All languages have curse words which are regarded as less than polite. But English curse words have an almost unique potency. Utter one and you can literally shock people with it. Contrast that to, say, French. Or German. Or Chinese. Or almost any other language. Yeah, they have words that are not used in ‘polite’ company. But they don’t have the same force to startle as English cuss words. What sets English apart?
You can blame William the Conquerer. In 1066 his Normans stormed England and conquered it, making him the first Norman king of England. He brought with him his own nobles to serve as the upper crust aristocracy. English nobles (those still alive after the war) had to swear fealty to William — and promise to speak medieval French.
And so there were two languages being spoken in England after 1066: one spoken by the ruling class, and the other spoken by peasants, most merchants and craftsmen.
Slowly, the newly-arrived aristocrats started learning English, and as they did, they were shocked — shocked, I say! — to discover that low-born natives often used very rude Anglo-Saxon words in relationship to their aristocratic persons, secure in the knowledge that they would not be understood.
Naturally, as they discovered perps showing disrespect, they killed them and made various proclamations banning those ugly words.
Using those curse words became a risky proposition for the underclasses. Adults could be expected to control themselves around aristocrats who had a smattering of English and could recognize when they were being disrespected. But children have less self-restraint. Parents fretted. Life was hard enough without losing children to careless swearing in the hearing of aristocrats.
The practice of ‘washing mouths out with soap’ was born, by mothers desperate to keep their children alive. The shame and horror of using a forbidden swear word in hearing of the aristocracy was pushed deep into the psyches of peasant children.
From there, each generation perpetuated the practice, even though a unified language eventually emerged from a people who were still divided by class and birth. English gained many Latin-root words from the Normans; and it kept many native words from the various groups who lived on the islands before the Norman Conquest.
Every language needs curse words, and every language has some. But in English, the ‘polite’ curse words have Latin roots. Anglo-Saxon curse words are still perceived by most English-speakers as outrageous exhibitions of disrespect nearly akin to acts of violence. The freight of passionate disrespect is augmented because the words are so forbidden. And even today, over nine hundred years after William’s conquest of England, if you hope to be in the ruling class in any English-speaking nation, or if you hope to please the ruling class, you’ll use Anglo-Saxon root curse words sparingly if at all, and only in carefully-selected company. So there’s a built-in perpetuation going on. Success is possible for those who abstain; potty-mouths are considered ineligible for high office; and most mothers are still teaching their children to conform to this ‘norm.’ An old Norman norm, as it happens.
Donald Trump is trying to break the mold on this stricture by spewing Anglo-Saxon curse words in public while running for President. It’s not the dumbest thing he’s done or said. But it’s right up there, and it marks him for failure among the ruling elites, even as it pleases some among the lower classes, for whom disrespect for the elites is a time-honored tradition.