Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fun Fact Saturday: Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Swear Words

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 (Oxford University Press, 2013), medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr traces humans’ use of naughty language back to Roman times. Here are five talking points from her opus for your next (presumably, pretty edgy) cocktail hour.  

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.

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.

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.

 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.

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.

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  1. This was very informative! Thanks for sharing!

    1. YW! Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you liked the post. =)