Letters from the linguists: the evolution of swearing

by Claudine David

Dear reader,

Taboo – originating from the Tongan “tabu”, introduced into the English language by Captain Cook and now used to describe anything restricted by social custom. In the case of language, this means swear words.

But what makes words like “f*ck” and “sh*t” swearing?

Back when Captain Cook brought “taboo” back to English shores, none of our favourite modern-day swear words were considered truly obscene, just low and vulgar. In fact, back in the Middle Ages, body effluvia and sex weren’t even really considered taboo. I’m not saying they were dinner-table friendly, but certainly not as rude as they are today.

True swearing came only from blasphemy. Some particularly naughty phrases included “by God’s bones” and “by Christ’s fingernails”, as these were considered to physically harm the heavenly body part in question. This extreme disapproval of religious profanity contrasted to the almost casual usage of words we now consider rude. The medieval equivalent of the f-word, “swive”, even appears in the bible… WHAT IN TARNATION!

The fall of religious oaths and the subsequent rise of body effluvia as the predominant swear words started around the Renaissance. As society became more secular, blasphemy became less taboo. So today, the odd “what the hell!?” on daytime TV wouldn’t be too shocking, whereas “s**t” and “p*ss” are unlikely to be heard pre-watershed.

This shift shows that the words themselves aren’t innately offensive (referring to Christ’s fingernails won’t get you into too much trouble nowadays), but the fact that speaking the words deliberately breaks a social taboo. As society changes so do taboos and, therefore, swear words.

However, it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that swearing really came into its own. Back then, the extreme avoidance of even mild taboos gave the words associated with these forbidden subjects more power to shock and disgust. As certain words gained this societal power, people began to use them primarily because of the reaction they caused, instead of for their literal meaning. The expletive “bloody” is a relic from this age.

Why do we still feel the need to have and use these swear words though?

Swearing isn’t just offensive, it’s a powerful social tool, one that can be used in both constructive and destructive ways.

Destructive usage includes being deliberately degrading or divisive. These words demonstrate society’s inherent prejudices, as well as changing attitude towards them. Ethnic, racial and gender-based slurs fall under this category. When they first appeared in the English language, they were almost commonplace. However, as attitudes towards marginalised groups changed, the perceived strength of the pejoratives increased.

Day-to-day cursing tends to be more constructive. There are plenty of good reasons to swear, including catharsis, effective emotional communication, and bonding.

Swearing can be so powerful that it helps people deal with both physical and emotional pain. Studies also show that using swear words can help people bond and promote trust; people who swear on occasion (and in the right circumstances) are considered more trustworthy than non-swearers. This is likely due to the expressive nature of swearing – saying “I’m f*cking furious” is more emphatic than “I’m very angry”.

So, next time you stub your toe, drop a big old F bomb. Not only will you feel better for it, anyone within earshot will be super impressed…

I always knew swearing made me look cool.

‘Letters from the linguists’ is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians.

Phrasee’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance to drive more revenue for global brands. 

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