Why we started swearing

A new book explains the origins of filthy language

May 28, 2013
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Four-letter words, expletives, obscenities, insults, curses and cusses—there are almost as many euphemisms for offensive language as there are swearwords. But why? How has bad language retained its emotional valence in an increasingly liberal and secular society? Why do people still cringe when someone drops an f-bomb in front of a grandmother, or, worse, a toddler? These questions form the basis for Melissa Mohr’s new book, Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. Mohr traces the history of English swearing back to its Latinate roots, through the Middle Ages, Reformation and Victorian era in order to explain its modern-day instantiations.

And she does so with good reason. Swearwords are now the most commonly used words in the English language—studies by psychologists such as Paul Cameron and Timothy Jay show that the average speaker uses expletives at least as often, if not more so, than pronouns and prepositions. In our language words like fucking, goddamn and bloody are unique in that they have a dual linguistic function. In addition to referring to specific objects and actions, they can also act as emotional intensifiers.

Mohr describes how swearwords “induce greater skin conductance responses than do other words, even emotionally evocative words such as death or cancer. (The skin conductance response indicates the extent of a person's emotional arousal by measuring the degree to which his or her skin conducts electricity.)” Hearing obscene words is literally electrifying. A recent experiment led by the psychologist Richard Stephens found that swearing is also physically cathartic—people who repeat a swearword can keep their hands immersed in extremely cold water 40 seconds longer than if they say a neutral word. But why?

One explanation for the physiological power of swearwords is that they are stored in a different portion of the brain. Obscene words occupy the lower brain, or limbic system, along with automatic speech acts like formalities, counting and song lyrics. This part of the brain is separated from the cerebral cortex, which controls voluntary actions and the kind of “higher” vocabulary that depends on syntactic construction. But although offensive language occupies its own, instinctive part of the human mind, the specific words that become associated with this region are entirely dependent on a given individual’s cultural context.

Holy Shit illuminates an intriguing divide in the history of English swearing by sorting expletives into two camps: "the holy" and "the shit." Religious swearwords were initially far more offensive than those that refer to bodily functions. In medieval society, the most offensive language was that which violated the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” This could mean calling upon God to witness an untrue promise, but it also referred to words that invoked the individual parts of God’s body. Phrases like “by the blood of Christ” and “by God’s nails” were believed to physically tear apart the body of Christ in Heaven. Graphic descriptions of mortal bodies, on the other hand, were inoffensive. A Bible from 1370 includes passages like “Ye shall not offer to the Lord any beast whose bollocks are broken” and “the Lord … smote [the people of] Azothe and its coasts in the more secret part of the arses.”

One of Mohr’s principle arguments about obscenity is that words can only become hidden away in language when what they refer to is hidden away in reality. In the Middle Ages private space was almost non-existent, and the public nature of bodily functions made it impossible for them to be obscene. Groups of people ate, slept, defecated and copulated openly in large rooms. Even wealthy, highborn individuals, who might be able to afford a separate atrium in which to sleep, would share their quarters and their beds with relatives, handmaidens and servants. Because bodily functions were all public, fucking, shitting and pissing were no more than banal signifiers of the everyday. It wasn’t until the “invention” of privacy in 16th century architecture, and of single-occupancy “privvys” (a name which refers to the unprecedented levels of privacy that could be found within), that bodily functions could become private, and therefore publically offensive.

The transition of obscenity from “the holy” to “the shit” was slow and depended on several factors. The first was the Protestant Reformation, which denied the Catholic correlation between words and God’s spiritual body. This new religious ideology was combined with a period of rapid alteration between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, all of whom forced their subjects to swear new oaths of loyalty to them and to their respective faiths. This constant oath swearing caused taking God’s name in vain to become an increasingly commonplace act.

Perhaps more important was the transition from feudalism towards capitalism during the 17th and 18th centuries. As class boundaries became more fluid, the use of “civilising” language became an important signifier of one’s social position. A fundamental indicator of wealth was the ability to avoid the communal living practices of the poor; the privatisation of the physical body was paralleled by a privatisation of the body in language. Mohr argues that this new, polite language was “co-opted by the middle class as a way of differentiating themselves from the lower classes.” Under this construction, the obscenity of bodily functions is essentially a bourgeois invention.

By the Victorian era the body had become so offensive that innocuous words like “leg” were being euphemised as “limb” or “lower extremity.” An English captain describes a visit to America in 1839, where he witnessed the legs of pianos dressed “in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them.” The captain, though, is writing like a coarse sailor—even the word “trouser” was taboo at the time. The Century Cyclopedia of 1889 defines trousers as "an article of dress not to be mentioned in polite circles"; they were normally referred to as “inexpressibles.”

The most offensive language in contemporary English is defined by a different set of social taboos. The Victorians' concern with the body declined in tandem with the visible boundaries between classes; now, discriminatory language is far more shocking than either “the holy” or “the shit." Though Mohr discusses the recent provenance of many racial slurs, she neglects to mention the concurrent increase in homosexual epithets. Words like “faggot” and “dyke” compete with “nigger” and “paki” as the most offensive words available to the modern English speaker.

Mohr’s book is a masterwork of etymology, but the historical narrative of swearing is not as fascinating as one might expect. Several chapters of the work devolve into long, repetitive lists of words considered obscene in Rome and medieval England. The best portions of Holy Shit are those that combine the history of swearing with other histories, like the relation between oath-swearing and the development of Abrahamic religion, or the relation between obscene words and Freudian psychology.

Ultimately, the most illuminating aspect of the book is how Mohr’s description of the physiological power of social taboo can be used to understand the furore that surrounds the cross-cultural obscenities of today—from the fatwahs excited by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to the mass protests against Lars Vilks’ cartoons of Muhammad. Reconciling a respect for beliefs with freedom of speech is perhaps impossible—what is perceived to be obscene has always been, and will remain, the strongest limitation of language.

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