Having gotten in trouble my whole life for doing so, I thought it was about time I investigated what is “swearing”, why it comes so fluently and why we frequently choose to do it. So lets break down the science of swearing…..
What is the definition of a curse word?
Most dictionaries define a curse word as a “profane or obscene word.” But I disagree with this definition. “Profane” comes from the latin root “profanus”, or “unholy”, and Oxford Dictionary defines “profane” as not relating to that which is sacred or religious; secular, (of a person or their behaviour) not respectful of religious practice.
But many of us who use these words when you say “I just stepped in dog $%&t” aren’t referring to religion in any way, shape or form.
“Obscene”, when defined by multiple dictionaries, alludes to terms of a sexual nature. Again, complaining that you just stepped in dog $%&t has nothing to do with sex.
So I define a swear/curse word as one that society deems to be off-color and not appropriate in public and professional settings….a word that has plenty of other socially acceptable alternatives used during anger, excitement, or awe.
When was the first curse word spoken?
According to historians, the first curse words originated in the 15th century. I’m sure horses were just as messy as our dogs. But as you can see by my definition, curse words must have had their origin in caveman days as humans developed language. Rocks were dropped, people slipped and fell, and some burned themselves on early fire so I seriously doubt that only grammatically acceptable words and phrases were used in times of accidents.
Where did specific curse words originate?
Although a good old-fashioned four letter word seems as American as they come, most originate from foreign sources.
The “S” Word
According to Business Insider, the noun nods to Old English scitte, meaning “purging, diarrhea.” And just the basic form of excrement stems from Old English scytel. The action, however, has a much more widespread history — Dutch schijten and German scheissen. The Proto-Indo-European base skie conveys the idea of separation, in this case, from the body.
The “F” Word.
According to the Huffington Post, the f-word is of Germanic origin, related to Dutch, German, and Swedish words for “to strike” and “to move back and forth.” It first appears, though, only in the 16th century, in a manuscript of the Latin orator Cicero. An anonymous monk was reading through the monastery copy of De Officiis (a guide to moral conduct) when he felt compelled to express his anger at his abbot.
Comes from the word “arse” and used as early as the 11th century when referring to an animal’s anatomy, and then later to humans.
The “B” Word
Having Old English and Germanic roots, the “B” word represented a female dog. By the 1400’s, however, it became a “term of contempt to women,” according to Business Insider.
So why do we curse?
There are various theories as to why people would choose a word that may offend others. Here’s mine:
- The words are easy to say. Four letter words seem to be the most popular and can be spewed out with ease when in pain or in anger.
- The words inspire an emotion. When we communicate we need a reaction to what we say, and curse words seem to elicit some of the strongest of reactions, hence reinforcing our belief that we are effectively communicating.
- They’re weapons. When we get mad at someone and want to avoid a physical altercation, we weaponize our words instead, inflicting as much verbal hurt and pain as possible. One rarely finds themselves in jail after launching a full foul word offensive.
- They allow us to rebel. If curse words are not allowed in a school, work or professional setting then our use demonstrates our autonomy.
- They convey meaning that other words cannot. The F word, for example, is one of the most notorious and ubiquitous, with movies, books, and speakers having validated its use so many times as a noun, adjective, or verb, that it has its own character and conveys a meaning, no matter how it’s used, that society easily recognizes. In fact, it’s so notorious that the F word is recognized by those who don’t even speak English.
What are “fake” curse words?
“Fake” curse words are terms we use to convey a curse without acutally swearing. Commonly used alteratives to swearing include:
- Shut the Front Door
- Son of a Motherless Goat
- Son of a gun
- Holy shitake mushroom
- Pluck it
- Yuk fou
- Fire truck
- Donald Duck
Is cursing/swearing ever considered “good”?
In 2017, a study from Stephens et al, from Keele University in the UK, found swearing to increase strength and power performance when working out.
Previously, in 2009, the same researchers found men who were allowed to swear while immersing their hand in cold water could maintain it twice as long as those who had to keep their language clean.
So if we perform better while cursing, will it ever become acceptable to curse?
Society seems to already accept many curse words, even on prime time television, a barometer we use to determine if a word is OK to say out in public. However once we take a four letter word and “legalize it”, people will gravitate towards words that aren’t acceptable because of the aforementioned reasons. We want to be rebellious and demonstrate our feelings in times of pain and anger.
So for those of you who find this unacceptable, I really couldn’t give a flipp’n cluck.…..
Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, KDWN, and iHeart Radio.
She is also a Board Certified Family Physician and Assistant Professor at Touro University Nevada