The Ancient Power of Vulgar Language
Swearing is as old as language itself, but we still can’t explain why these words affect us as much as they do
I wrote this article on assignment for a site that ultimately decided not to use it. Three years later, it was still my favorite unpublished story, which is why I decided to post it here.
The first time Emma Byrne, PhD, used a swear word, she wasn’t actually trying to curse. “I got a clip around the ear for calling my brother a twat,” she says. “I thought it was just another way of saying ‘twit.’ It was the first time I realized how much power words can have.”
Byrne went on to become a computer scientist specializing in artificial intelligence and, not coincidentally, a lifelong aficionado of off-color language. That led her to write Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, which came out in the U.S. in 2018.
Among many interesting tidbits in the book, Byrne explains that, in her native UK, the word she called her brother is a progression from two less egregious epithets: tosser (a jerk) and wanker (a bigger jerk). And although she doesn’t include it, the final progression would be to the c-word. Here it’s rarely spoken, but over there, it’s used affectionately with your friends or to start a brawl with a stranger.
As you can guess from these examples, cursing is linguistically, geographically, culturally, and even temporally specific. Byrne believes it’s been that way since the beginning of language itself, when our earliest human ancestors needed a way to express their anger or pain or fear without resorting to physical violence. As she writes: “[S]wearing is actually a very specialized and emotionally fluent form of language that requires us to have a mental model of the emotions not just of ourselves but also of the person who hears us swearing.”
What it doesn’t require is a sense of history, starting with the archaic language we use to describe the subject.
I learned it was bad to cuss long before I knew all the fun words I wasn’t supposed to say. Nor did I understand that “cuss” derives from “curse,” in the same way “victuals” became “vittles,” or “breeches” became “britches.”
It makes sense that a curse would be a bad thing. Back in the days when people believed words could call down heavenly forces on your opponents, cursing someone literally damned them to an otherworldly fate. If your foe also believed in the power of words, a curse was a very, very big deal.
Same with “profane.” As the opposite of “sacred,” it’s easy to understand why people living in less secular societies than ours would be offended by profanity. “Vulgar,” on the other hand, comes from a Latin word meaning common or ordinary. (The first person to use it as a synonym for “obscene” was undoubtedly a rich twat.)
But what’s so bad about “swearing”? We know it’s short for “swearing oaths,” but why in the world do we still use it to describe objectionable language? We ask people to swear oaths all the time (even when, like our 45th president and his fellow kakistocrats, they obviously don’t mean it).
In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, author Melissa Mohr, PhD, says the power of an oath came from the belief that words could do physical harm to God himself. As she explained in this 2013 NPR interview, if you said “by God’s nails” or “by Christ’s bones,” “it was thought to actually be able to break his bones or pull out his nails.”
Byrne notes that even diminutive versions of those words — like “zounds” for “God’s wounds” — were considered so obscene they were edited out of Shakespeare’s plays between the first and second printings.
Cursing would be much easier to talk about if all people were affected by the same words in the same way within the same time, place, and culture. But they obviously aren’t. Consider my mother-in-law, for example. She’s a deeply religious person who’s offended by any use of the Lord’s name. If she’d lived in the middle ages, she might’ve fainted at the sound of someone swearing a religious oath or delivering a curse.
So imagine my surprise when I learned she has no response at all to the f-word. She never heard it before adulthood, and it has no power over her.
I’ve had similar non-reactions to epithets directed at me. The most memorable was in Orlando in the early 2000s. A Black guy walking past me on the sidewalk said, “Hello, Chet!” I assumed it had something to do with my radiant whiteness, but I didn’t know this guy and couldn’t have cared less what he thought of my skin color or socioeconomic status.
When I worked at a hotel in Los Angeles in the 1980s, a couple of my Latino coworkers thought the word “beaner” was hilarious. Sure, they ate beans; why would that be an insult? Then again, they’d moved to L.A. as adults. Had they grown up in the U.S. instead of Mexico, and been called that their entire lives, I can’t imagine they’d see the humor.
I accidentally discovered a nasty word they didn’t find funny, one they’d brought with them from their own culture. They told me cabrón means “buddy.” To prove it, they started using it on me. It wasn’t until I said it to one of them, and saw the face of my “buddy” turn dark and angry, that I realized they’d been screwing with me.
Once he calmed down, my coworker explained that a cabrón is a male goat, which, for reasons I still don’t understand, symbolizes a cuckold. Are female goats especially promiscuous? (Considering that male goats pee on their own faces when they’re feeling randy, I wouldn’t blame them for keeping their options open.)
But, as with “Chet,” even if I’d known what the word meant I wouldn’t have been offended. Being cheated on would imply I actually had a girlfriend, which back then would’ve been an upgrade.
Byrne lists four categories of swearing:
Different languages tend to be dominated by different categories. For example, a society without many sexual taboos might have a lot of curses based on filth or disease. And, of course, this shifts over time. Few people outside my mother-in-law’s generation would get worked up over a religious oath, and the expletives that were deleted from Nixon’s Watergate tapes in the early ’70s now appear regularly in print.
But at the same time, our attitudes toward slurs based on race, gender, sexuality, and disability have shifted dramatically. Consider this 1966 article in Sports Illustrated. It’s about the Houston Astros, an expansion team that was showing signs of life in its sixth season. The reporter notes that journeyman catcher John Bateman “has that mystic capacity to insult people virulently without having them take it seriously.” He cites two examples:
· He threatened to make a gas oven for Barry Latman, a Jewish teammate.
· He used the n-word in reference to his Black teammates, including all-star Jimmy Wynn, the team’s best player, and future Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.
(“They laughed,” the article reports, without telling us how Latman reacted.)
If either incident happened today, you can imagine the response. The offensiveness of racial and sexual slurs is one of the few things the majority of us agree on.
Or maybe “offensive” isn’t even the right word.
“I don’t get offended so much as incandescently furious,” Byrne says. “Whenever I see people using language to kick downwards — slurs, name-calling, or even politely expressing their obnoxious belief that one class of people is inferior — I feel the emotion take over. At times like that it’s very hard to not swear.”
Which brings us back to an earlier point:
The fact we still use like archaic words like “cursing,” “swearing,” “vulgarity,” and “profanity” to describe objectionable language is a clear sign that language fails us when we need it most.
As God’s fingernails are my witness, that’s just fucked up.