Swearing plays a useful and important role in our language, with the same word often describing anger, pain or pleasure. While everyone has their idiosyncrasies – my granny’s being badgers – most languages have a premade set for every occasion, be it to insult someone or describe a bodily function. But what makes shit worse than poo? Is there any reason why some words, even though they mean the same thing, are acceptable to say in front of your in-laws or to your GP?
I’ve done some vague digging around the subject, and have split this topic into two:the etymological reason why some words are swearwords while their synonyms aren’t, and the historical triggers for different types of swearwords.Origins seemed the obvious place to begin…
Etymologically, our favourite four letter words – cunt, shit, arse and fuck – all come from Germanic routes, rather than from Latin or French. As the OED blog points out, most ‘common’ words are derived from German or Old Norse origins – such as drink, child, house, eat, etc., while fancy versions tend to come from Romance languages – mansion, infant, imbibe. This, as with many features of English, is due to the Norman Conquest, which linguistically divided the UK into upper class French speakers and English speaking peasants.
After the Reformation, English was resurrected from its lowly abode and became the language of academia, but scientists and thinkers thought it didn’t sound as impressive. Because of this, they borrowed heavily from French and Latin – which is why we have an isosceles rather than a three-wise triangle. This got a little bit out of hand, so during the Early Modern English period English vocabulary underwent a huge expansion, primarily from French and Latin. Due to systemic regulation, no two words have exactly the same meaning, so even after French was no longer spoken in England, borrowings from the language tended to have more illustrious connotations, often leading to different denotations. So, when a new word was introduced from French – such as excrete (17th C) to replace shit (14th C) – the English one was suddenly seen as rude and uncouth.
This is likely what happened with my favourite swearword, cunt. Back in the day, cunt was used in the same way vagina is: scientifically. The first recorded usage of cunt was from 1230 in a book of Oxfordshire street names – Gropecuntelane in Southwark (where there were a lot of brothels). It was used in medical textbooks, for instance this 15th century definition of Vulva from Medulla Grammatice: ‘a count or a wombe’. Shakespeare and Chaucer both make puns around ‘country matters’, which were seen as witty, rather than offensive and taboo. By the time of D.H Lawrence in the 1960s, its usage was evidence in his profanity trial.
Why the big change? Vagina came into the English language at the end of the 17th century, signalling the fall of grace for cunt. By the end of the 17th century, at least in writing, it began to be used as a derogatory term for a woman, and by the 19th century, a man.
So the power of cunt, the most offensive word of the English language, is merely due to the fact that English was seen as not prestigious enough to be used scientifically. But without that change, Glaswegians would have lost an important part of their vocabulary, and another word would have probably taken its place.
For more information about cunt, Matthew Hunt’s article here has an thorough history.