The Three Phases in the History of English Curse Words

George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (note: this video is inappropriate for professional settings and young children) has made generations laugh while also provoking them to think about why, exactly, certain words are considered beyond the bounds of proper discussion.

While the exact words that are and are not allowed on television are determined by the FCC, examining the types of words generally considered profane can provide insight into what is considered most powerful in a society. There have been three phases of in the history of English-language profanity.

  1. Religious Swearing: The earliest taboos in English involved disrespect for religious figures. In preliterate England, one obviously couldn’t use a signature to attest to the veracity of something, so swearing to saints was a way to insist that something was true. By the Middle Ages, these oaths (like “By Saint John!”) had come to be considered somewhat vulgar. Starting in the late sixteenth century, people began to use minced oaths (like “By Jove!” for “By God!”) in order to be more polite.

  2. Taboos about bodily functions: As societal attitudes toward sex and excretion became more delicate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, words referring to the related acts and body parts became more charged. Latinate euphemisms, such as copulate and urinate, came into use for formal situations. The humbler Germanic words, which had previously been used in matter-of-fact and neutral ways, acquired the ability to shock and thus replaced religious oaths as true swearing.

  3. Slurs against groups: Linguist John McWhorter argues that in contemporary society, the real profanities – words that shock and offend – are slurs against groups, such as the n-word, the f-slur for gay people, and the c-word for women. Although we tend to think of words like f*** and s*** as curses, they’ve lost much of their emotional firepower and are seen by most people more as impolite than as deeply disrespectful.

Even after they’ve stopped being true profanities, curse words tend to retain some of their vulgarity or association with strong emotions (for instance, nearly no one these days would consider “oh my God” to be a curse, but it’s certainly stronger than “oh my goodness,” even coming from an atheist). However, the language considered profane changes along with societal values. If our evolving curses indicate a shift from an abhorrence of bodily functions to an abhorrence of hatred, then perhaps they are telling us something good.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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