord God Who once called a woman a female dog in jest (Matthew 7: 26-29) will not wilt and die if you hit your thumb and say more than "Toro Poo Poo."



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..AvrilLavinge..
..AvrilLavinge..

whats happening is that kids are watching the wrong tv shows and ACCIDENTLY watch family guy and stuff like that then come to school and say those words, teaching it to others. I learned every bad word because my bro says them alot so

DyNama
DyNama

It bugs me that the very premise of swear words remains unquestioned, that one collection of random sounds is okay but another is bad, that "feces" and "poop" are okay but "sh*t" is a bad word, that "copulate" can be said on TV but not "f***". That said, i do get tired of people who tell stories full of "f***ing" this and that. Me, i save the F-word for it's shock value, it gets more attention because i use it rarely. A poster here suggests that swearing in front of ladies is automatically rude behavior, but i have a feeling that is sexist, that women don't need that kind of genteel protection from just words--in fact, no one really does. No one can accuse me of having a small vocabulary; when i use these verboten words, that is precisely what i mean!


lol, @beccatronic, for "clutching pearls". good point, @IownYou, an examination of Asian, African, even Native American cursing would be interesting.

IownYou
IownYou

It's funny to me how supposedly everything only traces back to Roman times and other white cultures, completely disregarding Asian and African cultures that existed long, LONG before white civilizations.

I don't care if your degree is from Oxford: if Roman times are as far back as you can go, then you need more schooling because clearly you fell asleep at the library one time too many, smh.

HaterHatington
HaterHatington

@IownYou  Ancient African cultures had no written language, making it pretty difficult to surmise anything about their influence on the swear words of today. Also, our language clearly did not develop from any Asian language, so that's kind of irrelevant also. 

Lalala
Lalala

If children are picking up swear words before they learn the alphabet, then their PARENTS are to blame. It comes from the home.

DonaldJohn
DonaldJohn

I'll stick with cursing is an uneducated or ignorant person's way to express themselves strongly.

Ms.Asrar
Ms.Asrar

Hello,
i'm just wondering. is the "cursing word" really makes people feel better or it's actually our own mind set that make we think that saying a curse word will make us feel better?

really appreciate it if you answer this. c:

sej67
sej67

The guy who invented the toilet was named Thomas Crapper.  Now, imagine if his name had been Smith or Jones.  We'd be saying "I have to take a Smith" or "That's a bunch of Jones".  In other words, we took a perfectly legitimate word, someone's surname, and decided to turn it into a dirty word.  That says VOLUMES about our society.

Mewzik
Mewzik

@sej67  Crapper is not a dirty word. If you don't keep it clean it can get dirty, but a crapper is just a toilet. Or possibly an outhouse.

BrunoRemulus
BrunoRemulus

"I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master."
- Ralphie in A Christmas Story

vincegreen123
vincegreen123

In the past I heard that cursing was an uneducated mind attempting to express itself.

stevmg
stevmg

My father put the f-bomb in THE MIDDLE of words such as "guarantee-F#*#-teed"

I had a SUPERB education. He even corrected my Italian swearing to make sure I was pronouncing the words correctly. By the way, he was a well-educated man who appreciated ALL languages.

F*#**%#A!

Rickleo2
Rickleo2

What F@#$% boring article.


Wow i actually feel better now

KenCheng
KenCheng

I was eight or nine before I even found out that there was such a thing as words people aren't supposed to say.  

RoccoJohnson
RoccoJohnson

I was a gifted and prolific cusser when I was a younger man, but I don't use profanity at all today. Traditional swear words are just banal and unimaginitive, and betray a lack of creativity on the part of the user in my opinion. Too often the user comes off sounding like a teenager swearing for his friends the first time, trying to impress them with his "edginess." I mean really, what do swear words even mean anymore? Are we really that impressed by a guy who dares to say s***, a word that's just a substitute for the word poop? Ooh impressive man, he's so dangerous! 

Words like f****r are so lacking in originality they don't mean anything anymore. Swearing is ubiquitous in society today, and its just lost much of the impact it once had because of overuse. My kids like to add the words "if you know what I mean" onto the end of innocuous phrases to give them completely different connotations than they had before, which can be very funny at times. I'm far more impressed by someone who can come up with creative ways of saying things. 

Lalala
Lalala

@RoccoJohnson I find I curse a lot less in my 50s than I did in my teens and 20s. Have nothing to prove I guess? Or just a better handle on my temper? Naw. Just didn't like how I sounded dropping "f" bombs and what not. Plus women are censured more for cursing than men are. Sexist but true...and rightfully so. We women can do better than roll around in mud.

Heian
Heian

Did this article really cite something they did on Mythbusters as a study?

Christiabella
Christiabella

One just needs to consider time and place...and at some times, in some places, nothing will do except a big, fat, juicy curse word.

interstellarsurfer
interstellarsurfer

What would it be like to have a conversation with a three-percenter? “That would be like Eddie f*ing Murphy,”

Fixed.

100percentchanceofafauxpas
100percentchanceofafauxpas

Curse words cheapen life IMHO.  However, I agree that if you get a paper cut or hit your fingers with a hammer...you need that outlet.  There's nothing more offensive to me than someone casually using the f bomb.  Do you eat with that mouth?  LOL

Also, I find cursing to be somewhat of an instigativee tool.  As if I'm being threatened.  It's classless, tasteless and indicative of a persons background.

The blogosheres are full of people recklessly spewing curse words that one would never do in person.  Anonymity seems to bring out the worst in humans.

And........please don't curse around my children.  There's a time and place for everything.

Lalala
Lalala

@beccatronic @100percentchanceofafauxpas beccatronic, the 100% person didn't say they felt threatened. They said the swearing does it because they feel threatened. Sounds to me like you're a wee bit defensive about your own potty mouth. Like it or not, people can and do judge. Unfair but that's life. Deal with it.

dillicious
dillicious

@beccatronic You scold the previous poster passing judgement, yet you are judging their comment. Everyone judges, so why do we have to always point it out? I just judged your comment. I also judged what I wanted to eat this morning. I hope the Apple Jacks weren't offended that I judged their lack of satisfaction for my breakfast. Chill out. And society shouldn't be a free-for-all as far as swearing goes. There's a difference between saying "sh*t" after hitting your finger with a hammer and yelling at someone to "go f*** themselves" in the middle of a shopping mall. I agree that acceptable language has evolved, but any hateful language (dirty or clean) is unacceptable. 

Lalala
Lalala

@100percentchanceofafauxpas I understand your sentiments but I would assert there are worse things than profanity. How about racial slurs? sexist slurs? hurtful personal comments about someone's body? Given the choice I'd rather hear a generic "F" bomb than hear someone call someone else by a racial epitath or the "C" word (rhymes with hunt) or calling someone ugly, fat, useless, worthless...and how often do you hear the latter four every day? Especially around middle schools as part of bullying?

beccatronic
beccatronic

@100percentchanceofafauxpasAwww, look at you clutching those pearls! What a sad statement "curse words cheapen life" is. A life of worth can't easily be 'cheapened' - particularly by language used casually and not to bully or insult. 

Feeling threatened by casual swearing? That's indicative of *your* background actually - or rather your own issues on which I couldn't make further comment. 

The judgement dripping from your remarks is hilarious. And please keep your kids out of grown-up restaurants, television, movies and modern public society. Your approach to parenting is no one else's responsibility, nor is your oversensitivity. 

Language and culture evolve. Smart, educated, tasteful and sophisticated people swear - and do so offline as much as on. To great impact and hilarity actually.