Poor White Trash Rampant on a Field of Garbage
A few years ago I was talking to my boss when he suddenly got huffy and told me "Don't you dare use that language around me." I wasn't even sure what I had said but finally figured out it must have been "Oh Jesus!" or maybe "God Damn." He was religious and in charge and insisted that I never again say such things in the office. He put up a "No Profanity" sign and decided to enforce his pious views on language despite it being a government workplace and his objections being religious ones but he refused to tell me exactly what words were forbidden. I wasn't even sure what profanity was till I looked it up. It has to do with religion, actions or speech irreverent toward God or sacred things. I was shocked and amused that I was being compelled to conform my speech to a religious standard whether I believed in it or not. I wasn't even sure which religious standard. There are so many. Or maybe, I thought, it's vulgarity that he means to forbid. The word vulgarity comes from the Latin word vulgus, meaning the common people. That includes me. By definition vulgarity is a class distinction. My boss even described the words he objected to as low class. Much of the vague standards of speech to which I was ordered to conform originated as an attempt by the lower classes to imitate their betters, to ape their speech because they couldn't achieve their affluence.
Since I wasn't sure what words were forbidden, I bought a book called Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson. It didn't really help because so many words have been considered bad at one time or another. There are two factors that determine taboo words: religion and class. Catholic cultures are mostly concerned with profanity, with the irreligious. In Catholic countries there was usually a greater penalty for profanity than for vulgarity. For instance, in 1606, in Protestant England, Parliament made it a crime punishable by a fine of ten pounds for any theatrical production to jestingly or profanely speak or use the Holy Name of God, or of Jesus Christ, or of the Holy Ghost, or of the Trinity. In Catholic New Orleans in 1769 anyone who committed a similar infraction could have his tongue cut out and all his property confiscated, half going to the public treasury and half to anyone who informed on him. In The Divine Comedy Dante freely uses vulgarity but puts blasphemers in the seventh level of hell along with murderers and perverts. Hell, by the way, is generally used as an intensifier, as in What the hell, rather than a suggested destination, as in Go to Hell! At least these days.
The word damn is from the Latin damnare which means to inflict loss or to condemn. Soldiers, especially, have always been fond of cursing and swearing. It was so common in the Continental Army that George Washington, in July 1776, issued a general order condemning it. It wasn't uncommon among the British either, in that war or others. There are records of Joan of Arc, in 1431, referring to the English soldiers she was fighting as Goddem, for their favorite expression.
In Protestant cultures hell and damn and by God tend to become rather minor taboos with little force behind them. The great Protestant taboo is the body. Most of this nonsense began with the rise of the Puritans, or perhaps with the rise of the middle class, and reached its zenith during the Victorian age, a time when, as Margaret Mitchell put it, "mares never foaled nor cows calved. In fact, hens almost didn't lay eggs." By that time the ass had completed its transformation into the donkey and the race of male chickens, called cocks for a thousand years, had become a nondescript group of creatures called roosters. By the early 1800's belly was considered so vulgar that it was removed from the Bible in Britain and America. Leg also became an obscene word and when referring even to a table leg a cultured person would say "the limb of the table." In some circles it wasn't even nice to refer to a person as nice, since nice was how food was described, not people. Pregnant was a taboo word until after World War II. So was rape and to some extent still is. Until very recently it was not uncommon for newspapers to speak of a woman having been beaten but not assaulted. Virgin, a word familiar in the Bible, was forbidden in movies until the 1950's. It shocks me that words everyone now considers innocuous were once taboo.
The word stink first appeared in the eight century and
included any odor, sweet or foul, but by the 1800's it had become a taboo
word. In 1935, in Atlanta, 361 Emory University students were asked to
name a coarse or obscene word. Belly came in first and stink
second. The Victorians also objected to belch (from about
the year 1000) as they did to most Standard English words for body parts
and body functions. Fart is another Standard English word
that troubled our Victorian ancestors but not our Old English ones. They
were much less squeamish about language than are most of us. In Cockney
rhyming slang, fart became raspberry tart and then merely raspberry. The
next time you blow a raspberry, think of what you're imitating.
The original meaning of fizzle was to break wind silently.
Rawson points out that it that gives a whole new meaning to "Plop,
plop. Fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is."
The word piss was common in the 1200's and for the next 600 years. Piss occurs in the works of Chaucer, More, Shakespeare, as well as many others. It occurs in old translations of the Bible as well as in the King James version. Piss is from the Middle English pissen and the Old French pissier (which was also adopted in German, Swedish and other Teutonic languages). In days past to say someone had the pissing evil was not an insult but a diagnosis. Pissing evil is an old name for diabetes because diabetics urinate so frequently.
Shit is also an old word. It can be traced to before A. D. 1000 and was formerly spelled schite or shite. Although this word was used by Swift, Burton, and others, by Shakespeare's time shit was taboo. Making a word taboo is like watering a weed. The more taboo a word, the more widely spread and used it becomes. For example, dipshit, diddly shit, dumb shit, full of shit, holy shit, hot shit, pile of shit, shit ass, shitface, shit for brains, shit list, tough shit, ad infinitum. A related word, nitty-gritty, was originally, and not long ago, slang for the anus. Except for the dread F-word, shit is the word most often used as an exclamation or intensifier. Oh, Shit! is the universal cry.
As the Puritans and, later, Victorians tabooed more and more words, new words, often slang words, replaced them. So many words have been used to replace taboo words that you can't talk for long without saying something that might offend some prude. Take cock for instance. (These days most people can't understand the relationship between cocks and...ahh...cocks. If you've never handled a live rooster, you probably don't know that when you wrap your hand around its neck, it has a very penile feel. If you're familiar with chickens it's obvious why a penis is called a cock and if you're not no explanation will suffice.) The word is first found in written English in Chaucer. Shakespeare himself uses it in puns, jokes, and wordplay but by the late 1700's and early 1800's the taboo had grown so strong that apricox, haycocks, and weathercocks became apricots, haystacks and weathervanes. As the old word was rooted out, new ones, and not so new ones, came to replace it - such as prick, Peter, Dick (thus a Dickless Tracy is a policewoman), Jack, John Thomas, knocker, tool, gun, pistol, short arm, truncheon, pole (as in Mae West's immortal line: I wouldn't let him touch me if he had a ten foot pole.), schlong, putz, shaft, root, snake, one- eyed trouser snake, Cod, bone, fishbone (the bone used to fish in what Shakespeare calls that peculiar river) and so on and so on. Penis replaced cock after the older word became unprintable even in scientific literature. Penis is Latin, not for cock, but for tail. The Latin word for penis is gladius or sword, something placed in a vagina or sheath.
So we come to cunt, probably the most heavily tabooed of English words. This was not always so. The word appears in the Canturbury Tales (ca. 1400), spelled queynte, "And prively he caught hire by the queynte... And heeld hire by thehaunchbones." The earliest known reference is from the 11th century and in 1230 there was a London street called Gropecunte Lane (Lover's Lane maybe?), and, in 1328, even a Bele Wydecunthe (poor thing!). Shakespeare uses cunt as a pun in Twelfth Night. As cunt became taboo, new words sprang up. A woman's external genitalia have been known as cat, beaver, beard (thus a beardsplitter is a womanizer), snatch, twat, nokie, piece, squirrel, tail, mutton, Lapland, slit, scut, Netherlands, cozzy, quim, mouse, monkey, fish, cony, bit, bunny, scut, hat (because frequently felt), furburger or a boxlunch or hair pie (the dish in cunnilingus) and Carvel's ring. In a poem from 1230 a jealous old doctor named Carvel dreamed the Devil gave him a ring that would prevent his wife from being unfaithful as long as he wore it. Carvel 's wife woke him with the complaint "You've thrust your finger God knows where!"
The ever popular word pussy has referred to the female genitalia for at least four hundred years but at the same time and in, one assumes, different circles, it was also used to refer to a young girl. Victorian fathers could refer to their daughters as puss or pussy as in "'What do you think, pussy?' said her father to Eva" in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Surely that quote proves that there are no objective standards and obscenity, blasphemy, and vulgarity exist only the mind of the prude and are as about as inconstant as the weather.
Fuck! Fuck off! Fuck You! Get Fucked! (Since the majority of the human race likes nothing better, this recommendation should fall somewhere between "Have a nice day," and "Hope you win the lottery," and, indeed, in some circles "Fuck you" has taken on softer, even playful tone.) Go fuck yourself! Impossible, as Woody Allen pointed out, even if you're a mechanical engineer! In-fucking-credible! Go take a flying fuck at the moon (a practical suggestion only for a few astronauts)! Now that I'm a grown-up, I can say fuck but I had to learn how. It did not come trippingly to my tongue. Whenever I made myself say it, I tended to get a kind of mental wince. Fuck, I would say and !FUCK! I would think. I was so shocked at myself.
Fuck is thought to be a Scottish word. The old English words for intercourse were swive, jape and sard. Fuck is believed to have originated with the Middle Dutch fokken or perhaps the Germanic ficken both of which mean to strike or to copulate with. So the word has roots of both violence and sex. The English word firk, also a possible progenitor, meant to move suddenly, to cheat, to force oneself froward, to beat, and to copulate with. Like the other major taboo words, fuck has a multitude of slang synonyms such as screw, poke, plow, ride, sex, jazz, rock and roll, zig-zag, nug, roger, ball, bang, hump, score, and, when in California, to Californicate. In Australia Redfern or getting off at Redfern refers to coitus interruptus, Redfern being the last railway station before Sydney. My least favorite of the fuck words in motherfucker. Let's face it. Very few people are fucking their mothers. And if they were, it would probably be mutually consensual behavior. It seems to me a much worse insult would be daughterfucker or daughter molester, much worse because much more common and, by definition, involving force, coercion or exploitation. My favorite fuck word is Windfucker, a name for the European Sparrow Hawk. A beautiful thought, that this winged creature is on such terms of intimacy with the air.
Sometimes it's not what you say but who you say it about. William Colyburne, in 1484, wrote a couplet in which he referred to Richard III as a hogge [hog]. He fled but was caught, hanged almost to death, cut down, disemboweled, and his intestines burned. In 1812, in softer times, Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, described the Prince Regent (the future George IV) as a corpulent man of fifty, for which he was prosecuted for libel, convicted, and sentenced to two years in jail. In 1984 the wife of the mayor of Pine Hills, New York, called a reporter a fat pig and was convicted of verbal assault and fined $250. Ah, how standards have declined.
So many words have been taboo. Some religious people still believe that certain words should be forbidden and attempt to force other people to conform to what they consider appropriate language. That just makes me want to use them more.
There's another reason not to shy from using these words. History. It's no coincidence that most acceptable words for intimate body parts and their functions, words like copulate, defecate, urinate, derriere, penis, pudendum, have Latin or French roots. England was conquered by the Norman French in 1066 and by the Romans a thousand years before. The stamps of those conquests are still impressed upon our language just as American Blacks still bear the names of masters rather than of ancestors. The conquerors got to say what was good and bad, what was permissible and impermissible, what was high class and what was low class. No doubt they thought themselves the measure of all things right and proper and their Anglo-Saxon subjects, serfs, and slaves, the measure of all things undesirable. Their power and assurance were so strong that they convinced their victims to conform to their standards. So the old Anglo-Saxon words or words with Anglo-Saxon roots became taboo while the languages of the conquerors remained acceptable, even after conqueror and conquered had merged into a single race. Violence and power reached beyond death and grasped the descendants of its victims. There is no logical reason that any English speaker should be allowed to say defecate but not shit, copulate but not fuck, derriere but not ass. There is even a good illogical reason to use the old words and that is to use them to repudiate the old legacy of defeat and subjection and the newer legacy of hypocrisy and repression. These words, they're so old, so damn old, we ought to use them just out of sentiment and because they have seniority.
Break, snap, crack,and all such extensions =fuck ,fucked fucked etc. The sexual usage stems from ''breaking in'' lost virginity, to have carnal knowledge. Or so it seens to me.Many Anglo Saxon words sound like the thing refered to.. great site
Ian Patrick Grant
Read your Dirty Words article, and you mentioned a "London street called Gropecunte Lane."
You might like to know that it was so called because it was in the heart of the red light district of the city of London - what is now the financial center of the City Of Westminster (old London). It's name was changed to the more euphemistic "Threadneedle Street" and on it sits the Bank of England!
An amusing background to one of London's best known streets!
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