Why do we swear?
It is often an expression of frustration, anger, rage, and helplessness. Very rarely, it is also a by-product of various neurological disorders caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls aggression (like Tourette’s syndrome), in which some sufferers either shout obscenities or communicate them via sign language.
Most of us, however, use swear words quite voluntarily, although women are generally discouraged from doing so because of cultural taboos regulating speech and expressions of anger.
We all have our favourite swear words, which we use either in our minds (if we are being well-behaved), or mutter under our breath when we simply can’t keep it in, or shout out loud – for ***’s sake get your s**t together!
A basic analysis of the most powerful swear words reveals that the vast majority are somehow related to sex (as in the act) or sexuality.
Melissa Mohr who has specialised in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and is the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, writes that the word ‘fuck’ first appeared in the 16th century, according to a manuscript of the Latin orator Cicero. An anonymous monk was apparently reading through the monastery copy of De Officiis (a guide to moral conduct) when he felt compelled to express his anger at his abbot. “O d fuckin Abbot,” he scrawled in the margin of the text.
At the time this was simply considered to be a more direct way of describing sexual intercourse, and it became a profanity only 300 years later. Perhaps it was around this same time, the time of Victorian morality, that people began to think of the sexual act itself as profane?
Be that as it may, language and swear words too, change with the times. What may have been a cuss word then, is no longer a cuss word now. In this hilarious video below, Osho Rajneesh, who created a worldwide stir with his direct approach towards sexuality and sexual activities, elaborates on the versatility of the word ‘fuck’and how commonly and in how many ways it is used.
But many of the other swear words that are considered to be really offensive are somehow directed at shaming women and, by association, their sexuality and even their bodily functions and body parts as we will see.
Even when a man is called a ‘son of a bitch’ – he is actually just a son, but it is his mother who is a ‘bitch’. A ‘bastard’ is someone born to unmarried parents, someone who is consequently considered ‘illegitimate’. Obviously the ‘bastard’ has a mother. But she had sex with someone who is not willing to acknowledge his child, which is why the child is called a bastard. Conversely, children without mothers are called orphans, not bastards. Therefore, the use of the word ‘bastard’ and not ‘orphan’ as an insult takes on a distinctly sexist undertone. ‘Motherfucker’ is meant to be a slur directed at a man because he is accused of having sex with his mother. Though there is no prevalence of the term in English, ‘sister fucker’ is a commonly used slur in various Indian regional languages, and is also targeted at men.
The same slurs hardly apply to women. A woman’s sexuality is maligned through insults that all come under the convenient umbrella of ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. Someone who enjoys or has plenty of sex is labelled a slut. But a man who has a lot of sex is usually seen (by other men) as someone to admire. The selling of sex being seen as inherently evil, ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’ become ‘bad’ words. In the typical way of double-standards, there is no equivalent word for men who seek to buy sex. A man who controls the sex worker’s business and sets up clients for them is a ‘pimp’. Pimp has somehow become a neutral word, and to ‘pimp up’ also means ‘to improve’ or ‘spice something up’.
Everyone has heard the term nymphomania. It is defined as ‘uncontollable or excessive sexual desire in a woman’. Isn’t it a clear sign of sexism and the shaming of women for their sexual appetite, that hardly anyone knows the equivalent word for men – satyriasis? These words were once used to describe the condition of ‘hypersexuality’ in women and men respectively, but are no longer used by the medical community because who is to say what is ‘excessive’ or ‘uncontrollable’ sexual desire in any person? Why, then, are women who exhibit sexual desire still being referred to as ‘nymphos’?
Another common swear word is ‘bitch’, the word association being that of a female dog in heat who has sex with any dog available at that time. This word is not usually used in a sexually derogatory way, but it is very often used to shame women who share their opinions openly.
It seems that it is not only women’s sexual desire and behaviour that lend to swear words, but also their bodily functions and body parts. The origins of why the word ‘bloody’ became a curse word are not known. There is speculation that it was a shortening of the phrase ‘by our lady’, or a variation of the Dutch word ‘bloote’ which means naked. Or, it may have negative connotations of association with menstruation.
When someone exhibits behaviour that is out of the ordinary and seemingly out of proportion, we say they are ‘hysterical’ – this word has the same root as hysteros meaning uterus and reflects the misogyny and sexism of the 18th century.
It is important to keep reminding ourselves that feminism is not a movement against men. It is a movement against patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system which hurts men too. When a man is called a ‘cunt’ or a ‘pussy’ or ‘pussy whipped’ or told to ‘grow a pair’, it may sound as though he is being insulted. But the insult comes less from the words themselves and more from the implication that he is behaving in a ‘feminine’ way – these words and phrases are used to incite men to ‘prove their manliness’. This is how gay men, transgender people, cross-dressing men, and ‘effeminate’ men are shamed for not being ‘man’ enough.
Just like there are movements urging women to reclaim the night and re-occupy public spaces, we also need to reclaim swear words. As we learn from Alice Through the Looking Glass:
|“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
While you think about that, I will let the inimitable and brilliant Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have the last word (pun intended!) on swear words here. This is a script from their series ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This episode was recorded after the BBC banned them from using swear words on the show.
Stephen Our first item tonight, my sweet little honeyclusters/ is a searing insight into real life/ and perforce relies on using/ the language of the street.
Hugh Swearwords …
Stephen Swearwords, exactly. But we have been banned from using actual swearwords
Stephen So we have had to make up new ones /which are absolutely pitiless in their detail./ Hugh rips off his gag.
Hugh And nobody can stop us from using them. Here they are … Stephen rips off his gag. From now on, we are out loud. “Cloff”.
Stephen “Prunk” …
Hugh “Shote” …
Stephen “Cucking” …
Hugh “Skank” …
Stephen “Fusk” …
Hugh “Pempslider” …
Stephen No, we said we wouldn’t use that one.
Hugh Did we?
Stephen Yes, that’s going too far.
Hugh What, “pempslider”?
Stephen Shut up.
Stephen And lastly, “pim-hole”.
Stephen So, here it is, ladies and gentlemen, our first sketch … and good luck …
Cover Image: YouTube