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Wednesday 08 October 2008


Proclamations of the Red Queen

30th March 2008

History: From Here to Profanity

Posted by: Craig Young

swear.jpgWhere do English-language ’swear words’ come from?

Recently, I pondered this as I noticed in today’s NZH that Hell’s Pizza had been subjected to a flurry of complaints. Actually, given that it’s targeted at boundary-testing teenagers and twentysomething, I strongly suspect that the use of vulgar vernacular will appeal to them, and ironically result in more sales of the crusty demonic foodstuff in question.

And insofar as public umbrage goes, Chris Watson (Massey University) tested the level of public tolerance for the aforementioned vulgar vernacular references to body parts, sex and excrement, and discovered that they were far more concerned about the incidence of violence on television.  I would sugges that this means that such complainants are mostly orchestrated by Christian Right pressure groups, particularly Family First. The Oxord English Dictionary includes these salty turns of phrase, although editorial policies affect newspapers and broadcast media.

Killjoys would have us believe that the use of profanity is a sign of coarsened public culture? Or is it just context? What might be appropriate in a workplace or in the throes of passion might not be so proper if one is greeting the Prime Minister, Governor-General or Queen. However, although things were much more casual in terms of toleration for the vulgar vernacular before the eighteenth century, the emergence of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners resulted in censorship, particular saucy, candid and abrasive contributions to political debate. In the nineteenth century, the Societies for Suppression of Vice had similar outcomes in terms of free speech.

To complicate matters, some profanities change usage. How many of us remember that one apparent reference to blood was actually a contraction of “By Our Lady?” “Jesus Christ” is one example, referring to the name of a popular western religious figure, now essentially stripped of shock value in our post-Christian society. Similarly, widespread solo motherhood has stripped illegitimacy of similar condemnatory undertones. “Hell” is similarly meaningless, as it is a metaphysical byproduct of Christian civil religion, as is “damn.”

Profanities mostly refer to relationships, bodily functions and products. Like sex. One popular term is believed to originate with the Latin futuere, given that foutre (French), ficken (German) and focka (Swiss) share the same derivation, although not fuken (Old English). It is not an abbreviation of “Forced Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” It slid out of ‘polite’ usage c1575.

Feminists have asked why female genitalia are considered to be more of an insulting reference than their male counterparts. One popular term may have come from the Old English cwithe, through the Anglo-Saxon ‘cynd, or possibly Latin cuneus (wedge). It appeared in Chaucer, was the subject of double entendres in Shakespeare, and was the subject of an ‘obscenity’ trial when Penguin published Lady Chatterley’s Lover uncensored in 1960.

Feminists have also sought to reclaim the term, most spectacularly in Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Reasonably, they ask why a bodily organ should attract such condemnation when it is involved in giving birth and providing sexual pleasure for women. Notably, it is often males which use it as a term of condemnation, whereas male anatomy isn’t considered as derogatory.

Scatology is a another source of common usage, related to defecation or urination. These are subject to hygiene taboos, which arose during the eighteenth century, at which time one common term for urination fell in public estimation (c1725). Defecation’s common usage arrived earlier in English (c1202). In the case of this term, and that involving sex, they are terms that suggest an intense experience of some sort, although defecation has negative associations linked to its description of solid bodily waste products.

So, how should we interpret ’swearing?’ Condemn it? Prohibit its public usage through criminal law? Use linguistic snobbery related to ‘debased’ ‘lower-class’ individual usage? Or ignore it as a vestige of a quaint Victorian taboo/transgression dynamic now associated with transition to adulthood, and which is now obsolete? Or is it? Don’t we get appalled at racist vocabulary that implies that specific ethnic groups are somehow ‘inferior?’ Or, similarly, when homophobes use similar terminology to condemn us?

Profanity will always be with us, although its disfavoured terms and meanings change as society changes.

Recommended Reading:

“Origins and Common Usage of British Swear Words:”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/brunel/A753527

Sarah Dunant (ed) War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate:
London: Virago: 1995.

V.A.C. Gatrell: City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth Century London: London: Atlantic Books: 2006.

G.Hughes: Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English: Penguin: London: 1998.

Ruth Wajnryb: Language Most Foul: Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin: 2004.

Tags: Politics · Religion

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