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Origin Of Swear Words In English English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1243 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This is a question that almost everybody always wanted to know the answer to. What is the origin of swear words? Who invented them and did they mean something different at the time? The other thing we don’t know is why swear words offend people so much. How did certain words come to be so offensive? They are just words so why, for instance, do some people think that somehow children going to be harmed just ‘because they hear a bunch of sounds vocalised in a particular way?

Today swearing and foul language are an established part of the linguistic environment, occasionally invading even the best mannered and most controlled circles. There is hardly a domain where “bad language” is not to be heard. [1] 

“Profanity are words, expressions, gestures, or other social behaviours which are socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect. Other words commonly used to describe profane language or its use include: curse, pejorative language, swearing, expletive, bad word, dirty word, cussing, strong language, irreverent language, obscene and/or indecent language, choice words, blasphemy language, foul language, and bad or adult language.” [2] 

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In some cultures profanity words are taboo words, so their using in a public life could be punishable. In some of the countries the censorship is quite common. The films, TV or radio programmes are controlled not to contain them. Some people use instead of swear words different equivalents, which are not vulgar, but they begin with the same letter or syllable as their vulgar companions. This way they avoid the censorship. Such word then can live its own life. Swear words very often come from the languages which of them people get close with very often.

The history of swearing clearly shows oscillations between periods of repression and counterbalancing reactions of license and excess. The medieval period was marked by extraordinary freedom in the use of religious oaths, which authorities in the Renaissance wanted to reduce by various legal prohibitions and fines. The strict repression of the Puritan Commonwealth was followed by the extreme decadence of the Restoration, which in turn led to the restrained rational mode of the early eighteenth century. [3] Curse words were originally just normal words, however people started using them a certain way, they evolved into swear words.


This word, used mainly as profanity term for copulation, still remains the most powerfully taboo term over several centuries. Fuck, is also the most-used and shocking item of vulgar slang in the language. It remained almost entirely unprintable in the dictionaries until the 1960s. The history of the word is full of surprises. It is often classed as one of the archetypal Anglo-Saxon four-letter words but it isn´t. It is not recorded until the fifteenth century. In Anglo-Saxon and medieval times two ancient terms, sard and swire, were used in spoken language. The first recorded usage of the word was unexpectedly used in a noble context in 1503, in a poem by Scottish poet William Dunbar. [4] 

Amongst the Germanic languages there are many similar words which mean the same thing. The words related to this term are French foutre, German ficken, meaning “to strike” Norwegian fukja “to drive” Middle Dutch fokken, “to thrust, copulate with”, Swedish focka “to strike, push, copulate”, and Scottish fucksail, “a foresail”. Some scholars derive the word from the Latin futuo, others from the Indo-European root peuk, meaning “to prick”.

“There were in the past a number of cognate terms, such as fuckable, fuckish, and fuckster (a good performer), in addition to the surviving fucking and fucker. This proliferation suggests a vigorous, albeit scandalous, currency.” [5] 

The word seems from the start to have been regarded as unacceptable in polite company. Even Shakespeare avoided its direct using in his plays. He used the word foutra, which was similar to French foutre. [6] 

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the dictionary policies were less reserved so the taboo became more prevalent. “Nathaniel Bailey (1728) printed the full form, oddly giving a Latin definition, feminam subagitar.” [7] Anyway fuck remained taboo not only in England but also in America for many decades. The word got a label as “obscene” and the publishers could be prosecuted for publishing it. In 1965 it reappeared again in the Penguin English Dictionary. [8] 

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Recently, fuck has developed a great range of grammatical functions and tones. Most of these idioms are commonly used, for example to fuck around “to waste time”, What the fuck? “What the devil?”, Fuck off! “Go away!”, to fuck up “to make a mess”. Although still widely considered taboo and marked as such in most dictionaries, the actual currency of fuck is steadily encroaching on areas of polite discourse. The most obvious global influence accelerating the acceptability of the term has been popular culture, especially in film and television.


Tape-recorded conversations find that roughly 80-90 spoken words each day-0.5% to 0.7% of all words-are swear words with people varying from between 0% to 3.4%. In comparison, first person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.

Research looking at swearing in 1986, 1997, and 2006 in America found that the same top ten words were used of a set of over 70 different swear words. The most used swear words were fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, bitch, boner, and sucks. These eight made up roughly 80% of all profanities. Two words, fuck and shit, accounted for one third to one half of them. The phrase “Oh my God” accounts for 24% of women’s swearing. [9] 

The sources:

Hughes, Geoffrey, An encyclopedia of swearing : the social history of oaths, profanity, foul language, and ethnic slurs in the English-speaking world, Armonk, NY, ME Sharpe, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0-7656-1231-1

Jay T. (2009). The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:153-161.



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